The Wisden Cricketer - December 2003

Be afraid ... be very afraid

Muttiah Muralitharan admits England have learned how to play his bowling ..

Muttiah Muralitharan admits England have learned how to play his bowling. But he's been plotting revenge. And, he says, he's learned some new magic. Charlie Austin talks to him about top-spinners, back-spinners and being an eligible bachelor

© Getty Images

Muttiah Muralitharan is itching to confront England's batsmen once more. Ever since his 16-wicket romp at The Oval in 1998, a glorious display of subtle skill and cunning, England have treated him cautiously. Under Duncan Fletcher they have met with some success too, relying on a combination of painstaking patience, careful shot selection and dour pad play. Murali, entering the final chapter of his career with a sleeveful of new tricks, has vowed to strike back.

England's moral victory over Murali - who has taken 22 wickets in his last five Tests against them, compared with 21 in his first two - paved the way for two series wins. For a man who admits to sleeping problems whenever Sri Lanka lose, it must have had him stocking up on the valium. "They have played well during the last two series but my time will come again. I am prepared for anything now and I will do the damage. I am bowling really well at the moment and preparing myself carefully for the series."

During the last two series Murali was handicapped by a pulled groin (2000-01) and a dislocated shoulder (2002). At best he was 80% fit, hobbling in off a shortened run at Galle and wincing with pain in his follow-through at Edgbaston. But he refuses to use his fitness problems as an excuse, blaming poor batting and poor umpiring for Sri Lanka's shock defeat during England's last tour.

"They batted much better than us," he says. "The second Test at Kandy was one of our biggest disasters. How we lost that game I don't know. Our batting was poor in the second innings but the umpiring was also dreadful - the worst I have seen in my career. I even had a caught-and-bowled turned down.

"At Colombo we were pathetic in the second innings. In my mind, if we bat well this time, we will win the series. Putting the runs on the board is the key. I need runs to work with." Sri Lanka's batting, especially the middle order, has struggled in the last 18 months and the run shortage has coincided with more modest figures for Murali - 47 in his last nine Tests, compared with a purple spell in 2001-02 when he claimed 72 in eight.

Batsmen are also better prepared to face him. After 11 years of international cricket and three seasons of county cricket opponents have devised survival plans. Most teams, banking on easier runs at the other end, have adopted defensive tactics. Murali is philosophical about being stonewalled: "It's a batsmen's game - that's the reality. Pitches and the lbw laws favour the batsmen. I try not to get too frustrated."

He has, however, been working hard to add variations to his armoury: a curving offspinner, which he has mastered, and a back-spinner that he is still polishing in the nets. "I need to get better and I have been working particularly hard on drifting the ball by getting closer to the stumps and using the wind," he says. "That makes it harder for the batsmen to get their feet in the right position. The back-spinner is taking longer than expected to perfect but it will make it much harder to pad me away."

Murali's biggest battles these days are with his fitness. During the past two years he has been dogged by injuries including a pulled quadriceps and a structural imbalance in his pelvis. He is described by Alex Kontouri, Sri Lanka's physio for seven years, as a "bio-mechanical mess" and admits that the strain on his body is becoming harder to bear. "I am not 26 years old any more. Every morning I wake up with a sore shoulder. The mental strain is also taking its toll. It's been six months since I had a weekend off."

His remarkable journey started as a young medium-pacer - enthusiastic but wayward - at a strict boarding school in Kandy. One day, aged 13, with the team one slow bowler short, Murali was persuaded to bowl offcutters. "Right from the start I had the ability to turn the ball a great deal and I soon settled into my action, which has hardly changed since," he says.

By the time he had reached the 1st XI his name and wicket-taking exploits were frequently appearing in the newspapers. Encouraged by his father Muthusamy, a successful biscuit manufacturer, and his mother Lakshmi, an avid cricket fan, he travelled to Colombo to pursue a cricket career.

An unhappy tour of England in 1991 (0 for 209 in three first-class matches) nearly cut short his career before it had begun. "I didn't take a single wicket. I was nervous and I realised cricket was tough. When I returned I joined the Institute of Technical Studies. I wanted to travel to America and was thinking about a career outside cricket."

But Arjuna Ranatunga, the Sri Lanka captain, was on the prowl for matchwinning bowlers. He was quick to see Murali's potential and fast-tracked him into the side. Ranatunga became a cricketing father figure. "He had this unshakeable faith in me to deliver - always. That gave me a huge amount of confidence." In 1992 Murali broke into the Test team.

The whispers of discontent over his strange bowling action - unique because of a super-flexible wrist and a congenital deformity that prevents his arm from straightening fully - started soon after and quietly continued until the furore sparked by umpire Darrell Hair's decision to call him for chucking during the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 1995-96.

Despite the medical opinions and ICC clearance, questions over his action have persisted. The public scrutiny and never-ending suspicion would have broken weaker men. Murali was helped by the unbending support of Ranatunga and buoyed by the reaction of his colleagues.

© Getty Images

His capacity to hide the anguish behind a wide smile was admirable, and he shows no bitterness - although the affair still upsets him. "That is all history. I have no problem with Darrell Hair and we say hello when we meet now. People make mistakes and that episode is gone."

Had he been born an Indian he would be a multi-millionaire. But Sri Lanka's cricketers, their earnings constrained by a war-ravaged economy, are underpaid compared to their international colleagues. "I am earning more than a leading corporate director in this country so that is fine," he says. "Money is not everything. Not every millionaire can have recognition or fame. I have my achievements and reputation. Money can't buy how that makes me feel."

Murali comes across as modest and private: it's hard to imagine that he can have detractors. But he does, including some high-profile officials, who seem jealous of his popularity and power, and some media types, who believe he is arrogant. Murali's personality is complex: he is socially shy but ice-nerved on the field, publicly quiet but privately outspoken, fun-loving but tirelessly professional, warm-hearted to some and aloof to others. He enjoys records but he revels in team success. You will rarely hear a team-mate mutter a bad word.

As middle age beckons, with 459 Test wickets and 342 ODI wickets to his name, he is turning his mind to the future, wondering what he will do when he finishes. Already a flair for business is apparent. His role in the ongoing development of a new international stadium in Kandy has been pivotal. "I might work with my three brothers, all of whom are doing really well, although I can't see myself going to the office each morning and sitting behind a desk," he says. "And I would also like to put something back into the game and coach spin, passing on some of the insights I have learnt."

A new life may come sooner than many think. He admits that, at 31, his hunger for the game is starting to wane. The driving force in his life now is Courtney Walsh's 519-wicket world Test record. With 459 victims in only 82 matches, and Sri Lanka scheduled to play 14 Tests in the next 10 months, the record could be his within a year.

"I am not as hungry as I was," he says, although you would not believe it if you had watched his 45-minute warm-up. "There is not much left to achieve apart from the record and 600 wickets. That keeps me focused at the moment. Whatever happens I will pack it in after the 2007 World Cup."

Still single - he is one of the most eligible bachelors in Sri Lanka - he says that he would like to marry. "It's a matter of finding the right person. Children? I am taking it one step at a time, rather like my bowling," he says.

But talk of the future is soon curtailed. His hyperactive mind has turned back to England's tour. "You know, it's going to be tough for England in the terrible heat and humidity we are having this year. I had to stop bowling after eight overs yesterday. Can you imagine that? Normally I can bowl all afternoon." There is plenty of bowling left in Murali yet.

Charlie Austin is editor of Wisden Cricinfo in Sri Lanka.

This article was first published in the December 2003 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Click here for further details.