From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.13 :: Mar. 31, 2011

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COVER STORY

Enduring sting

Muttiah Muralitharan (64 wickets) is currently the second-highest wicket-taker in the World Cup. Glenn McGrath tops the list with 71, leaving the Sri Lankan a maximum of three possible matches to overhaul the seven-wicket difference. If he does get there it would be a significant push to Sri Lanka's chances of winning its second World Cup, as also a perfect send-off for the great bowler. By Kunal Diwan

Barely a month before the 1996 World Cup, Muttiah Muralitharan was dividing his time between Western Australia and Hong Kong, clearing his suspect action of insinuations of illegality.

Fifteen years and several more visits to biomechanical clinics hence, the man with a crooked arm and the record holder by a long way for the most Test wickets, is playing in his fifth World Cup and has, up to the league phase, been the pick of Sri Lanka's bowlers in the current edition.

Murali has picked 11 wickets at a miserly 3.54 as his team heads into its quarterfinal, in Colombo, against England, the tournament's Houdini side. Another escape act by the Poms would signal the end of Muralitharan's ODI career, since the spin legend has announced his retirement from the format following the premier event.

Murali, 38, is a twisted enigma, and the distortion in his case is more physical than the mental intertwining one associates with over-achievers. His records, much like those of Sachin Tendulkar's, border on assuming the immovability of physical constants, the only changes wrought in them being those that Murali and Sachin themselves decide to craft, raising the bar higher and even more out of reach for anybody else hereafter.

It's not just his ability to spin the ball on any given surface, or the awry alignment of the arm that facilitates the ‘rip', that makes Murali's a unique case. Equally admirable has been his ability to last. For a bowler who thrived on long spells in Test cricket, and who has constantly baled the side out in ODIs, Murali's 19-year-old international career is in itself a considerable achievement, on a par with the prolific longevity of the other major players of his generation, Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting.

This very trait of Murali's career now faces its ultimate test as the off-spinner strives to extend his last international foray to, possibly, another World Cup final, which will be his third, having played the title deciders in 1996 and 2007. But there are doubts if Murali will play any part at all in the business end of this World Cup. In the league match against New Zealand, at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, Murali dived to make his ground while attempting to complete a run. The resultant damage to his knee and hamstring reduced him to hobbling on one leg during New Zealand's chase, although the end result was no big surprise: four for 25 for Murali and a 112-run win for Sri Lanka. It was Murali's 200th ODI win with Sri Lanka, placing him in a league of stars such as Tendulkar, Ponting and Inzamam-ul-Haq, who have all won 200 or more matches for their sides. The aggravated hamstring however threw a cloud of uncertainty over his fitness for the remaining matches.

Murali did not appear too concerned, saying, “I have been carrying this hamstring injury for some time and it's not a problem. I am prepared to play the rest of the matches because I am retiring after the World Cup.

“Quitting international cricket is not going to be easy, what you have enjoyed, what you played for the last 30 years will never be easy to give up.”

Skipper Kumar Sangakkara, who's having a roaring tournament of his own, was also hopeful that his bowling buttress would recover well in time, especially because of the long gap between Sri Lanka's last league game and its quarterfinal.

“Murali did a pretty okay job bowling off one leg and getting us all those wickets (against New Zealand). He bowled beautifully…it shows how hungry he is to play and do well.

“We have a few days before the next game, and we hope he will be fully fit for the quarterfinals. We want to make sure he enjoys himself, and we want him to bowl and take wickets,” said Sangakkara.

That Murali has been instrumental in Sri Lanka's cause doesn't require Marion Bartoli's alleged IQ (the quirky French No. 1 claims to top 175 in tests) to be arrived at. In the 200 ODIs he's won with the Lankan side, Murali has claimed 363 wickets at an average of 18.17 runs per victim. In the 131 that Sri Lanka has lost, Murali's figures dip to 157 at an average of 34.02, almost double the runs conceded per wicket as compared to his winning stints. The logic is childlike: Murali's success largely converts into success for the team.

Sri Lanka's quarterfinal opponent, England, with six tight finishes in as many matches, has been touched by capriciousness in its campaign. It is this ‘Pakistanesque' ability to come back from the dead that Sri Lanka will be wary of when taking on England, against whom Murali has 100 Test scalps. Already, the English think tank has begun to propound the benefits of the big stride forward and the resolute sweep as counters to Murali's magic.

If Sri Lanka pulls through the quarterfinals, its potential semifinal opponent could be either South Africa or New Zealand. Murali has 49 ODI wickets in 32 matches against the Proteas, while New Zealand has been destroyed by the off-spinner's guile (72 in 40 matches).

The Kiwis have rarely been comfortable against the turning orb, even lesser so when it is jagging square at the behest of the bowler, with over 50,000 Lankans baying for blood in the stands.

At 38, despite match-winners such as Lasith Malinga and the apparently stagnating Ajantha Mendis in the XI, Murali has continued to be a trump card, a cunning customer whose beady eyes instil as much guardedness in batsmen as his doosras.

If at all he needs an extra dollop of motivation, there remains another target in sight.

With 64 scalps from 37 matches, Murali is currently the second-highest wicket-taker in the World Cup. Glenn McGrath sits atop that list with 71, leaving the Sri Lankan a maximum of three possible matches to overhaul the seven-wicket difference. If he does get there — only fools would bet otherwise — it would be a significant push to Sri Lanka's chances of winning its second World Cup, as also a perfect send-off for the cricketer whose career has come to epitomise the rise, braving maliciousness and mire, of Sri Lankan cricket.



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