The ultimate MVP
A health warning: anyone still clinging stubbornly to the conviction that Muttiah Muralitharan's action disqualifies him from universal appreciation, admiration and heartfelt gratitude - i.e. those who see fit to ignore the fact that his success, in physical terms, owes everything to an elasticated right wrist and almost equally freakish right shoulder - may find it wisest to read no further.
"It is better for our souls to believe in something marvellous that turns out to be false," mused Simon Barnes in the Times on Monday, apropos athletics's drug-spattered reputation, "than to sneer at something that turns out to have been marvellous all along." And how much better for that soul, that intangible essence of humanity, to revel in the knowledge that something that seems marvellous really is just that. This young century has witnessed three competitive artists whose feats so far exceed the norm that they attract wonder and cynicism in equal measure: Lance Armstrong, Usain Bolt and Murali. If I were a betting man, I'd wager every penny in my possession that Murali will be the one my great-great-grandchildren will be celebrating.
The blind, the jaundiced and the obstinate may still withhold their respect, but for the rest of Planet Sport the response to the freshly completed Test career of the poster boy for Sinhalese-Tamil unity can only be jaw-dropping awe. Let's ignore, for now, the stoicism and the charity work, the unbending determination to defeat deformity, and the fact that all attempts to produce another offbreak-bowling wrist-spinner with a kinky elbow have so utterly failed. Let's ignore subjective distractions such as the venue and the quality of the opposition. Let's focus on the bottom line, the unadorned, naked final figures, the ones with which posterity cannot possibly quibble.
The headline statistic? A toss-up, surely, between 800 wickets and six wickets per Test. Then come the secondary marvels - an average and strike rate, 22.73 and 55.0 respectively, normally associated with only the finest fast bowlers; a ten-fer against each and every opponent.
Has any individual ever been so intrinsic to the success of a professional sporting team? Over these past 18 years only one other bowler, Chaminda Vaas, has provided the sort of support that blessed the careers of Shane Warne, Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee and Waqar Younis. Murali has seldom been considered as part of an attack, a mere cog in the wheel; no one has come closer to a one-man firing squad.
When he took his 800th and final Test wicket - No. 795 for his country - with that improbably dramatic flourish in Galle, the next most wickets for Sri Lanka in Murali's 132 Tests was Vaas' 309 - less than 40% of the spinner's pile. No one else managed 100. Think about it. Collectively Sri Lankan bowlers tallied 1968 wickets across that span, of which Murali accounted for 40.4%. Among the 24 other Sri Lankans who took more than 10 of those wickets, only Lasith Malinga did so at a better strike rate (52.3) than Murali's 54.9 - and the latter bowled rather more overs, 6657.1 of them to be precise. Imagine shouldering that sort of burden, that weight of expectation. Now imagine shouldering it amid a scathing chorus of scepticism. Never mind all the "Mr Cricket" guff that has been getting Mike Hussey's goat for the past five years: Murali has spent two decades being Mr Pressure.
The closest comparison, in terms of bowlers who have played upwards of 30 Tests, is Richard Hadlee. In 86 outings for New Zealand, Sir Dick (as nobody ever calls him to his face) took 431 wickets at 22; his most prolific accomplices were Lance Cairns (130), Ewen Chatfield (115) and John Bracewell (95), both of whom paid at least 10 runs more per victim. Only 12 other colleagues, moreover, mustered more than 10. Hadlee took 35.7% of the 1207 wickets taken by Kiwi bowlers during his career.
Hadlee also harvested six times as many five-fers as his closest peer (36 to six) and nine times as many ten-fers (nine to one). Yet even these remarkable ratios bow the knee to Murali's extraordinary dominance - five-fers: 67 to nine; ten-fers: 22 to two. No other bowler, it should be added, has managed even half as many double-digit swagbags.
