Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Murali’s Greatest Hits of the Noughties

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

ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights - England v Sri Lanka

Two in two in the twilight
10 for 148 v Pakistan, Peshawar, 2000

One over of play left on the fourth day at Peshawar and a low-scoring match was delicately poised. A fiery Shoaib Akhtar had restricted Sri Lanka to 268 in their first innings and Pakistan had then slipped from 137 for 2 to 199 all out, with Murali the wrecker-in-chief. Thanks to Russell Arnold’s battling 99, Sri Lanka had set Pakistan a stiff victory target of 294, but at 220 for 6, the home side were very much in the game. Saeed Anwar was back at the crease after retiring hurt earlier in the innings and alongside him was Yousuf Youhana (now known as Mohammad Yousuf), who had counterattacked brilliantly, smashing three sixes and eight fours on his way to 88.

Enter Murali. Flighting the ball invitingly and generating massive turn off a slowing wicket, he trapped Yousuf leg before, before getting Waqar Younis to prod the very next ball to silly point. It took Sri Lanka just ten balls to finish off proceedings the next morning. Murali missed out on a hat-trick but did pick up the last wicket, sealing the match and the series.

Bat first, bat big, and let Murali do the rest
13 for 171 v South Africa, Galle, 2000

Sri Lanka have won 31 of 53 home Tests since the turn of the millennium. In most of those matches, they have relied on a simple formula: bat first, bat big, and let Murali do the rest. This plan has never worked better than in the first Test against Shaun Pollock’s South Africa in 2000. A trademark onslaught from Sanath Jayasuriya and a big hundred from Mahela Jayawardene took Sri Lanka to 522 all out. Spectators watched from the ramparts of the Galle Fort as Sri Lanka then employed their siege engine. Two days later, Murali had taken 13 for 171 from 76 overs and the tourists had been bowled out twice. Jayasuriya summed things up nicely: “Murali bowled very well and everything else just fell into place.”

These days captains often turn down the chance to enforce the follow on as they are worried about tiring out their bowlers. Sri Lankan skippers have had no such worries, even when temperatures on the island exceeded 35C. A spinner he may be, but Murali’s stamina – both physical and mental – is pretty much unprecedented.

Four in four
10 for 135 v West Indies, Kandy, 2001

For most bowlers, a ten-for is a career-defining moment. Murali, on the other hand, has dealt in multiples of ten. At Kandy in 2001, he completed his fourth consecutive ten-wicket haul. Many people remember this particular tour as “Brian Lara v Sri Lanka,” as the Trinidadian scored 688 runs in six innings and yet failed to stop Sri Lanka winning 3-0. In this, the decisive second Test, Lara fell to Murali in the first innings and an umpiring blunder in the second. Life after Brian was not pleasant for the visitors. Murali took 4 for 9 in 14 balls to clinch Sri Lanka’s first ever series win over the West Indies.

A duel won and a devastating dose of déjà vu
10 for 133 v England, Trent Bridge, 2006

Kevin Pietersen took the attack to Murali at Lord’s in 2006, famously switch-hitting him for six on the way to a superb century. Pietersen scored another crucial ton as England went 1-0 up at Edgbaston, though Murali gave the home side plenty of jitters as they chased down a small fourth innings target.

At Trent Bridge, Sri Lanka’s batsmen finally produced decent showings in both innings and set England 325 to win. Murali had taken already taken the first three wickets to fall when he ripped the heart out of England’s resistance in one sublime over. First, he won his personal duel with Pietersen, foxing him with a topspinner as he tried to charge down the track; KP found himself in quite a tangle and the ball bobbled up off pad and glove to Tillakaratne Dilshan at short leg. Next up was England’s acting captain Andrew Flintoff, who lasted just four balls. Murali ripped a doosra past the outside edge of the Lancastrian’s bat before tossing up an off-break that found the inside edge and lobbed straight to Dilshan once again.

Thereafter, the only question was whether Murali could take all ten wickets in the innings. In the end, he had to make do with 8 for 70, still the best ever figures at Trent Bridge. For England, it was a case of déjà vu. Their second loss to Sri Lanka on home soil had come in a similar manner to the first (at the Oval in 1998), courtesy of a Murali masterclass.

Filling his boots in Wellington
10 for 118 v New Zealand, Wellington, 2006

Sri Lanka’s batsmen had struggled on a green-top in Christchurch but coped much better with similarly seamer-friendly conditions at the Basin Reserve. Kumar Sangakkara scored an unbeaten 150 in their first innings before Chamara Silva repeated the feat in their second. In between, Lasith Malinga terrorised the Kiwis with a lethal mixture of bouncers and yorkers. By the third and fourth days, however, the pitch had slowed down, leaving it up to Murali to finish the job. That he did, and in some style. His 6 for 87 levelled the series and completed an incredible sequence of performances in the second half of 2006. He had taken 60 wickets in six matches, all against major opposition (England away, South Africa at home, New Zealand away), including another set of four consecutive ten-fors.

Bamboozling the best
11 for 110 v India, Sinhalese Sports Club, 2008

In the last 30 years, few spinners have genuinely troubled India’s batsmen, with the likes of Warne, Qadir, MacGill and Vettori all conceding around 50 runs per wicket against them. Murali has had to bowl more than 1100 overs at Indian batsmen in his career, 30% more than anyone else in history (60% more than Warne), and has averaged a very respectable 33.34. One of his very best spells came in a defeat at the Feroz Shah Kotla in 2005. His 5 for 23 on the second morning included the scalps of Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dhoni (to go with those of Dravid and Laxman, collected the previous day) and he single-handedly brought Sri Lanka back into that game. However, Sri Lanka failed to capitalise on Murali’s first innings heroics, just as they had done against Australia at Galle a year earlier.

At the S.S.C. in 2008, things were different, as Murali had top quality support* in the form of “mystery spinner” Ajantha Mendis. Far from feeling threatened by the hype surrounding Mendis’ debut, the 36-year-old veteran rose to the occasion magnificently. When India followed on, they promoted VVS Laxman to number three, no doubt hoping for a repeat of Eden Gardens 2001. Murali had other ideas. He followed up his five-for in the first innings with a magical 6 for 26 in the second. Perhaps the sweetest moment was the dismissal of Gautam Gambhir, who was stumped smartly by Prasanna Jayawardene when a fizzing off-break dipped late and darted past his attempted off-drive. India lost by the mammoth margin of an innings and 239 runs. While his apprentice stole the show later in the series, the sorcerer had certainly made his mark.

* It is unlikely that Murali would have bagged so many ten-fors if he had had to queue up to bowl after Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner. On the other hand, who is to say he would not have been even more prolific had he lined up alongside Glenn McGrath and a solid support cast that helped pile the pressure on opposition batsmen? After all, Murali’s two purplest patches coincided with Chaminda Vaas’ most successful year (2001) and the Lasith Malinga’s most potent period in Tests (2006).

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