By Rohan Wijesinghe
Just one look…. and that’s all it took! The Antonian ‘Super Guru’ knew – that he had a champ on his hands. Sunil Fernando’s tons of know-how on spin, then ensured that the fiery little 8-year-old seamer was comprehensively ‘chiselled’ into a world class tweaker. The rest is reveberantly resplendent – never to be repeated – spin bowling history.
In addition to pointing Muttiah Muralitharan towards the finer points of spin – ‘Super Guru Sunil’ took it upon himself to ensure that the kid remained unspoilt, level-headed and utterly focused – A job well done. Besides which Murali’s over-the-top-exuberance and stomach-for-battle was fabulous material for a coach to work on.
A Star Is Born
A star spinner like no other – descended upon the humble household of Sinnathamby and Lakshmi Mutthiah on the 15th of April 1972. The devout Hindu couple lost no time in enrolling their little bundle of energy at that hallowed seat of learning —St. Anthony’s College Katugastota —located half a mountain below the historic Kandyan Kingdom.
Dad Sinnathamby Murali, a biscuit maker by profession, kicked his ‘cookie baking’ to the back-burner as it were, and Mum Lakshmi tolerated the muddied walls and shattered windows – not in vain though – as her precious offspring with his vicious off spin shattered landmark after landmark that existed in the ‘annals’ of the spinning ball.
Where Eagles Dare
His pockets dripping with schoolboy wickets, the dusky freak was awarded the much-coveted ‘Antonian Eagle’ in the year 1991. The teenaged assassin, twirled and twisted his little arm, this way and that, besides the Majestic Mahaweli river that cascaded past his little classroom, sweeping all before it to the sea…. whilst Murali had them all at sea – those schoolboy bats who dared to pad up to him.
Even at that tender age, Murali guaranteed ‘early showers’ for everyone with his freaky float and flight. It is the view of his schoolmates that Murali’s technique and style remained unchanged, from the ‘junior’ grades to the ‘Test’ arena. Firstly he would ‘fiddle’ a little with the field, walk back to his mark, tossing the ball from left wrist to right, licking his thumb, to bowl right-arm round the wicket, cutting across the umpire, teeth in a vicious snarl, eyeballs popping out of their sockets. Then the lovely loopy float and flight, for the ball to burst upon landing; pitching outside off and hitting leg stump – behind the hapless batter’s buttocks.
Snapping His Filament
As fate would have it the clean-limbed young Anthonian, at the heed of that redoubtable, ‘Officer And Gentleman’ – S. Skandakumar, followed the trail of success down to the valleys of Wanathamulla and its hallowed Cricket Club – the Tamil Union C and AC. Murali climbed into first class cricket like a cat climbing into an armchair; whereupon he reshaped the history of the spinning ball, with his grand concoction of off-spin, doosras, flippers and what not.
The glint of battle seemed to send sparks through his – oh so – intense eyes. Which takes us to his fielding. For the Anthonian under-12’s, he would field like a puppy fresh off a leash, oozing anticipation and dash – galloping around the ropes like a gazelle. His thousand megawatt smile would be snapped of its filament if ever a team mate carpeted a catch or gifted a run.
Wood Chopper’s Hook
Which brings us to his batting. The tailender’s arrival at the wicket was a moment of delightful anticipation, as he gawkily marched to the wicket, in a helmet seemingly ‘larger’ than the skull it held. Having vigorously ‘carved’ out his guard – outside leg stump when the pacies were operating – he would settle down to his two eyed stance, nervily fidgetting with his abdominal guard. Thence – an exaggerated back and across step – towards the safety of ‘square leg’ followed by fidgetty flicks all over the ‘shop’ to get his ‘eye’ in as it were.
Anything short would be dragged through the meadow, with his ‘slash of a hook’, stacked with a wood chopper’s elegance. With the passage of time he had learned to ‘place’ a couple of balls up on the rooftops and rafters. He then embodied the ‘art of carting’ it around as he bludgeoned, swatted, snicked and ‘smiled’ his way to 1256 entertaining Test runs with 67 not out against the Aussies as his pride and joy. Loads of deplorable footwork, pots of pluck and curious run getting shots, made up the recipe.
Dust And Disarray On Aussie Grass
Truly deplorable – the dust and disarray kicked up that December day on Aussie grass, as Aussie umpire Darrel Justin Hair ‘no balled’ our dusky freak for the sin of ‘bending’ his elbow more than was permissible. Following that landmark call – we were truly saddened by the revoltingly ugly jeer, that was orchestrated by well nigh 55,000 sourpuss Aussie fans – sadly citizens all – of a supposedly emerging ‘superpower’, and a ‘powerhouse’ in cricket rankings, baying for Murali’s blood. Amidst all the vicious barbs, our little spinner dwarfed the towering grandstands and the deafening rumpus – with his unassailable dignity and composure.
