The rewards of consistency
Muttiah Muralitharan went past Wasim Akram's record of 502 ODI wickets in 28 fewer matches, but the progress of the two in the shorter format of the game, for much of their careers, followed a similar path. The difference was at the start: Akram thrived under the tutelage of Imran Khan and made an impression in just his fourth ODI, taking 5 for 21 against Australia at the MCG in 1985, and his bowling average never went past 30 for the rest of his 356-match career. (Click here for Akram's cumulative averages.) Murali's start was far from spectacular, and it wasn't until his 52nd ODI that his average fell under 30. While Akram was consistent throughout, Murali struggled early on before his variations in spin - particularly the doosra - sparked a steep climb in his chart, catapulting him to the position of highest wicket-taker in ODI cricket, and earning him the distinction of being the only spinner in the top six.
|Wicket no.||Murali - ODIs||Average||Akram - ODIs||Average|
Murali and Akram have contributed immensely to the success of their respective teams. Akram took 21.29% of the wickets in his team's wins, while Murali has fared slightly better with 23.23%. As a matchwinner, he has outdone everyone else - in terms of both wickets and average - with 339 wickets at a price of 17.81 each. In Tests, Murali has been even more influential - he has taken 42.5% of the wickets in Sri Lanka's wins, as opposed to Akram's 26.24%. (Click here for the list of highest wicket-takers in ODI wins)
More significantly, Murali's arrival had great implications for the development of Sri Lankan cricket, as he played a critical role in transforming his team from a once-struggling outfit into a formidable unit. Sri Lanka had an unimpressive record before Murali's debut: they had won 35 ODIs and lost 103. Since his inclusion, they've won 185 of the 321 matches he's played, and in his absence, their performance has dipped.
|ODIs involving Murali||321||185||123||3||1.50|
|Without Murali since his debut||111||45||60||-||0.75|
In fact, among bowlers with at least 150 ODI wickets in wins, only one bowler - Pakistan's Saqlain Mushtaq - has a better average. Murali's 339 wickets in 186 wins (includes one game for Asia XI against Africa XI) have come at an outstanding average of 17.81 and an economy rate of 3.59.
Murali's rich pickings in Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are often held against him, and while he has taken plenty of wickets against them in ODIs too - 85 in 46 games at 15.62 - he has an excellent record against other teams as well. Remove Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and other minnows from the table above - 150 wickets in wins - and Murali's numbers remain special: 234 wickets in 135 games at 19.85, and an economy rate of 3.72.
Despite his amazing control and accuracy, though, Sri Lanka have seldom used Murali in the first 15 overs. In ODIs since 2002, Harbhajan Singh, and even Abdur Razzak, the Bangladesh left-arm spinner, have been employed more frequently early on. Muralitharan has bowled in the first 15 overs in 40 innings in that period, and has taken 12 wickets at 26.66 with a good economy rate of 3.90. Sri Lanka, though, have done reasonably well in the early overs, with their fast bowlers helping keep opposition sides to an average of 64 runs in the first 15. Only South Africa, with 61.49, and Australia, 59.30, have done better.
|Bowler||Balls Bowled||Runs Conceded||Wickets||Average||Economy rate|
However, Murali's effectiveness in the middle overs, and at the end, is phenomenal. He tops the wickets table between overs 16 and 40, and is the only spinner to have taken more than 50 wickets in the last ten.
|Brad Hogg||120||28.59||4.48||Daniel Vettori||142||29.10||3.78|
The table below provides an indication of just how well Murali has bowled at the end of an innings. He also has the best economy rate among bowlers who've taken more than 10 wickets in the slog overs.
Australia and India are the two teams to have handled Murali better than the rest. (Click here for his career summary.) India had dominated him for much of the 1990s, scoring more than 40 runs per wicket against him, but since his 7 for 30 in Sharjah in October 2000, his performances against them have improved consistently. (Click here for Murali's cumulative averages against India.)
Australia's record has been pretty consistent. They negotiated him well in the initial few contests before losing their way against his variations - between 2002 and 2005, Murali's average against them improved to a touch over 25. (Click here for Murali's cumulative averages against Australia.)
However, both teams have bettered their record against him of late, particularly in the CB series last year, and India, after struggling in the Tests in Sri Lanka, fought back in the ODI series to take Murali for 172 in four games at an average of 43. In the current ODI series, he's conceded 210 runs at an average of 70.
|Against India and Australia||97||123||31.08||4.36||1/1|
Murali has captured more wickets against Pakistan - 88 at 24.62 - than any other team. Conversely, Akram preserved his best for Sri Lanka, taking 92 wickets at 20.96. New Zealand suffered at the hands of both - 68 for Murali and 64 for Akram - averaging just 18.54.
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo