By Oliver Brett
It looked like a Test match that would attract only cursory interest in a calendar so bogged down with international fixtures.
But now Sri Lanka’s match against India in Galle starting on July 18 will be a very special one, bringing to an end the phenomenal test career of one of the finest bowlers the game has seen.
Should Muttiah Muralitharan take eight wickets in the match – and for a player with his record it is by no means a distant prospect – he will end with an extraordinary haul of 800 wickets.
With the volume of test cricket set to drop in the coming years, it is almost unthinkable that anyone will get close to that mark ever again.
Although the left-arm swing bowler Chaminda Vaas gave him valuable support for a while, for long periods of many test matches, Muralitharan carried the Sri Lankan attack on his own two shoulders.
At times, rumours were happily allowed to circulate by Muralitharan himself that the master off-spinner had developed a new delivery, one that this time no opposition batsman would be able to counter.
An exasperated Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, said before one series, that he would no longer worry about Murali’s variations because there was only a finite number of directions he could turn the ball.
But when I interviewed another former England skipper, Alec Stewart, a few hours after news of Muralitharan’s Test retirement had been broken by BBC Sinhala, the former Surrey man said the key issue was the amount of spin imparted.
“I could see which way the ball was spinning in the air, but you never knew how much it was going to turn; it could be a few inches or it could be a few feet,” said Stewart.
“Beyond that, there was always change of pace, degree of flight, and angle of delivery to consider as well. All the problems you normally face from a regular spinner are just exaggerated because of the amount of spin he can impart on the ball.
“Anyone who can spin the ball as much as he could – and he obviously spun it more than anyone else who has played the game – is going to take wickets.
“In a test match, he could bowl half the overs in the day, and was always developing his doosra (the ball that turns the “wrong way”, away from the right-hander).
“He performed at the highest level for a long, long time. He would get tired, because it’s hard work, but Sri Lanka built their bowling attack around him and with the stack of overs that he bowled, there came a stack of wickets.
“There will always be a question mark about his action. Some people say he bowls it, others say that what he does is illegal. But you can’t take away what he has achieved.”
The accusations of illegal ‘chucking’ that have dogged Muralitharan will never vanish, forming an indelible blot on his career.
But the man himself is such a pleasure to talk to, such a joy to see in action, and such an unbridled entertainer that it seems perverse to attach any notion of skulduggery to what he has done.
Without getting immersed in the technicalities, Muralitharan’s right arm has a congenital defect which means that it appears to bend more than it actually does when he bowls.
He has been filmed bowling in the nets with a brace strapped to his arm that allows for virtually no elbow flex.
It is not as though others are untouchable. When the International Cricket Council examined video footage of bowlers during the 2004 Champions Trophy they found that 99% of bowlers flexed their elbows to some extent.
From that point on, it raised the permitted thresh-hold to 15 degrees of elbow bend, and since then the subject has been less of a concern to players and administrators.
Replacing Muralitharan, who was also one of the most carefree and uncomplicated tail-end sloggers, a safe catcher in the deep and a deceptively dangerous fielder close in, will be difficult for Sri Lanka.
We are unlikely to see anyone with such an extraordinary hunger for Test wickets ever again. Muralitharan, the attack dog of spin bowlers, was never content to bide his time and wait for errors.
Fleeting appearances in the shorter formats will continue. He is likely to bow out of one-day internationals after next year’s World Cup, and may have a season or two left in the Indian Premier League.
But the sight of him relentlessly whirring away for over after over, hour by hour, in Test matches will soon be confined to archive video and our own, fabulous memories.
Courtesy BBC Sport
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