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Four batsmen on taking guard against the master

Facing Murali

Four batsmen on the art of facing Muralitharan

Nagraj Gollapudi

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Watch out Warnie: Murali celebrates No. 700 earlier this year © AFP
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What are the unique challenges of facing the most successful bowler of all time? Cricinfo asked four batsmen who have had varying degrees of success against Muttiah Muralitharan to share some of the tricks of the trade.

The challenge

Daryll Cullinan He was the only bowler I faced where you felt he could get you out every single ball, so you couldn't trust yourself in front of him for too long. On any given day he is the most difficult guy to face, with his variations and ability to bowl long spells. Often with him, you don't know what's going to happen next.

Darren Lehmann He spins it high and he spins it both ways, and he spins it as much as someone like Shane Warne, so you've got the watch the ball hard and watch it closely. It's tough work facing him.

Mohammad Ashraful To play against Sri Lanka is a big challenge by itself since they are a good team and they have Muralitharan and Malinga, both of whom have different actions. I find it better facing Murali because he is the No. 1 spinner in the world and I try to learn every time I face him.

His strong point is, he hates to give any runs away and sets his field accordingly. If, say, I've hit him over mid-on or midwicket, he will send the fielders back to stop you from dominating him. He never gives easy runs unlike many other world-class spinners.

Picking the action

Cullinan My first reaction when I saw him, back in 1993-94 during the one-day series in Kandy, was that he was a legspinner - just because of how unusual his action, especially his wrist action, was.

Lehmann It takes a while when you first face him just because it's so unusual. Also, because he is such big turner of the ball, something you don't see with the finger spinners.

Graham Thorpe I would just try to pick him out the hand by getting used to the first 15 minutes of facing him. His arm action is so difficult, and in the end when his hand comes from back of his head it seems a bit like a cobra. So the first few minutes are the hardest to get used to.

The psychological element

Thorpe The most important thing when you go out first against him is to play the ball rather than the man. Having said that, he is obviously a special bowler, so against lots of batsmen he'll sort of have them out even before they go out there.

Lehmann Yes, with his sheer record and weight of wickets he is always going to have a headstart on batsmen in terms of what to do and how to get them out.

Reading the doosra

Ashraful He is a bowler who puts a lot of pressure on the batsman with his turners and the doosra, but if you can pick them, then batting becomes much easier. Now I can read his doosra from his hand: when he bowls offspin, his fingers are closed around the ball. With the doosra, his wrist is more open. It is very difficult to pick up but with close attention to his hand the batsman might pick it up.

Thorpe Since about 2003 the doosra has gradually grown harder to play. Before 2003 I was absolutely fine but later on I had to watch him harder. I used to cut him because I didn't pick the doosra out of his hand, I picked it off the pitch. And when you start picking the ball off the pitch, it is a lot harder to play.

Lehmann It does take a while to pick his doosra but it comes after facing him for a while. You've really got to back yourself and watch hard which way the ball is spinning.



The year it all went wrong: Thorpe is done in by the Murali cobra at Kandy in 2003 © Getty Images
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The left-hander's advantage

Lehmann The reason left-handers have had a reasonable amout of success against him is because he spins it so far that it's hard to get an lbw. And since he is spinning it away from the bat, you don't get that many bat-pads either.

Cullinan When he is turning it into the left-hander, he has to pitch it way outside leg stump, and that is what [Brian] Lara exploited. Where Lara was brilliant was that ability to use his pad: when the length was good, he would take the bat and glove out of the equation and play with his pad, and when it was full he would hit with the bat. When Murali would bowl from round the wicket, for the ball to hit the wicket he had to pitch it outside leg, but the likes of Lara were happy to sweep him in that case.

Attacking first

Cullinan There could be some truth to the fact that he doesn't like being dominated. The moment we slog-swept him he was very quck to get a deep midwicket and deep mid-on in place.

He was bowling 30-40 overs a day, and he was going to get you, so you had to ensure that your wicket came at a price. It was important to find ways to open the inner field for getting singles and getting to the other end, because if he bowled a good succession of balls to you the chances were he was going to get you out because he would have a silly point, short leg, leg gully and slip around you.

The only way out was to play him on the on side, and for me the slog-sweep became a big option in pushing the field back. And it worked. It also opened up certain gaps on the leg side through which you could try and push for a single.

Ashraful I studied the way Lara handled Murali, and he attacked more times than less, so whenever I had the opportunity, I didn't think twice. If you don't attack him, he will attack you.

Thorpe If you can get on top, he might become slightly more defensive - maybe even let you get a single and bowl at the other player.

Do's and dont's

Ashraful I'll not cut his offbreaks, but I will go for the square cut against his doosra.

Your defence needs to be strong. Play him one ball at a time.

Thorpe If you are not picking him well, then you have to pick some shots to attack him with. I would sweep him a little bit more if I had a period where I couldn't pick him, but the longer I faced him the easier it became.

Lehmann I never avoided playing any shot against him.

Cullinan Any shot to the off side is a risky one unless you're confident about the turn. Trying to hit into the turn as a right-hander was a no-no. He is a sort of bowler, when you play against him you are able to instinctively spot the different deliveries, but if you haven't faced him long enough, then you can struggle.

Also, you generally don't want to be caught playing back because the chances are you'll be caught in front. If you look at the angle of the delivery, he bowls from wide, and if you got a good stride in, you should be getting it outside the line, so you cannot be given out lbw.

Nagraj Gollapudi is assistant editor of Cricinfo Magazine

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