Muttiah muralitharan has more than 1000 international wickets to his name and has played for Sri Lanka for 16 years. Yet, he still gets the jitters before every match. In a long conversation with the HT, Murali spoke about Mendis, pre-match nerves, and the unforgiving Indian media.
You are probably Sri Lanka's biggest celebrity and yet you seem so down-to-earth. How do you manage that?
You’re a celebrity only when you're playing cricket. Otherwise, we are all normal people. If you look at things that way, you’ll be normal. There are some aspects that you can't control, like people mobbing you. But if you keep a normal way of life, then there's no difficulty in being a celebrity.
One thing all players should understand is that they are in the public eye. On the field or off it, you have to earn the respect of people. Each one has to see how he needs to behave in order to earn that respect, and conduct himself accordingly. The media will follow you because people want to know what's happening with you. You, the media, your job is to write news. My job is to ensure that I don't give you anything controversial to write about!
When a youngster comes into the team, do you try and pass on this outlook?
There are things you can talk to people about, and things you can't. In our team, there is no gap between senior and juniors. I'm not saying this just for the sake of saying it; you can speak to the juniors. If they give us respect, we give them respect as well. It's not like the old days when a youngster came into the team and was scared of seniors. There are times when you can say something to a junior player, but how he takes it is up to him. You can talk to some people and you can't say anything to others.
Do you feel pressured by the constant scrutiny and dissection of what you do on and off the field?
When it comes to performance, I think the media is too hard on the Indian players. No player comes out to lose. Everyone tries hard, gives his best. There are always ups and downs in a player's career. No one's career graph is always climbing. Even Sachin will have a bit of a dip at some point. If someone doesn't perform in one or two matches, then people say he should be dropped, which is not good. If you fail in 10 matches and someone says you should be dropped, that is understandable because despite all the records, you can't live in the past. You have to look at the future. But just because someone is in his mid-30s and has failed in one match, you can't drop him.
The best example is Rahul Dravid. After he failed in one match, some people are saying he should be dropped. I can't understand that, he is a great player. People say you have to bring in younger players. Young players should deserve a place to start with, perform and then come and take an established player's place. They have to be better than the players they're replacing. Mendis has taken his place because he deserves it. Remember, we are all professionals. That means financial benefits as well. If people say they are playing just for the love of the game, it is not true.
Some say you're still very nervous before matches. Is that true?
There are always pressure and nerves before you go into a match. I still feel nervous before a game in the same manner as I felt before playing my first game. But once I bowl my first ball, I settle down. It's not that I don't sleep the night before a game, but there are nerves. Every performer has to have that little edge because you don't know whether things will go wrong or right on the day. If somebody says I don't feel nerves at all, he is lying. The only way you can have no nerves is if you don't care at about your performance, and if you're like that, then you can't be a good player.
You seem untouched by age, going on and on as though you're just beginning your career. How do you do this?
Age is no barrier. If you are fit and you're performing, then you can play on. If you eat sensibly, do the right fitness work and keep a proper balance, then you can be fit and perform. You can play even when you're past 40. Sanath Jayasuriya is 39 and he can play well past 40 because he is fit. People talk about eyesight failing or reflexes slowing down, but that is nonsense. If you are fit and doing the right work, you can perform.
When I have to bowl a lot of overs, I look at it as the captain giving me an opportunity. If I have to bowl 30-40 overs in a day, it's not a burden. I'd rather bowl all 90 overs if I can.
Did it feel strange that all the attention was on Mendis and not on you going into the first Test?
No, not really. Mendis has a lot of talent and will go on to take a lot of wickets. Of course, with time, people will get used to him, so then he will have to come up with something else to get the better of them. He will still take wickets, that's the talent God has given him and no one can take that away. I don't care where the media focus is. My only fear was that there would be too much hype or pressure on Mendis. Had he not performed in his first match, the media would have lashed out and dismissed him as an ordinary bowler. Luckily, he performed.