Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Murali’s Greatest Hits of the Noughties - Preview

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in July 2010)

In a few days’ time, Cricinfo will reveal whom their 60-strong panel of experts has selected as their Cricketer of the 2000s. Taking Test and ODI performances together (as the website appears to be doing), I would whittle the field down to a shortlist of three candidates – Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan and Jacques Kallis – whom I personally rate as the decade’s leading batsman, bowler and all-rounder, respectively. Cricinfo outlines the argument for each, and my hunch is that Ponting’s list of accomplishments as leader of the dominant team of the era will earn him top spot. Last week, he notched up a record-breaking 42nd win as a Test captain to go with victories in two World Cups and two Champions Trophies as an ODI skipper.

If separate prizes were awarded for each of game's formats, however, I would give the trophy for champion Test cricketer to Murali. The “Milestone Man” took one and a half times as many wickets as Makhaya Ntini, the next highest wicket-taker in the Noughties, at a McGrath-like average and Waqar-esque strike rate. As Cricinfo points out, he remains top of the pile even if “cheap” wickets taken against Zimbabwe* and Bangladesh are excluded. His astonishing 20 ten-wicket hauls in 84 matches include at least one against every Test-playing nation. He won more Man-of-the-Match and Man-of-the-Series awards than any other player and propelled Sri Lanka from close to the bottom of the Test rankings to within a series win of top spot. What is more, he achieved all this in the “Age of the Bat.” If “55 is the new 50” as far as batting averages are concerned, just how good is a bowling average of 23.48 against the top eight teams? To my mind, Murali was the decade’s greatest match-winner by some distance, as well as its “greatest joy-giver.”

Murali does not play for one of the three nations – India, England and Australia – that dominate cricket’s money-making and its mass media. He has not had the advantage of the stage provided by a “marquee series” like the Ashes or India-Australia to help him grab the world’s attention. In fact, he has never even been afforded a five Test series in which to showcase his mastery: the majority of Sri Lanka’s series since 2000 have been just two Tests long, and none in their history more than three. As such, his moments of magic – just as important as statistics and records when it comes to achieving sporting immortality – perhaps do not get as much attention as they should.

My next blog entry, therefore, will relive six moments that I believe were “Murali’s Greatest Hits of the Noughties.” On all of these occasions – three at home and three away, each against a different opponent – Murali took ten wickets, won a Man-of-the-Match/Series award and ensured that Sri Lanka emerged victorious.

* It is debatable whether the wickets Murali took against a Flower-powered pre-2003 Zimbabwe were really any cheaper than those harvested by Warne and McGrath in a succession of one-sided Ashes contests. It’s seldom mentioned that Murali has bagged 112 wickets in just 16 matches against England – seven per Test – while no other bowler has managed even six per Test against them over more than a couple of series. Had Murali been given the chance to take part in a biennial Pommie-bashing bonanza, he might well have passed the 900-wicket mark by now…

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