Every finite thing in the universe has a genesis. Be it the very world we live in or even the most complex of entities that has vexed scientists throughout ages – Time! But that’s a topic for discussion perhaps in Theory of Relativity tutorials. So without sailing adrift let us impose the question – where does greatness begin? Where is that exact point in history where a person makes the jump from the aisles of the hoi polloi and catapults towards super-stardom?
Sachin Tendulkar’s started the very moment he decided to bat with a broken nose in his first Test series at the age of 16 against a star-studded Pakistan attack. Shane Warne had it written all over him when he bowled that famous ball at Old Trafford in 1993 that disrupted Mike Gating’s holy grails with a raging turner from outside leg.
The name Muttiah Muralitharan might have sounded like the odd one out had it been pronounced alongside the likes of the ones mentioned above back then. For he hardly brushed that level of grandeur in the early years of his international career. Six years to be precise. As a matter of fact, his career seemed to squander into oblivion when he was controversially called for ‘chucking’ in 1995.
As his career threatened to hit a downward spiral after early promise, Sri Lanka toured England for a one-off Test in 1998. It was a momentous occasion for the one-day world champions and ground to prove their worth in a format they were slowly tightening their grasps on.
While the batsmen had already broken into news headlines and tabloids across the cricketing world, the bowlers didn’t seem to have found their grooves just yet. This deprived Sri Lanka of many a test wins as the team regularly struggled to take 20 wickets to K.O their opponents.
Onto August 1998, The Oval, London. England posted a formidable 441 in the first innings in which Muralitharan was the only standout performer with his ally Chaminda Vaas unavailable for the fixture. The off-spinner finished with seven wickets in a mammoth spree of 59.3 overs. But Lankan Lions made a mockery out of England’s total as Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva took charge in a magnanimous third-wicket partnership of 243 with both men posting triple figures. Jayasuriya hit 213 while de Silva, who earlier brought up his 5000th Test run, made 152.
On the fourth evening, England had to survive an all-out spin barrage as the crafty Arjuna Ranatunga brought the game to England with his glaring off-spinner firing on all cylinders. On a deteriorating wicket, Muralitharan bowled like a Black Mamba spitting venom on almost every delivery. Soon he had Mark Butcher stumped when the left-hander made an ill-conceived dash down the wicket. First innings centurion Graeme Hick fell two balls later when he cluelessly tried to play a sharp off-break from the back foot.
A gritty Steven James was caught at silly mid-off the next morning and Sri Lanka were only an Alec Stewart away from having a real crack at winning a test match in England alongside winning the series. That soon was ticked off from the Lankan to-do-list when substitute fielder Upul Chandana’s direct-hit had the skipper short of his ground by a few inches. Muralitharan then ran through the rest of the batting order, getting John Crawley out with a beautiful off-spinner that broke through his gate while Mark Ramprakash was caught sharply at short-leg by Hashan Tillakaratne.
Murali finished with 9 for 65 in the second innings awarding Sri Lanka the victory on English soil. The match figures of 16 for 220 marked Muralitharan’s arrival and he has not looked back ever since.
Bowling records tumbled one after another at the hands of the Tamil prodigy in the years to come, the peak of them all being crowned as the highest wicket-taker in the history of the game.
Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800-wicket career that spanned across 18 years had plenty of phenomenal features. The most bizarre of the lot was his massive wicket-count against all right-handers than left-handers, 609 to 191, which is pretty unusual given off-spinners advantage against lefties. But Murali wasn’t the run-of-the-mill offie, he had a huge repertoire like all great spinners including a doosra that spun the other way like a leg break. His battles against Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were epic in their own right with Murali coming out on top on 13 occasions against the two legends.
Whether he is the greatest spinner of all time is a matter of debate. But what is unequivocal is the fact that he is one of the greatest masterminds to ever grace our wonderful game. The flashing eyes, the gullible smile, the hitch of the bowling arm, the scampering run-up, the abrupt swivel of the elbow, the flick of fingers and the conundrum riveting through the batsmen’s minds as ball made its way down the pitch – Muralitharan truly was a ‘once in a lifetime’ freak.