Next up in Alex Bowden’s Kings of Cricket series, it’s Test cricket’s all-time leading wicket-taker. But this is about more than numbers…
Murali’s main problem is that he took too many wickets. If you want to talk up Ian Austin or Andy Bichel, you better find something to say. With Murali, you can just thoughtlessly dole out the numbers – some unusually big, others uncommonly small; all making a strong, unarguable numeric case that he is somehow significant.
It’s all anyone does any more. It’s too easy and it reduces one of the most fascinating and joyous cricketers of all time to little more than a spreadsheet.
We all have our physical abnormalities. Mostly, we bitch and moan about them. Murali made use of his to do things that no one has done before and probably will never do again.
The two main ingredients are his shoulder, which moves around so much it’s as if someone’s forgotten to tighten all the screws; and his wrist, which flaps around like a wet dishcloth. Murali used these freakish qualities to spin the ball in a way no one else can. If you tried it with your boring, conventional body, you’d succeed in backspinning the ball straight up in the air – at best.
We often talk about once-in-a-lifetime players, but that’s really rather underselling Murali.
Having devised a wholly unique bowling action, all our man had to do was become inhumanly accurate and develop extraordinary levels of endurance as he sought to carry his nation’s bowling attack almost single-handed for near-enough two decades.
Sri Lanka had heard of putting all your eggs in one basket and early on in Murali’s career, they resolved to do precisely this. They then went out and bought extra eggs to burden him with. It was all about Murali. Selection of pace bowlers basically involved little more than finding left-armers with big feet.
But did he ever buckle under the weight of his yolky cargo? No, he just bowled the ball with his mad, staring eyes and occasionally chuckled about something or other.
When England invited Sri Lanka to play one paltry Test match in 1998, Sri Lanka said: ‘Yes, we’ll happily play just one Test match and we’ll win it and make you look like idiots for being so dismissive of us.’ They didn’t throw a strop. They just handed the ball to Murali.
In five days, Murali took his side from being patronised to being feared – but it was bloody hard work. Commentators often talk of exceptional players turning a game in an instant, but Murali bowled 59.3 overs in the first innings and 54.2 in the second. He toiled. He was a hard-working magician who put the hours in. He must have gone through wands like nobody’s business.
In the first innings of that match, England scored heavily, but he still took 7-155. Having conceded a first-innings lead, England were more wary of him second time around. They played him watchfully, happy to score at just 1.19 an over in the knowledge that the other bowlers were of little threat. It was an entirely different challenge. Murali took 9-65.
The otherworldly genius who did a proper shift and worked his fingers to the bone. It’s almost a paradox, but Murali was a contradictory figure in other ways too. He also became the elder statesman who acts like a complete kid.
Andrew Flintoff tells a story about walking into the Lancashire dressing room after getting out; a face like fury and everyone staying out of his way. “What’s the matter, Freddie? Another crap shot, was it?” said Murali.
Just as you can’t teach someone to have a freakishly manoeuvrable shoulder joint, you can’t teach good-natured mischief. This was another reason why he was such a marvellous cricketer. Cricket is supposed to be fun. Cricketers – particularly the big names – forget this and become wearyingly earnest. Then we forget it as well. But Murali always remained an unrepentant on-field grinner. Sometimes it’s the little things.
Muttiah Muralitharan is probably my favourite batsman of all time. He maintained the same three-step approach to batting throughout his career.
1) Have a ruddy great swing at the ball
3) Have an even bigger swing at the next one
It’s actually quite heart-warming that in 495 international cricket matches, no one managed to coach even the faintest hint of caution or reason into the man’s batting. And in what other sport can you be both a world-record holder and also the kind of player who’d be considered a liability in a village 2nd XI?
The final word
I haven’t really mentioned the ‘spectre’ of chucking. To address it, I’ll simply offer this video. Somehow, despite an unholy alliance of Ravi Shastri and Michael Slater on presentation duties, it’s well worth a watch (although I have to say my favourite bit’s at the end when Slater mistakenly anticipates a handshake from Shastri and has to try and style it out).
And for the final word on the matter, I’ll quote a banner I caught sight of in some old footage the other day. Surely the greatest of all time, it reads: “Hair or no hair, Murali’s balls are fair.”
Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket