One good turn deserves another. A truly devilish turn on the cricket pitch, however, can only come from a handful of great spin bowlers. Of this bunch, the greatest ever is Muttiah Muralitharan, who retired from Test cricket yesterday with an end that could only have been scripted by the Great Spinner In The Sky. Muralitharan’s landmark 800th wicket came a few seconds after the ball flew from his whirling right palm — for the 371st time in the Galle Test match against India — and turned before seducing Pragyan Ojha’s bat. The last ball of his Test career fittingly got him a wicket and stayed a quiverful of arrows that have been flying since a 20-year-old made his debut on August 28, 1992 against Australia.
The signs of genius became evident in Murali’s very first Test match when one of his deliveries landed some two feet outside the off stump making batsman Tom Moody naturally ‘leave’ the ball. What no one reckoned for was the ball to turn sharper than a hairpin bend and knock Moody’s leg stump back and get Murali’s second wicket in his Test career. What followed, for 17 years and ten months, was one man making the laws of Newtonian physics play according to the rules of his wrist.
But being the highest wicket-taker in Test and One-Day cricket didn’t come without obstacles. As cricket’s first ‘wrist’n’shoulder off-spinner’, Murali was accused of ‘chucking’. The infamous Test match against Australia in 1995, where umpire Darrell Hair kept ‘no-balling’ Murali for ‘chucking’, led to the International Cricket Council conducting biomechanical analyses on Murali’s arm action. The conclusion: his bowling action was legit. Any other cricketer would have broken under such extraneous pressure. Murali just moved on — three years later scalping 16 wickets for 220 runs against England in England, bowling one of cricket’s most incredible bowling spells: 54.2 overs in the second innings that claimed 9 wickets for 65 runs. He broke the record for highest wicket-taker twice, first crossing Courtney Walsh’s 519 Test wickets in 2004 and then Shane Warne’s 708.
As cricket in its various forms becomes increasingly batsmen-centric, the Test remaining the only format for an evenly balanced battle between ball and bat, it’s a testament to Murali’s genius that he has been not only the finest bowler the game has ever produced, but its finest player too. The records are just a confirmatory spin on the Muttiah Muralitharan story.