After applauding and cheering him, it’s now time to hold back the welling tears and bid farewell to Muttiah Muralitharan. The world’s most successful bowler’s announcement on Tuesday, that his appearance in next week’s first Test against India in Galle would be his last in whites, evokes profound sadness.
And so it must. It’s not easy to say goodbye to any cricketer of legendary stature and Muralitharan was one of them. His astonishing achievements apart, the untold trauma he overcame just so that he may stay on the playing fields make his leaving especially poignant. All the magical skills he brought to the playing field will no doubt be missed. More touchingly, the game will have lost all those endearing ways about him that somehow, even in the tensest of moments, reminded us this was just a sport, reining in galloping emotions.
Whether Afridi bludgeoned him out of the ground or whether Lara misread his doosra and fell leg-before, whether the game was won or lost, he couldn’t help but smile, the same disarming, child-like smile which, in no small measure, portrayed Sri Lanka in finer light – a country modest in triumph and graceful in defeat. No smile gave the travel brochures’ description of Sri Lanka as the ‘Land of Smiles’ better meaning than Muralitharan’s.
Will still be around
Now that the smiling champion has decided to call it a day, will the smile go out of our cricket too? Before we mull over that prospect, it has to be remembered that, officially at least, the champion’s retirement is from Test cricket – which means, it’s not as if Muralitharan will disappear from the cricket field after the July 18-22 Galle Test.
He had never appointed a time for his retirement from test cricket, but had categorically stated more than once that he wants to be a part of the country’s 2011 World Cup campaign. The assumption, then, was he’d likely windup his career some time after the World Cup. But developments prior to last month’s Asia Cup final and his announcement of retirement from test cricket last week suggests a change of heart; a disinclination to play in the World Cup.
It makes sense for those aspiring to play in the 2011 event to try and take in as many one-day games as possible in the run-up months to the event. For Muralitharan, a test retiree, the compulsion is greater to be involved in just about any ODI from now till next February when the World Cup kicks-off. But he has made himself unavailable for the tri-nation, also featuring New Zealand, which follows the three-test series against India.
It is easy to discern that the man has lost interest in being part of world cricket’s premier event for a fifth time. And he said as much: “I have not given it thought yet (about the 2011 WC). I cannot say it is off my radar but I will think about this. After that I will say something about participating in the tournament.”
No such ambiguity, though, about his future in the IPL: “I want to continue playing till the franchise (Chennai Super Kings) needs me.”
Will play in IPL
It is not unusual for retirees to continue their remaining playing days in the lucrative IPL 20-20 tournament. Even so, should Muralitharan decide to opt out of the 2011 World Cup, it’s possible accusations would be made that he’s regarded national service secondary to doing duty for Chennai in the IPL. That, though, is a mischievous allegation, but then we live in a land that’s quite not free of people of mischievous intent – want proof? Take a walk down Buller’s Road and see the nasty shenanigans of politicians at the gates of the UN office.
Muralitharan has always taken pride in representing Sri Lanka, so that his seeming disinterest to figure in the World Cup is a tad surprising, especially as he had expressed eagerness to figure in the event. This much is fairly clear: the decision to retire from test and his second thoughts about playing in the World Cup were sudden – and begs the question, why?
Lest the issue becomes a full-blown controversy, it has to be said straightaway that the champion’s retirement had been imminent from some months before. Not only was he talking about retirement, on the field too, he, aged 38, was beginning to look a caricature of the 25-30 year-old he once was. The effects of a troubling groin were getting to be visible and frequent. He strived manfully, however; he wasn’t one who would want to give the team anything less than the others. But he was clearly tired, overworked and his mysteries unraveled. Success no longer came to him routinely.
Even so, his retirement last week seemed more precipitated than planned. It apparently was triggered prior to the Asia Cup final. On the day before, unconfirmed reports spoke of Muralitharan being left out of the final, followed by news of his retirement then and there. If true, then, his inclusion in the final and his retirement from test cricket last week probably was the outcome of a backroom deal. Legends, after all, can’t be allowed to leave the playing fields without ceremony.
It won’t be the same
So, will the smile go out of Sri Lanka cricket without the smiling champion? When a team loses the world’s most successful bowler, life, of course, won’t be same. He’s claimed over a 1,000 wickets in international cricket, a statistic that tells its own awesome story. It is not coincidental that Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup triumph, its rise to No.2 in the test rankings at the turn of the century, its 10 successive test wins and three of its four Asia Cup triumphs, were all achieved during Muralitharan’s 18-year career.
It would be wrong to say that this remarkable array of achievements was solely due to Muralitharan. Batsmen Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya played no small part in passing those milestones. But, then, Sri Lanka was never in short supply of capable batsmen, pre or post test eras. Bowlers who could help dismiss opponents twice in a test, however, were non existent – until Muralitharan came along in 1992: a golden period of Sri Lankan cricket was about to unfold.
There won’t be another Muralitharan, not at least in our lifetime. “It’s once in a 100 or 200 years that a cricketer like Murali comes along,’’ says skipper Kumar Sangakkara. So, the team will feel a sense of enormous loss without Muralitharan. After all, with each turn of his magical right arm, we have come to expect a falling wicket. That eternal hope his presence inspires will leave with him.
To fill his shoes is well near impossible; we thought Ajantha Mendis would, but the selectors’ faith in him is fast receding and has been benched more than a few times in his short career so far. Unless he finds ways to improve himself, like Murali did, Mendis’ international career could well be past tense.
To measure the worthiness of Muralitharan’s successor using the Murali-yardstick might be harsh, but setting the bar high isn’t a bad thing at all. That is the legacy Muralitharan leaves – and if eventually his successor is half as good as him, we’re talking about a bowler who would’ve claimed nearly 400 Test and over 200 ODI wickets, statistics that rank second to the master’s himself. Thank you, Murali for that legacy.