By Hafiz Marikar
Everyone speaks about Murali these days, but this is all about how he started cricket at St. Anthony’s College Katugastota. Muttiah Muralitharan learnt his cricket in Kandy. Though he lived at Kundasale, just a few minutes from St. Anthony’s, he was boarded at school. In 2004 when Murali broke the record, his first coach Sunil Fernando, who has been a friend of mine for a long time saw me at a rugger match and came up to me and said, Mariks, you are one person who has backed Murali in the print media from the day he started playing senior cricket. Let me tell you how it all began…
Here is Sunil’s story of how he picked Murali to play cricket.
One day, when he was passing the junior school grounds, there had been three boarders playing softball cricket, Sunil had watched them for a few minutes, and seen Murali, taking long steps and bowling. At that time Murali was just ten years of age. Sunil had walked up to Murali and told him son, why don’t you come for cricket practices? He had replied, Sir, I will ask my mother.
During that time Sunil held his cricket classes in his home garden and was coaching young players to play good cricket.
A few days later Murali’s mother had come and told Sunil, Sir please coach my son to play cricket.
From that day Sunil had taken care of Murali. Since he was small in build at the time, he was not able to play for the school team but he had played for Sunil Fernando’s under 11 team and played matches in Bandarawela, Kurunegala, Negombo and Colombo.
Then in 1983 Murali got the big break – he played for the under 13 team as an all rounder recalls Sunil. In the under 13 Division III final, against St. Joseph’s College Darley Road, Murali – had been the match winner, facing the last ball of the game, where the Antonians needed four runs to win, Murali hammered a six to long off and the Katugastota boys became the champions. At that time Murali had been bowling pace.
When Murali came up to under 15 he had fine-tuned his act. It is said that Sunil Fernando had a habit of going to the school tuck-shop during the interval and through the tuck-shop window watch the boys playing cricket at the Katugastota grounds. He had seen three chaps, bowling very fast, that was Asela Herath, Ashan Buran and S. Karunaratne, and Sunil had called them up and asked them their age. At the time all three were 14 years of age, and he had wanted them to come for practices.
Murali who was already at practices was told by Sunil, now I have got three fast bowlers, why don’t you bowl off cutters. And in the very next game against Maliyadeva College, Murali had taken five wickets to his joy.
Sunil had noticed Murali was good in turning the ball and told him to keep bowling off spin. From then on there was no looking back as the wickets kept coming. This is how Murali became an off spinner. Later when he played for the under 17 team he was an accomplished spin bowler.
Murali, during his school days, was keen on rugger, but he had to give it up due to his commitment to cricket. While he was playing for the under 17 team he had been knocking on the lst XI door during Damian Nadaraja’s captaincy. Murali in following year too was trying his best to make it to the team, but coach T.K. Hannan was not in favor. However, soon enough he made it to the squad. In 1989, the Antonians had an excellent side, where in the previous year they won seven out of 15 games, including six in a row.
The 1989 season was the second year for Murali in the senior team. In the third term Antonians play Zahira, Vidyartha, Maliyadeva, St.Annes, D.S. Senanayake, Thurstan and Wesley.
Then came the first match in the first term, where the Antonians were to play Kingswood. For this match their coach T.K. Hannan was told to rest by the doctor and then Principal/Rector Rev. Fr. Stephen Abraham told junior coach Sunil Fernando to take over the senior side. As all the senior players were Sunil’s products, he knew the ins and outs of them, and it was a good day for Murali.
Sunil, had picked Murali to play against Kingswood, which game was played on the 6th and 7th of January at Katugastota. Some of the senior players in the side were Piyal Wijetunga, Sanjeewa Naranpanawa, Sumedha Arawawella, Ruwan Kalpage (Capt), Suresh de Alwis (Vice Capt), Daminda Kolugolla, Nuwan Kalpage, Asela Herath, Asanka Ratnaweera, and Shanka Herath.
So, in this first senior game of Murali, Kingswoodians taking first lease of the wicket were rattled out for 99 runs, with Murali pocketing 3 for 9. Antonians in reply made 204 runs for the loss of 5 wickets, Sumedha Arawawella made 49 and skipper Ruwan Kalpage 60. Kingswoodians in their second innings were all out for 111. Antonians needing 7 runs to win scored 11 for no wicket and beat Kingswood by 9 wickets. So, this was the first senior game for Murali, where he had a match bag of 8 for 22.
Then in the big match, against their arch rivals Trinity in the first innings Murali had 2 for 32 in 14 overs out of which 4 were maidens, and also scored 6 runs.
In the following year Murali was in top form and played under Suresh de Alwis, with team mates Sanjeewa Naranpanawa, Nuwan Kalpage, Sajith Fernando, Amedha Ellepola. Murali was now a third year player, and in that season he did extremely well in bowling, and half way into the season he had bagged 60 wickets, with figures of 5/21 and 3/35 against Vidyartha, 4/8 vs St. Annes, 8/28 vs D.S. Senanayake, 5/20 vs Thurstan, 5/128 vs Maliyadeva, 7/37 and 6/73 vs Zahira, 6/53 vs St. Sylvester’s and 4/82 vs Kingswood.
Murali was the most improved player of that season and was the pick of the bowlers. In addition he had the added responsibility of batting higher up in the order. In the same season against St. Sebastians he had 3/38 and 3/40, 4/45 and 6/27 vs St. Peters, 4/50 vs St. Joseph’s, 1/21 and 6/19 vs Trinity which helped them to cruise to an innings win. With this haul he ended up with 105 wickets for the season, surpassing L.V. Jayaweera’s 100 wickets in 1920. In the one day against Trinity he had 4 wickets and the haul went up to 109 wickets.
In that season, in batting he made 22 vs Vidyartha, 21 vs D.S. Senanayake, 14 vs Maliyadeva, 44 vs Zahira, 11 vs St. Sylvester’s, 38 not out and 14 vs Dharmaraja.
In his last year for the school, under Nuwan Kalpage, that was the year the Antonians ended up as the All Island best team and was coached by Sunil Wickremanayake, with Sunil Fernando giving a helping hand. That year they had players like Daminda Kolugola, Amedha Ellepola, Sajith Fernando, Asela Herath, Jerome Speldewinde, Mohamed Ajaz. That 1991 season Murali ended up with 127 wickers, a second century of wickets. In that season it was Amedha Ellepola who was behind the stumps and had 89 victims, out of which 40 were off Murali’s bowling.
His first club was Kandy Cricket Club, where he played a game against Negombo. From there he crossed over to Tamil Union, for which club he still plays.
So, the man who discovered Murali at school level is none other than Sunil Fernando and also the principal of that time, Rev.
Fr. Stephen Abraham who motivated and supported the budding cricketer.Bowlers are like flowers, they need to be well nurtured. So, Murali was nurtured the correct way and he went on to become the world’s greatest bowler.
Murali, born to Sinnasamy Muttiah and Lakshmi, has three brothers — Sridaran, Sasidaran and Prabakaran. Murali, ever the simple guy with an ever smiling face, is married to Madi Malar and is blessed with a son, Naven.