In 1992, a wide-eyed, curly haired Tamil man made his debut for the Sri Lankan cricket team, picking up the wicket of Australian fast bowler Craig McDermott. As far as debuts go, 20-year-old Muttiah Muralitharan hardly created any ripples.
Eighteen years and an incredible 798* wickets later, he has left every bowler in the history of Test cricket trailing. But it’s not just the mind-boggling numbers and the plethora of records (highest wicket-taker in both Tests and One Day Internationals, or ODIs) that define the man—Muralitharan’s is also a story of survival, of an intense polarization in the cricketing world that changed the rules of the game, and an unlikely symbol of unification in a country divided by war.
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Born in 1972 in Kandy, a hilly town around 100km from Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, Muralitharan dreamt of being a fast bowler before coaches in his school encouraged him to opt for spin, simply because there weren’t enough spinners in the school. That small change altered the course of cricket history, and Sri Lanka’s fortunes as a cricketing nation.
Former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga recalls watching Muralitharan playing at a school match in the late 1980s after his brother Nishantha Ranatunga, also a former international cricketer, urged him to come and take a look. “He was far ahead of his teammates in that match,” says Ranatunga over the phone from Colombo. “It took us no time to realize that he could be a world-beater if handled properly.”
A never-ending trial
Ranatunga probably did more than anyone else in “handling” Muralitharan properly. In 1995, three years after Muralitharan made his debut, one of cricket’s most enduring controversies began when he was no-balled by Australian umpire Darrell Hair for suspect action at the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Ten days later in Adelaide, he was no-balled out of the match again. When he was called again for throwing in an ODI between Sri Lanka and England in 1996, Ranatunga, Sri Lanka’s then captain, simply walked out of the field with his team—an almost unheard of action in cricket.
“As a captain, my philosophy was always to protect my players,” says Ranatunga. “I would have done the same thing for anyone, but Murali was a tough guy—the pressure was always on him, and he never gave up. The Sri Lankan public and the whole team was behind him, but it was still his fight.”
Muralitharan’s unique action, shaped by an elbow deformity at birth that prevents him from straightening his arm fully, divided the cricket world—those who thought his action was legal, and those who didn’t. It took nine years of intense hounding and multiple trials involving high-speed cameras, sensors and even a cast on Muralitharan’s bowling arm to prevent him from bending it, before the issue was finally put to rest.
In 2004, the International Cricket Council (ICC) raised the limit to which bowlers could straighten their arms to 15 degrees, after studies showed that even Glenn McGrath, the former Australian fast bowler famed for his classical action, straightened his arm by more than 10 degrees at the point of delivery.
“No matter what you think about the issue, the one thing that is undoubted is Murali’s mental strength,” says former Australian cricketer Adam Gilchrist, “and despite all the controversy, every time he was on the pitch he had the ability to produce the goods.”
An unstoppable force
His eyes bulging and burning with an almost unnatural glow, his wrists rotating at an almost impossible speed, Muralitharan did continue to brush other issues aside to claim wickets by the bucketful. He finished as the highest wicket-taker in a calendar year in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006. In the process, Sri Lanka went from being the wooden spooners of international cricket to World Cup winners in 1996, finalists in the 2007 World Cup, and more significantly—and here Muralitharan’s contribution is the heaviest—a major force in Test cricket.
“He is one of the most difficult bowlers to face in world cricket—such is his trickery and weaponry, his amazing variety and the way he disguised them,” adds Gilchrist. “I remember the first time I played him in Test cricket, he made me feel well out of my depths, like a boy up against the men.”
Former India captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth believes Muralitharan changed the role of the off-spinner from primarily a containing bowler to an attacking force that paved the way for bowlers such as Harbhajan Singh. “He has always been a relentlessly attacking bowler,” says Srikkanth. “In 1998 at the Oval, where off-spinners have never done well, he took nine English wickets in the second innings, and 16 wickets in the match—it was an incredible achievement!”
Indian spin legend Erapalli Prasanna says Muralitharan was constantly “improving and improvising”. “Quite late in his career, he started bowling to right-handed batsmen from around the wicket,” says Prasanna, “that is something most batsmen were not comfortable with. Also, not every spinner can consistently bowl from that angle and get wickets. You would need to turn the ball viciously and only someone like Murali could do that.”
The vicious turn, the “Doosra”—a disguised ball that turned away from the right-handed batsman instead of coming in—and that shy, gentle smile after picking up a wicket will be Muralitharan’s lasting legacy. But his former mentor and captain Ranatunga feels he could have gone one extra mile.
“He could have easily got a 1,000 Test wickets,” says Ranatunga, “if he had concentrated a bit more on Tests instead of playing county and T20. The rate at which he takes wickets would have ensured that.”
For Sri Lankans, Muralitharan’s legacy is not just his bowling but also him as a person. Former captain and Sri Lanka Cricket CEO Duleep Mendis adds over the phone from Colombo: “More than anything, Murali is a super human being: He is the greatest in the history of cricket, fought continuously with his critics and has done a wonderful job for Sri Lanka and its cricket.”
Rahul Jayaram and Arun Janardhan contributed to this story.