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'I could never plan against him'

Virender Sehwag takes his hat off to a bowler he was never quite able to figure out how to play comfortably

Muttiah Muralitharan: always friendly on and off the field  •  Getty Images

Muttiah Muralitharan: always friendly on and off the field  •  Getty Images

I will miss facing Murali. He is the most difficult bowler I played against. I am happy that I don't have to face him again, but at the same time I am disappointed he will not be around anymore in Test cricket.
He was difficult because I could never plan against him. I would try to watch his hand, and if I could pick him, I would play. Otherwise I would watch the ball closely to try to get an idea of the type of delivery he had bowled.
The first time I faced him, in the tri-series in 2001, was a nightmare because I could hardly pick any of his variations. At times he would spin it at right angles, making my job nearly impossible. I tried to play him defensively and cash in against the other bowlers, because I was never comfortable against Murali. That's something that never changed.
One of the reasons I could never prepare against him was because he varied his pace smartly. In that tri-series, my original plan to combat him was to dominate, try and hit some sixes. But he figured that out and had me caught easily at long-off. Then in the 2003 World Cup, when I was batting well on 66, I hit him over midwicket without picking the doosra and was caught at long-on. There were so many occasions like that when I was confused about whether it was his offbreak or the doosra, and didn't have the time to adjust my body position or my mind to play accordingly. That is how he controlled me.
He would never give you any easy balls; you had to remain patient and improve your skills. He would be quick first up, then he would introduce the doosra, then he would suddenly bowl a really slow ball.
He was always at you, keeping you guessing. Over the years I learnt I needed to be patient. I think that helped me get those three centuries I made against Sri Lanka in the last three years - a double-century in Galle, a century in Kanpur and another double in Mumbai, last December - though I must admit his pace and spin were not as lethal in those matches as they were when I played him for the first time. In a way, those hundreds sort of offset the troubles I had against him previously.
Though I've managed to make some runs against him, I could never pick his doosra. It might sound strange but I can pick that delivery off any other spinner, but with Murali I was stumped. In the 2008 Galle Test, I decided to treat every ball as if it was a doosra and play it towards cover. I didn't hit the ball hard, just used timing to direct it towards cover. Along with that, I waited for loose balls to play shots on the back foot.
Murali doesn't spin the ball so much any more. It's hard to believe this was the same man who could, at one time, pitch it well outside off and get the ball to hit the stumps. That changed when he began bowling a lot of doosras and straighter ones; they probably affected his turn. Yet the doubt remains in my mind. Tomorrow if I walk out, I cannot say for certain that I will score against Murali. I can say that for other bowlers. And that applies through a match: against other bowlers, I usually find it easy to score over a period, but with Murali it did not matter if I was on 0, 10 or 100 - he was always a challenge.
I don't think any bowler likes to show his hand to a batsman, especially to one like me. But Murali is a very good friend. I don't know if he was joking or being serious but he once told me he did not bowl slower deliveries to me because he believed I would hit him out of the ground. He bowled quick so as to not allow me much time to hit or pick the doosras from the offbreaks. It was nice of him to say that. He knows I like to dominate bowlers, but he was equally dominating.
The first thing a young spinner could learn from Murali is a lesson in humility. His patience was also amazing. He told me sometimes he had to bowl 40-50 overs to get a five-for and at times he got it in just 15 overs. To excel at the highest level, you have to be able to exercise patience and have a strong character. That is the best thing anyone can learn from Murali.
I was lucky to be alongside him in the World XI team that played Australia a few years ago. It only confirmed my opinion of him. His best quality is his simplicity. He is down-to-earth; he doesn't make you feel he is a world record-holder. He always makes you feel comfortable in his company. On the field I've never seen him get aggressive or yell at anyone. He always challenged the batsman in a nice manner and motivated his team with a smile and through hard work. Even for an opponent, he was a shining example.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo