Murali – The real face of Sri Lankan Cricket

The legacy of Muttiah Muralitharan


‘Murali-or-Warne’ is a long-standing debate among the cricketing fraternity. But why could it not be ‘Bradman-or-Murali’? ‘Sachin-or-Murali’? Or even ‘Sanga-or-Murali’ in the context of Sri Lanka?

If you head to Cricket on Wikipedia, it begins with the oldest known facts about cricket and slowly works its way to the present. The first name of a professional cricketer mentioned is Sir Donald Bradman. With all due respect, the stalwart earned it. But will history be rewritten? Will a dark, owl-eyed, always smiling off-spinner from Kandy be mentioned in it for his incredible record, a record that would possibly never be broken?

These may be insane comparisons to make, given the difference in the eras and roles they played. But when will a bowler be given his glory?

Warne vs Murali | Who is the King of Spin?

Foregone is the conclusion that Cricket is batsman-friendly. A century is valued more than a fifer. Most islanders will drool over Sanath’s 340, Mahela’s 374, Sangakkara’s 314, or even Chandimal’s 100 at Lord’s. But how many of us remember Murali’s 9 for 65 at Kennington Oval when Sri Lanka slammed England in the one-off test it was granted? Can anyone name his 9 victims or describe the quality of that spell? 

If only we respect the bowlers; Murali’s 67 fifers in Tests would have stood out just like Sachin Tendulkar’s 51 centuries. In fact, in 67 matches less. 

Oh, wait! This argument could take another angle, what about the fearsome West Indian bowling as against the lords-all-mighty Brian Lara and Sir Viv?

“In my eyes, the guy (Murali) is a cricketing god up there with Sachin Tendulkar.” – Dean Jones

Murali is a very proud son of Sri Lanka, who had the entire world wrapped in his palm. Not by violence but, by smile. He dictated terms on the pitch and was an enigma right from the start of his career, from the minute Allan Border thought he was a leg spinner after facing him even before Murali made his Test debut. 

For Sri Lanka, Murali was more than just the greatest spinner to have played this sport. He is an emotion; he was a motive. Yes, it was a remarkable team effort that won the 1996 World Cup for Sri Lanka. But, Murali was the glue that held it together. 

Almost Centuries…

This exuberant off-spinner first entered the scene when he toured to England with the Sri Lanka ‘A’ side. He returned with no success, but subsequently baffled Allan Border’s Australians in a practice game and made his Test debut in the same series. The rest is history.

Before Murali’s arrival, Sri Lanka had played 38 Tests and had won just 2 of them. Since Murali’s debut, he had picked up 38.7% of overall wickets for Sri Lanka. He picks up a whopping 8+ wickets in a Sri Lankan win in Test cricket at an average of 16. No doubt, he was Sri Lanka’s greatest match-winner. But, that isn’t just why he is called the ‘greatest’. 

“the Don Bradman of bowlers” – Steve Waugh

During the early 90s, the Sri Lankans were passionate about their cricket but there wasn’t too much of a connection between players and the people until the infamous ‘No-ball’ incident happened in 1995. “Other than just the cricket, they didn’t have anything else beyond the game that really brought them and felt them personally attached to the cricketers.” says Kumar Sangakkara. “But, suddenly when Murali was called, he became, “Hey hold on, no one’s touching our star, no one’s touching our brother. We are going to gather around him and this is going to be us.” Not just the team, but the whole country suddenly embraced that one situation, that one player. And the entire focus was, ‘hold on, we were treated unfairly, Murali was treated unfairly.’ And this is the catalyst that really set the tone and set the road and the path towards winning a World Cup.” 

“I may not agree with Murali’s action or may have called all Murali wickets as run-outs, but I have the highest respect for him as a human being, a kind-hearted man.” – Bishan Bedi,  a long-standing detractor of the bent-elbowed icon

Murali showed the world a new way of fighting controversy and hate. He smiled through the hate, ‘shrud off’ discord, and bowed to all tests and scrutiny. For a man of so many words that Murali usually is, he remained silent through the controversies and allowed science to prove them wrong.  

Within the team, Murali was a bridge of hope and assurance. He was the live-wire of the dressing room, the support system for the new-comers. “He is the sort of guy you want in the dressing room, but sometimes you think: ‘Why is he in the dressing room – he won’t stop talking!’” Mahela Jayawardena writes on Espncricinfo. “When he exhausts us, he goes to see the opposition. He is the only player I have ever known who spends more time in the opponents’ dressing room than his own. You never sit next to him on an airplane because you won’t get any sleep. Lal, the masseur, has that job. But ask him to make a speech and you will be lucky to get 10 words.” 

Sangakkara on an Instagram live added “But, the guy has an absolute heart of gold, he’s such a humble man, he has no ego, so for a man who was revered in Sri Lanka, he always spent his time with the youngsters in the team, would be in the back of the bus, playing jokes with them. Talking to them as an equal, and that really helped to build the confidence of the youngsters.” 

“A captain’s dream, a coach’s nightmare” – Mahela Jayawardena

As Sanga mentioned, Murali was an extremely humble man. There is a story of him on one of Charlie Austin’s articles shared by the former head coach of Sri Lanka Chandika Hathurusinghe, who used to be Murali’s teammate at Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. He and Murali had stopped for a snack at a small café close to the Parliament grounds in Colombo. A young boy working in the shop asked for a signed photograph. Murali promised him one and left. The boy would probably not have expected him to remember, but Murali did. After cricket practice the following day, he got Chandika to take a detour to the shop and duly handed over the signed photograph. That’s the measure of our Murali.

Even today, he occasionally gets mobbed for photographs. Unlike most of the cricketers, Murali would stop and pose for all and sundry. On an occasion, much to my delight, I witnessed Murali busy with ‘queue management’ duties, picking up people who came first and posing for them and assuring everyone a turn. 

It is partially Murali’s fault that he is not celebrated enough. In a world where even a basic deed of kindness, mandatory from a human is being photographed and advertised, Murali never bothered himself with PR skills, technology or social media. It is said that his friends and teammates had to go through so much just to get him on WhatsApp.

“If people are praising you, you take it but keep quiet also. Don’t text, don’t Tweet, don’t use Facebook. Just leave it. The public doesn’t need to know what you do and what you eat. If you want to put your opinion about anything, have a press conference”. Quipped Mr. Unorthodox.

“You can cry so much but, at the end of the day, the decision will be made by the people. Just leave it and enjoy your cricket. Why are you playing? To enjoy yourself. Show your talent rather than show other things.” 

800 Test wickets, a fairytale end to the career, unimaginable level of will power and a countless number of records is not just why Murali is special to Sri Lanka. It is also the humility and kindness he showed towards his people. The higher he rose, the stronger he held his ground.

Murali has built over 1000 houses for the ones affected by the 2004 Tsunami and has done plenty of other services to this country. He is a doer, not a sayer and he has always stood in the gap between the Sinhalese and Tamils, an age-old division in the Isle of Sri Lanka. 

“To Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that death and taxes are the only certainties can now be added the eternal nature of Murali’s 800.”  – Guardian’s Mike Selvey.

This guy was a magician. He was the torchbearer of Sri Lankan cricket through a couple of decades shouldering a tremendous workload throughout his career defying the odds and made a mark of his own. Did his job and never expected glory in return. Unlike today’s players, he never demanded for leadership authority and happily played under cricketers who were his junior. 

He had no greed for achievement, not even for that 800 wickets. All he wanted was to just enjoy his cricket. It’s evident in the way he concluded his career. “800 is just a number and it will be forgotten, but I want to be remembered as a good human being.” 

According to Anantha Narayanan, a cricket analyst for Espncricinfo, there is probably less than a 1% chance that Murali’s record would ever be broken. He is the only Sri Lankan to be inducted into the hall of fame and his feats are the greatest across all sports in Sri Lanka.

The legend is by far the most illustrious sportsperson from the Isle. He inspired youngsters to embrace change, to get innovative, and break the norms. He has picked 5 wickets in every game on average. Well, that alone is a record that could stand par with Bradman’s average, which is a discussion for another time. Opinions could differ but after having read this and learned of all his qualities and achievements, you will agree when I say “Murali is the real face of Sri Lanka cricket” 

“He brought to the craft a new way of doing things, converting a finger-spinning exercise into a wrist-spinning one. He remains the symbol of a resurgent Sri Lanka, a talented side from its pre-Test days but one that needed a touch of iron to perform consistently.” – Writer Suresh Menon

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