The Art of Muttiah Muralitharan

Last week I wrote a short piece in celebration of Harbhajan Singh’s one hundredth Test Match appearance. I wrote about his bowling; his action and how exactly he has deceived and dismissed over 400 batsmen throughout his fifthteen year Test career.

I am a proud member of the off-spinners’ union, which encompasses the casual, two-strides-and-roll-your-arm-over of the Chris Gayle sort, and all the way up to the virtuoso ability of such men as Graeme Swann, Jim Laker, Erapalli Prasanna and Muttiah Muralitharan.

The last name on that list is also the first name on a rather more prestigious one: the list of Test wicket-takers. Muttiah Muralitharan flicked, snapped, whirled and spun his way through 800 batsmen who stood at the crease before him. In the age of Excalibur sized bats and daily gym work, it is very unlikely that we will ever see another bowler top that figure.

Off-spin has experienced something of a revival in the five years since Murali exited the Test arena. Graeme Swann brought such a sense of élan to his bowling that it has become very easy to forget that his purely classical method relies far more on gentle manipulations of drift, flight and spin, than devilish trickery. Saeed Ajmal is another off-spinner who has had great success and garnered much acclaim; but his achievements have largely been due to his mastery of line and length, allied with a flat trajectory that makes his changes of pace nigh impossible to pick up. Ajmal rarely ‘rips’ a ball in either direction; instead, he tweaks it a few inches either way and relies on his utter control of where (and how) the ball is landing to lure the batsmen.

Muralitharan was a different beast: he had everything that these bowlers possess, but alongside monstrous turn. He didn’t just turn the ball on dusty Sri Lankan wickets: he would get the ball to dart into the right handed batsman (away from the left) with alarming ferocity on day one at Lord’s more than most spinners in the history of the game could on the final day at Chennai.

In the first nine years of his Test career, when Murali relied exclusively on his turbo charged off-breaks and guile, his record was staggering: taking 317 wickets at 25.62 in his 62 Tests. Those statistics already made him the most successful off-spinner in the history of Test cricket (leapfrogging Lance Gibbs). To illustrate his genius, here are the highlights of arguably his finest Test: the Sri Lankan victory against England at the Oval in 1998, where he took 16/220 (including 9/65 in the second innings).

Murali weaving his magic at the Oval, 1998.

Murali weaving his magic at the Oval, 1998.

This video is fantastic and perfectly displays Murali’s singular capability to turn the ball a mile; and the thinking he put into his bowling. Watch the way he draws Butcher out of the crease in a hopeless attempt to smother the turn, or how he pins Hick LBW as the batsmen attempts to play on the back foot against extravagant, sharp spin, merely two balls into his innings. Muralitharan’s violent turn forced batsmen to think carefully as to how they would score against him; his mastery of line and length made mere survival a struggle.

His bowling analysis in that match remains the fifth best in Test history and was exemplary of the manner in which Murali carried the hopes of his nation (remember, only five bowlers have taken more than 100 Test wickets for Sri Lanka and the second highest is Chaminda Vaas with 355). This was Sri Lanka’s first Test victory in England, one of the nations that had been against them gaining full Test status in the first place, and remains perhaps their finest.

The Pakistani off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq has been largely labelled as the man who ‘introduced’ the doosra (‘the other one’ which turns away from the right handed batsmen, into the left handed, from over the wicket) to Test cricket in the late 1990s. Muttiah Muralitharan is undoubtedly the bowler who utilised this delivery most effectively. The genetic deformity that caused such uproar…

(We shall not focus on that here: the ICC tested Murali on three separate occasions and he was never banned or made to in anyway alter his action, for more information:

… also supplied him with a unique amount of flexibility and power in his right shoulder and wrist. This was how he got the ball to turn so dramatically and sharply.

After, one imagines, years of practice, in the second half of his career Murali had the doosra and the power to now do effectively what he wanted with the ball. Throughout the first stage of his career, staggering as the numbers are, some left handers had played him with little trouble. His freakish turn meant that the left hander could avoid playing a large percentage of Murali’s deliveries (which spun away from the left hander) and play each ball based on its line and length alone; not having to worry about being caught LBW or bowled.

The doosra changed this. Just look at how silly poor old Jacob Oram looks here:

Once he had begun to master the doosra, Muralitharan’s stats (somehow) improved: 483 wickets at 20.82 in 71 matches. With the doosra, Muttiah Muralitharan had become the complete spin bowler. He returned to England in 2006 and, again, delivered a match winning performance. You can witness his genius for yourself:

Muralitharan dismissed Alistair Cook, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss with the doosra: video evidence of his ironing out of potential chinks in his bowling armoury.

I adored watching Muttiah Muralitharan bowl, and it is safe to say that we shall never see another like him. For all the batsmen of the world who turn their arm over with a bit of off-spin in the nets, Murali reminded us all of the potency of the off-break.

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