His unconventional action was at the centre of plenty of controversy, but no-one can argue with the numbers that Muttiah Muralitharan has racked up over his 18-year international career. His skills would have been special to any team, but they were even more valued in a side which was still a newcomer in the Test arena when he arrived: in the pre-Murali days, Sri Lanka had only won two Tests out of 38. Murali's advent completely transformed the team and their results - from pushovers, they became a true force in international cricket, especially when playing at home.
Murali's Test debut came in the second Test of the home series against Australia in August 1992, after a rather distressing first Test, which they lost by 16 runs despite taking a 291-run first-innings lead. That was Sri Lanka's 20th Test defeat. Murali was included for the next game, and the team's fortunes changed almost immediately: in only his third Test, he took seven wickets as Sri Lanka beat New Zealand for the first time. The next match he played fetched him five wickets and brought Sri Lanka their maiden Test win against England; after struggling 38 matches for two wins, Sri Lanka had two more in five after Murali's entry. That ratio was to be maintained throughout Murali's 18-year Test career.
Murali was among the wickets almost from the very beginning of his career, but in the early period those wickets took much longer coming. In his first three years, he had respectable numbers - 81 wickets in 23 Tests, at an average touching 34 and a strike rate of around 75. Those were reasonable stats, but the transformation from good to superb was just around the corner. Over the next four years, the strike rate and average improved considerably, as he nabbed almost six wickets per Test.
Even that, though, was a prelude to a truly exceptional nine-year period which began in 2000: in 76 Tests, Murali averaged a phenomenal seven wickets per match at a sub-20 average. Sixteen out of his 19 Man-of-the-Match awards came during this period, and it isn't difficult to see why.
|Period||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Till Dec 1995||23||81||33.88||75.2||5/ 0|
|Jan 1996 to Dec 1999||25||146||23.25||60.1||12/ 2|
|Jan 2000 to Dec 2008||76||539||19.76||49.2||49/ 20|
|Since Jan 2009||8||26||45.96||86.5||0/ 0|
During this nine-year phase, Murali averaged less than 24 against teams except Australia, against whom he conceded 32.59 runs per wicket. Even the Indians struggled against him during this period: in nine Tests against them, Murali took 60 wickets and averaged 23.45.
Among bowlers who took at least 150 wickets between 2000 and 2008, Murali's average was the best - in fact, he was the only one with a sub-20 average.
|Bowler||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Muttiah Muralitharan||76||539||19.76||49.2||49/ 20|
|Glenn McGrath||66||297||20.53||51.4||14/ 2|
|Dale Steyn||29||150||22.66||37.6||11/ 3|
|Shaun Pollock||70||260||24.76||61.0||6/ 1|
|Shane Warne||65||357||25.17||50.7||21/ 6|
|Jason Gillespie||57||209||27.09||57.4||5/ 0|
|Makhaya Ntini||91||367||27.63||51.1||18/ 4|
|Chaminda Vaas||74||243||29.39||63.9||8/ 1|
Clearly, Murali was successful against all opposition, but his career summary also shows he was exceptionally successful against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the two weakest teams of his era. In 15 Tests against them he took 130 wickets at an average of just over 12. (Overall in his career, he took 176 wickets against them, more than twice as many as the next-best - Waqar Younis with 80.)
However, while it's true that his success against them improved his overall numbers, it's also true that his figures are exceptional even after excluding those performances. This comparison with Warne shows Murali's overall numbers are slightly better even after excluding matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. In the 2000-2008 period, Murali's average falls slightly behind Glenn McGrath's, but it's still better than everyone else who took 150 wickets.
|Bowler||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10M|
|Glenn McGrath||64||292||20.46||51.2||14/ 2|
|Muttiah Muralitharan||61||409||22.11||54.4||35/ 15|
|Shane Warne||63||346||25.10||50.8||20/ 6|
|Shaun Pollock||64||242||25.20||61.7||6/ 1|
|Makhaya Ntini||80||326||28.50||51.7||17/ 4|
|Jason Gillespie||52||185||28.88||60.5||5/ 0|
|Chaminda Vaas||63||213||29.32||63.8||8/ 1|
In the 132 Tests he played, 53 ended in wins for Sri Lanka, and Murali had a big role to play in most of them. He took 430 wickets in those matches - an average of 8.11 per Tests - and won the Man-of-the-Match award 17 times in those 53 games. His overall tally in wins is second only to Warne, who had 510 wickets in 92 wins. Among bowlers who've taken at least 150 wickets in wins, only three bowlers have a better average than Murali's 16.03, but none of them have breached even the 200-wicket mark.
|Bowler||All wins - Tests||Wkts||Average||Excl Zim & B'desh - Tests||Wkts||Wins|
One of the key features that made Murali unique was his ability to be in the hunt for wickets at any stage of the match. Most spinners usually become a force in the third or fourth innings of a match, but Murali was different: he averaged 26 in the first innings and 22 in the second - his second-innings average is well clear of any other spinner.
The most important aspect of Murali's career, though, was the manner in which he single-handedly shouldered the burden of the attack for Sri Lanka for so many years. In the 131 Tests he played for Sri Lanka (he also played one Test for World XI in the Super Series), Murali took 40% of the team's wickets in the matches he played, and 42.2% in the wins that he was a part of.
His absence will obviously mean a huge hole in the Sri Lankan bowling attack, especially in the spin department. The extent to which he has dominated Sri Lanka's slow bowling is gleaned from the following stat: since 2000, Murali has taken 560 wickets; the next-highest specialist spinner is Rangana Herath with 64, while Ajantha Mendis has 44.
|Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Muttiah Muralitharan||131||787||22.65||55.0||66/ 22|
|The rest||131||1163||36.44||74.7||28/ 3|
|In wins - Muralitharan||53||430||16.03||42.6||40/ 18|
|The rest||53||588||26.93||58.6||15/ 2|
And finally a list of some of the key records that are in Murali's name, and the percentage by which he is ahead of the next-best bowler. This offers a pretty good indication of just how far ahead of the pack Murali has been.
|Bowling record||Murali's record||Next best||Record for second best bowler||Percentage difference|
|Most wickets||792||Shane Warne||708||11.8|
|Five-wicket hauls||66||Shane Warne||37||78.3|
|Most ten-wicket hauls in a match||22||Shane Warne||10||120.0|
|Most consecutive ten-wicket hauls||4||Clarrie Grimmett||3||33.3|
|Most wickets at home||485||Anil Kumble||350||38.5|
|Most wickets in home wins||297||Shane Warne||250||18.8|
|Most balls bowled in career||43669||Anil Kumble||40850||6.9|
|Most wickets at a single ground*||166||Heath Streak||83||100|
|Most wickets against B'desh and Zim||176||Waqar Younis||80||120|
|% of team wickets in wins (min 100 wickets in wins)||42.2||Richard Hadlee||40.8||3.4|
|Most wickets in Test defeats||210||Courtney Walsh||186||12.9|
|Most wickets taken bowled||165||Shane Warne||116||42.2|
|Bowler-fielder combination (non wicket-keeper)||73 (Mahela Jayawardene)||Anil Kumble||55 (Rahul Dravid)||32.7|
|Most wickets taken caught||431||Shane Warne||418||3.1|
|Most wickets caught and bowled||35||Shane Warne||21||66.7|
|Most wickets taken stumped||47||Shane Warne||36||30.5|
|Number of Tests to reach 400 wickets**||72||Richard Hadlee||80||10|
* The top three hauls at a ground stand in Murali's name. Heath Streak is in fourth place.
** Murali is the fastest to all 50-wicket landmarks from 350 onwards.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo. With inputs from Madhusudhan Ramakrishnan.