All the while – at the butt end of the crowd’s attack – Muttiah Muralitharan remained characteristically dignified and unruffled, against a sea of vicious vitriol, as the stunning drama unfolded, surely one of the ‘sorriest spectacles’ in the history of the game.
Where was the wicked plot hatched? Knives were surely out – and they were inches away from our precious spinner’s chest. Soon his heart and ribs were a sorry mess of bandages and electrodes – Biochemical Analysis or some such razzmatazz they called it – as the hounds bound him up for scrutiny. Success breeds resentment you see…. and Muralitharan was never short of success.
It was a particularly painful period for our young spinner. Mercifully unplugged and relieved of all the live wire, a beaming Murali emerged, triumphantly holding aloft his ‘All Clear Report’ to the utter glee of his beloved fans. The ‘B Report’ brought still more glee – to his devotees.
Ninety nine percent of the bowlers ‘tested’, seemingly bent their ‘ruddy’ elbows, above and beyond the 15 degrees permissible. Though mocked, maligned and humiliated – Muttiah Muralitharan never gave less than his ‘blistering best’ for his beloved Lankan cap – and there lay much of the charm of the man and his cricket.
English Bats For Supper
Following that despicable diversion, it was rich spin bowling history all the way – as the bouncy right-arm wrist spinner weaved his way to those 800 Test wickets in 133 Test Matches at 22.74. In 337 ODIs he scalped 660 batters at 23.07. Presently he’s on ‘top of the heap’ in both versions of the game. That ‘elite’ heap includes the likes of Gibbs, Benaud, Warne, Kumble Vettori, Laker, or just about anyone who ever spun a ball – come to think of it.
The tweaker sent down a socket-busting 150605 overs in a sum total of Test, ODI and First Class fixtures – missing a good chunk of the 2004 season though with a crippled bicep. Adding heaps of stature to those stats were his 678 catches in the said top-tier outings. In between the demolition of all those wickets, we remember the spinner bringing England – that ancient cricketing empire – to her knees, with a return of 17 for 118 at the London Oval – in the year 1998. Oh yes, he had those English batsmen, togged as they were in their egg and tomato hued sweaters – for supper. That effort stood supreme in my books. Besides which no need to plaster the page with further stats.
Such A Sense Of Humour
Murali was not all grit and gristle. He was a fierce competitor and good company afterwards – adding much humour to the dressing room. His ceaseless advice to top order batsmen on ‘batting technique’ was a matter of much mirth in the dressing room. The ‘legend’ would ‘natter’ away all day in the dugout, up until the post match ‘Medal Hanging Ceremony’ whence the mere sighting of Tony Greig’s rather lengthy shadow would shut him up for the evening.
There was then the occasion; whence playing for Lancashire he had the cheek to tell Flintoff – returning to the dugout after a sixth successive poor score – “ruddy cock shot Flintoff!” What? Andrew’s reply is not printable – Sorry.
It is said that at Lancashire – his adopted county Henry the Horse would put his head between the shafts of the roller as Murali walked into bat at number 11 – at the ready to roll the grass for the opposition innings. Tongue in the tonsils that! No offense meant kid – and besides which – Lancashire C.C. does own a ‘motor roller’ now.
Calling It Quits
On the 1st of July this year the charismatic ‘King of Spin’ from the Kandyan Kingdom – with his ‘circuit weary’ body seemingly crying for a break – summoned the press corps to call it quits from Tests. Historic Galle was surely worthy of the historic occasion; with the platforms and Dutch Fort plastered with enormous cutouts of the Ace from Kandy; the Galle Esplanade itself pavilioned and bedecked in such glorious splendour as Lanka took a deep and grateful bow to a priceless ‘Jewel’ in her cricketing crown.
A tiny tilt of the hat here to ‘Warnay’, our mercurial, maverick curator Jayananda Warnaweera. Thanks for the ‘sweat’ Jayananda as you take your ‘beloved esplanade’ to bed with you. Scripting his own farewell as it were, the ‘Legend’ crushed the Indians and took all the honours himself. ‘Twas crying time and the tears were for real – from the Palmyrahs of Point Pedro to the salterns of Hambantota. Murali truly ‘unified’ the utterly ‘polarized’ ethnic divide between the Tamils and the Sinhalese – with just a snap of his precious wrist.
Cricket apart you are a cut apart Murali, besides being one of the nicest human beings to have ever spun a cricket ball. No amount of barbs or brickbats from wooly thinking, bespectacled, turbaned, bespectacled, cross-eyed ‘has beens’ can dent your stature. They can only raise racial hackles and hatred at best.
Having headlined Lanka’s success in the Test arena for well nigh two decades, or more – the spunky spinner will spin for us in the ‘biff bang’ bash-ups for now, gearing no doubt to drive some World Cup batsmen to the madhouse. Strength to your precious shoulder then!
(The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener.)