Hadlee's impact was seismic. With him, New Zealand won 22 Tests (nearly one-third of their aggregate tally) and lost 28; without him, their overall record reads: won 46, lost 117. The Murali Effect is still in another galaxy. With him, Sri Lanka won 54 and lost 41. Without him, they have won seven and lost 28.
For habitual match-winningness over the long haul, not even Warne can compare. In victories Murali took 438 wickets at 16.18, strike-rate 42.7; in 38 more such matches (92 to 54), Warne's respective returns were 510, 22.47 and 51.2. Among the 13 who have contributed 200-plus wickets to wins, Marshall, Lillee, Waqar and Wasim boasted better strike rates than Murali, but none, in this context, save for McGrath, captured as many as 290 victims, much less 438. The next most productive Sri Lankan bowler, Vaas, took 166; none of the other seven senior Test nations have as many as 100 scalps separating first and second in this particular pecking order, much less 272.
Now consider the sheer consistency. When his teams took first dig, Murali bagged 379 victims at 20.60; when they bowled first, 421 at 24.63. In all first innings he grabbed 458 at 23.94; in the second, 342 at 21.08. The first innings of a match brought him 230 at 26.47; the difference between his output in the second (228 at 21.39), third (236 at 21.11) and fourth (106 at 21.01) was barely half as thick as a wafer-thin mint. Now that's what I call metronomic.
In batting terms Don Bradman and George Headley are Murali's rivals-in-chief. Both did the job of two men. In 22 Tests the "Black Bradman" racked up 2190 runs at 60.83, collecting 10 of West Indies' 19 centuries (52.6%) and more than 21% of the total runs. Among the four colleagues who tallied 350 runs during that span, the best average was 32.84 by Clifford Roach, whose two centuries left him alone in registering more than one. In 52 Tests the "White Headley" accounted for 24.3% of Australia's runs (Stan McCabe, his most productive team-mate, collected nearly 5000 fewer than his 6996) and 41.4% of their centuries (29 out of 70). Eight team-mates, mind, topped 350 runs at 45-plus. Only five of Headley's Tests, moreover, were won, and nine lost. No bowlers, all cry.
SO, TO RETURN TO The Big Question, has any individual been as important to an athletic unit as Murali has been to Sri Lanka? Diego Maradona to Argentina perhaps, but that was primarily for the duration of the 1982 and 1986 FIFA World Cups - and look how the pressure told on him. Some might cite Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but he was abetted by stonking slam-dunkers such as Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. In Garrincha, Jairzinho, Tostao and Rivelino, Pele had an entire supporting cast of Oscar-worthies. Garry Sobers? Messrs Hall, Gibbs, Kanhai and Hunte were hardly mediocrities.
In the phenomenon stakes, if we equate a century with a five-fer, Bradman's 29 tons in 80 knocks is mathematically superior to Murali's 67 nap hands in 230 innings, but while The Don matched Murali when it came to single-handedly demoralising opponents, even without him, Australian XIs bearing the names of Ponsford, O'Reilly, Grimmett, McCabe and Mr Miller would have frightened the pants off most.
Yes, Vaas, Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have all been first-class second bananas, earning their nation untold respect, but would Sri Lanka have become winners without Murali? Granted, that's akin to wondering whether the Carthaginian elephants would have conquered the Alps without Hannibal: impossible to prove yet equally impossible to deny. So let's put it another way. As someone who has been laughing helplessly at A Night At The Opera and Duck Soup for more than 40 years, I find it even harder to envisage enjoying watching Sri Lanka sans their frontman than the Marx Brothers denuded of Groucho.
Sure, our hero had no need to stoop to Bishan Bedi's level as he did last week, but then who are we to begrudge him such a belated and fleeting act of self-affirming petulance? There's only so much disrespect a man can stomach. Besides, if there's any justice, that prolonged wait for the first knight in the history of spin should soon be over. And no, it doesn't require a degree in advanced clairvoyance to predict that the shoulders Mrs Windsor taps with her trusty sword will belong to someone with a more disarming smile than Alastair Campbell.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton