Muttiah Muralitharan January 2, 2010

'I don't want to be selfish about staying on'

Muttiah Muralitharan talks about his future, Sri Lanka's World Cup chances, Kumar Sangakkara's captaincy, and more

Why is it difficult to beat India in India?
It has never been an easy ride for any team in India. In the 1997 Test series in India, we drew all three. At the time we were at our peak but India managed to hold us. It has always been tough to play in India because the conditions are different and their players know how to play in their own conditions. Therefore for any team to go and succeed in India is very hard. At home, we are a powerful side, like India.

Where did Sri Lanka go wrong in the Test series?
We had a good chance to win the first Test, but the wicket was so flat that scoring was made easy. We couldn't take 10 wickets in the last one-and-a-half days of play and that affected us.

In the second Test, [Virender] Sehwag was the biggest factor. We lost a crucial toss. It was crucial because the wicket was up and down. We lost the Test mainly because they scored 400 runs on the first day. The wicket was still good but we played some poor shots and there were a few unfortunate dismissals like [Kumar] Sangakkara and [Thilan] Samaraweera playing the ball onto the stumps.

Our confidence was also dented because Dammika Prasad was injured. We thought we would play three spinners after we saw the wicket. We thought it was going to take spin, but unfortunately it didn't, and the captain got the blame, which is wrong. Decisions are made by the coach, captain and senior players.

The other thing that affected us was that the referral system was not used in the series. The Sehwag factor was there. We missed chances off him so many times. There were unfortunate decisions that went against us when actually he was out.

So many things worked against us, but India did play well. They played better cricket than us. The 2-0 result does not show how good an effort we put in, but we were not good enough. Unfortunately I was not in good form, neither was [Rangana] Herath. He was not in the form he showed at home. None of the other bowlers got many wickets in the series. Harbhajan [Singh] had about 13 wickets from three Tests. For the leading wicket-taker of the series to take 13 wickets means the wickets favoured the batsmen more than the bowlers.

Sri Lanka's ODI performances since the 2007 World Cup haven't been very encouraging. Why?
This is a transitional period. After 2003 World Cup, we had senior and capable players who stayed till the 2007 World Cup. Now the transitional period has come. I am not young, neither is Sanath [Jayasuriya]. [Chaminda] Vaasy is gone.

I didn't have a great 2009 because I had so many injuries. I played 16 ODI matches and took 22 wickets at an economy of 4.77 and according to international standards it is a good effort. But in Test cricket I played eight and got 26 wickets. My career average is 22 and it has gone up because I played on so many flat tracks.

"We are not going to be a brilliant fielding side by 2011. If someone is saying we will be, they are not being honest to themselves. Today you cannot find a brilliant fielder who is a brilliant batsman or bowler. It will take generations to find one"

Secondly, Sanath is not the same batsman he was, and is not scoring as he should be. Vaas climbed down a bit. From 2003 to 2007 these three players had major contributions to the team. With Mahela [Jayawardene] and Sanga, there were five key players in the side. Now somebody has to fill in our shoes and it takes time. You have to wait patiently. The main thing is we are not patient enough.

Do you think there are replacements for the "big three" for the 2011 World Cup?
In 2005, when we went to India under Marvan [Atapattu]'s captaincy, we got thrashed 2-0 in the Tests and 6-1 in the ODIs. We went to Australia and New Zealand and we didn't do well. We started performing well in the VB Series, and in 2007 we built a strong team. The same thing can happen again if everyone is patient. If you try to make drastic changes to the team it won't happen.

We are playing the World Cup at home. The last time we played at home, we won. All encouragement should be given to the players within this one year and we will be able to find the right combination.

Why have the fielding standards dropped so drastically in the last few years?
In the 2007 World Cup team we had good fielders like Upul Tharanga, Sanath, Mahela, Sanga as wicketkeeper, Chamara Silva and Russel Arnold. In the bowling department me, Vaasy and [Lasith] Malinga were safe fielders. We had a good fielding unit. Now if you take the team, it is the other way around. Thilan and [Thilina] Kandamby are safe fielders but not brilliant. But they are very good batsmen and you can't keep them out because of the fielding. Likewise, a few bowlers are not natural athletes. That's what's happened to our fielding. They train, but speed is something you cannot create. You have to be born with it. We are not going to be a brilliant fielding side by 2011. If someone is saying we will be, they are not being honest to themselves. Today you cannot find a brilliant fielder who is a brilliant batsman or bowler. It will take generations to find one.

Your thoughts on Sangakkara as captain
Unreasonable criticism has been made of his captaincy. Fair criticism is accepted. When Mahela captained against India and Pakistan and we lost and he was not scoring runs, the media put too much pressure on him. He was a wonderful captain for the two years he led the country. At the end of the day what happened? He said thank you and quit the captaincy. Luckily we had Sangakkara. Now the same criticism has started against him, saying his decisions are not good. That's very unfair. As soon as he took over, he led a young side to the final of the World Twenty20, won the one-day series in Pakistan, the Idea Cup final, won the Test series against Pakistan and New Zealand, and then we lost to India. It is too early for anyone to start criticising his captaincy. He is a capable person but is now being put under pressure. Once you put a lot of pressure on someone, however strong he may be, he will start thinking, "Why should I take all this criticism? I can be in the team as a player." If Sanga goes, who is going to captain? At the end of the day, players need to perform. The captain alone can't win a match.

Have you enjoyed your role as vice-captain?
I took the job because at the time there wasn't anybody to do it. Nobody was certain of a place, so I agreed to take it. If somebody is there to take over the vice-captaincy, I am glad to hand it over to him. I just want to be a player, support the team and win. Even before the 2011 World Cup, if there is someone better than me, I don't mind giving my place to him. I enjoy cricket as a player. Vice-captaincy is not something that I have given much thought to.

Is ODI cricket going forwards or backwards?
ODI cricket has changed a lot because of the Powerplay. Our bowlers have not adjusted to it properly. They have to work out how to contain, especially in the Powerplay. Because the wickets are so good in India, the bowlers suffered more than in any other part of the world. Teams keep the batting Powerplay till the end to maximise it and sometimes it backfires.

What chances have Sri Lanka of winning the 2011 World Cup?
We have a very good chance. We have to get into the quarter-finals. The best way of qualifying is to not clash with India. Then all the quarters and semis will be played in Sri Lanka. The only thing is the officials have to prepare wickets that are drier and suitable for spin and batting.

We don't know who is going to play in the World Cup. There are opportunities for a player like Silva, who is a brilliant fielder, but he has to get runs. We have to wait and see and pick the right combination. We should not panic. At the last World Cup, India panicked and kept changing their team. They couldn't even qualify for the next stage. We shouldn't do the same thing.

What happened to Ajantha Mendis? He is no longer the potent force in world cricket
You can't judge a bowler in one or two years. You have to give him a span of four to five years and allow him to mature. Nobody picked Ajantha at the beginning and he bamboozled everyone. He came into the limelight very early.

When I came on the scene, no one knew me. It was only after six years of international cricket that people started talking about me. During my time there wasn't so much exposure to the media. So I was able to learn quietly.

"Whenever Mendis comes to bowl, they expect him to take wickets. It is affecting him. You have to treat him as a normal bowler, one who takes wickets on and off. On his day, he will take big wickets"

For Ajantha, the learning curve is going to be difficult because the pressure on him is high. He has done so much in so little time that expectations are very high. When that happens, it is too much pressure to take and it is difficult to perform. That's what's happened to him. Whenever he comes to bowl, they expect him to take wickets. It is affecting him. You have to treat him as a normal bowler, one who takes wickets on and off. On his day, he will take big wickets.

Technically, you can't teach him anything because he bowls in so many different ways. He can get advice from many people but at the end of the day he has to realise what went wrong and how to get better. He is not a bad bowler but has dropped his form. He is only 24 and will come good if we handle him carefully.

What are you future plans?
My plan is to play the two Tests against West Indies [at home] and finish with 800 wickets. I want to play ODIs till the 2011 World Cup, but I must see how things go, how important I am going to be to the team. I don't want to be selfish. If they think I can still deliver, I will play. Otherwise I am happy to quit because I have plenty of offers to play from counties and from Chennai. I must see how my body can take it. My body cannot afford Test cricket anymore because I have bowled thousands of overs and I can feel it. I just can't force myself to play. Twenty20 is four overs and I am not playing for my country. In one-day cricket you bowl only 10 overs, so I can manage.

How do you want to be remembered?
I think I've had a pretty good career. I have both bowling records in Test and ODIs. I have taken 66 five-fors and 45 four-fors, which means out of 132 Tests I have failed only in a handful - maybe 3% to 5%. In one-day cricket I have taken 512 wickets in 334 matches, average 22 and an economy rate of 3.9.

I never thought of records. Cricket was built in my system. God had given me that gift.

As a person, if I have to say something, whether it is right or wrong, I will say it to the face. I don't say things behind people's backs. Ninety percent of people like me for that. If I realise I was wrong, I will say sorry. I don't have any enemies. I want to be remembered as a good person who played very hard and brought a lot of success to the country. I have achieved more than most other cricketers and I want to retire gracefully and enjoy life with my family.

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