The eyes might no longer roll menacingly at the opponent. The lips might not burst into sudden smiles at the oddest of moments. But the enigma of Muralitharan will remain unmatched in the history of cricket.
Starting his career as a 20 year old kid off the blocks in 1992, Murali grew from strength to strength in his first 3 years of international cricket. By the end of 1995 he had 80 test wickets from 22 tests which, ironically, made him the highest wicket taker for Sri Lanka. That has been a baton which he has refused to let go of till date! But the thorns amidst the roses were just about to show up. The MCG Boxing Day test in 1995 was a turning point in Murali’s career for more than one reason. He was ‘No-Balled’ seven times inside 3 overs by the Australian Umpire Darrell Hair for ‘Chucking’ which bought a new twist to his career. But more than the controversy, it was the support shown by his Captain Ranatunga that gave young Murali the impetus to continue against all odds. After repeated ‘No- Balling’ and associated snowballing by the Australian media, he decided never to play a series again in the country, a decision which he was forced to alter only once for the historic ‘Warne-Muralitharan’ Trophy in 2007.
It was in the year 1996 that this diminutive spinner announced his arrival onto the big stage. He was a strong presence in the world cup winning Sri Lankan outfit led by the Belligerent Ranatunga. With a decisive spell in the final (figures of 1/31 belied the guile he showed in that spell), he was instrumental in leading Sri Lanka to the cup of joy. Post world cup, things were never the same for any batsman playing against Sri Lanka. Every one of them was told to be aware of this freakish off spinner who can turn the ball on any surface ranging from concrete to glass. English batsmen learned their lesson the hard way in a test match at the Oval in 1998 when Muralitharan went on to pick up 16 wickets in the test, 9 of them coming in the second innings. The lone batsman not falling into Murali’s trap was actually run out, thus saving his team the ignominy of losing all their wickets to a single bowler (Though Pakistan managed to bring that shame onto themselves a year later when they found a certain Mr. Kumble too hot to handle). Thus rose the legend of Murali. That Oval test was a precursor to the imminent terror awaiting batsmen around the world. That test kick started a fantasy ride in Murali’s career. He went on to bamboozle the best of batsmen with his unorthodox, yet unbelievably effective version of spin bowling. Records were broken like chinaware teetering on the edge of shelves. A five wicket haul in an innings- something which was thought of as a milestone in a bowler’s kitty- became a pedestrian bypass for this magician while ten wicket match hauls were frequented once every fifth match; all this happened while he gave nothing away in terms of runs. One Day Internationals were no different. While the overs were limited and the conditions were loaded against bowlers, he had only one goal- to pick up wickets. And pick up he did…515 of them in a career spanning 17 years and 4 world cups.
Now, just at the brink of his ‘would have been’ fifth world cup, he has decided rest those flexed fingers of his for good. Batsmen all over the world would be breathing sighs of relief, some would even be letting out whoops of joy, but each and every one of them will feel disappointed that they would no longer be facing the biggest challenge of their batting careers.
In so many years of cricket there has not been a single spinner other than Murali to have terrorized batsmen with his tweaking. Terrorizing has always been a term limited to fast bowlers. Spinners were classy. They confused batsmen. They bamboozled tail enders. But none ever created the kind of terror that Murali did with those big, round eyes and that killer smile, not to forget that dreaded side-stepped run up or the prodigious turn he produced. When those fingers and wrists of his released the ball many of us could actually picturise the image with a whizzing sound in our ears. Such was the sorcery he managed to perform with the cherry.
So, as he decides to give a break to all the batsmen, the cricketing world is all set to let go of an era. An era which will leave an indelible mark on the annals of cricket’s rich history.
The Smiling Assassin has decided to unload his gun. In 4 more days he will cock it for the last time.