January 24, 2006

The marvel that is Murali

A tribute to Muralitharan on his reaching the 400-wicket milestone in ODIs



Muralitharan will wizard-up new variations that will keep him one-step ahead © Getty Images

The delicious irony was that Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's offspinning genius, celebrated his latest 400th wicket milestone and the joining of another exclusive club at Adelaide. The ground has been the scene of so much personal heartache back in 1998-`99 when Ross Emerson, egged on by hatchet-men determined to bury his freakish genius, called him (his off breaks and leg spinners) for chucking for the second consecutive tour of Australia. Unfortunately, for a man who cherishes team success more than personal milestones, it did not prove a completely triumphant return as Sri Lanka botched their run chase at the final hurdle and slumped to a frustrating defeat.

But you can't deny Muralitharan a moment of self-congratulation in the rubble of defeat. Here was the single-most important reason behind Sri Lanka's combativeness in the past decade, a supremely skilful spinner who with Shane Warne has reinvigorated the slow bowler's art, a man who has endured ridicule and injustice throughout his career and emerged stronger at every crisis, reaching yet another richly-deserved landmark in a record-strewn career. Johannes van der Wath was his 400th victim, prodding forward diffidently and caught bat-pad first ball to a whoop of delight.

Muralitharan has put his team interests first throughout his career and here he was again, just three days after his wife Madhi had given birth to their first child thousands of miles away in a Chennai hospital, wheeling away for Sri Lanka. He might easily have jetted home for such a special moment like most international cricketers nowadays, escaping the boorish no ball taunts that have sadly continued during this VB Series campaign, but he stayed on to play his part in Sri Lanka's revival after a terrible few months. For those who know him, it was no surprise.

During the last five years, as shown so graphically by Cricinfo's statistics, Muralitharan has been the world's leading one-day bowler, claiming 194 wickets in 116 matches at an incredible average of 18.97 and a frugal economy rate of 3.49. In a batsmen's game he has been simply brilliant. Still just 33, fitness permitting, it only appears a matter of time before he overtakes Wasim Akram's 502-wicket one-day world record.

But this may well be the one record he does not take before bidding farewell. Muralitharan's main target now is to play until the World Cup in the West Indies. After that will follow a reassessment of his career and life. One suspects that he will follow in the footsteps of Warne and concentrate on his main love: Test cricket. Sri Lanka will miss him dearly but the logic behind an early one-day retirement is unarguable, protecting as it will an increasingly tired and fragile body and allowing him to hopefully extend his playing career until the end of the decade.

The news of another Muralitharan record would, of course, not have been met with unanimous glee. Although most have now been persuaded that his action is freakish but clean, there remains a hardcore that refuse to believe what biomechanists have been saying for 10 years: Muralitharan's deformed elbow creates the optical illusion of throwing but the actual arm-bend is miniscule, now well within the ICC's new 15 degree tolerance limit.

This hardcore will always exist, as Muralitharan now accepts. While the no-ball taunts in Melbourne and Sydney during the past week must surely frustrate him, there has been no obvious visible sign that they do. He has moved on from the past. There has been too much in his life - from the terrible ethnic riots of his early childhood that threatened the lives of his family to the tsunami last year that created so much mayhem, death and destruction - to worry about the perceptions of a minority.

So Muralitharan will continue, in Australia and elsewhere, to lead from the front for his team-mates and his beloved island. And for those who feel his powers must surely soon start to wane, don't be foolish. Muralitharan is also working on new tricks, desperately experimenting in the nets and trying to wizard-up new variations that will keep him one-step ahead. He has new deliveries up his sleeve but, this time, don't expect any public announcements about their arrival for he has learnt the doosra lesson. Just watch and marvel because such genius and character may never come again.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent