In Murali’s Defence

Posted on November 11, 2010 by

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picture of the 'guard of honour' given to Mutt...

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Few cricketers of the modern era have polarised the game’s fans like Muttiah Muralitharan. Now that he has retired from tests, the consensus in the media seems to be that with 800 test wickets to his credit, his place in cricket’s hall of fame is secure; I agree with this. However, going by the reactions of my peers, it would appear that the divide in opinion also extends to judging the adequacy of his achievements. Leaving aside the doubts over the legality of his action and the challenges he’s had to face off the field, how “great” a bowler is he? And also, can performances against him be used as a frame of reference for evaluating batsmen of his time?

It was a discussion between two friends which got me thinking about this. It actually started off as a classic Sachin-versus-Lara debate, and progressed to the topic of how these two batsmen fared against the great bowlers of their era. The friend in Sachin’s corner (let’s call him SC) pointed out how Tendulkar had reduced Warne to admitting that the little master gave him nightmares. The one in Lara’s corner (LC) countered by saying that Lara’s lone vigil against the Lankans (effectively, Muralitharan) in the 2001 series was a masterclass in combating spin on the subcontinent, and nobody had dominated a slow bowler quite like Lara did Murali. SC initially responded by saying that although Lara played Murali better than anyone else, any left-hander with a good technique should be able to master Murali, which made it the lesser achievement. He then added – and this was where I took exception – that Murali should not be used as a bar for comparing batsmen, that it was unfair to use the “ability to play him” as a standardising tool.

SC cited the disparity between Murali’s records at home and abroad, the advantage he enjoyed from dustbowls at home, his apparent lack of success in Australia and against India, and how his record and reputation had been inflated by cheap wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, as some of his reasons. Now these views are shared by a lot of cricket followers I know personally, and I decided to take on these arguments:

Argument 1: Home advantage and all that

Designing tracks to the home team’s liking is all very well, but my belief is that it takes something quite special from a bowler to exploit favourable conditions on a regular basis. That Anil Kumble was a bigger matchwinner for India at home than Harbhajan Singh has been, is a case in point. Shane Warne was a master at getting the extra bounce at the Gabba to work in his favour. And so it is with Murali. Speaking of subcontinent conditions, it is worth noting that the doosra came about as a response to dead, batsman-friendly tracks and shorter boundaries which made things difficult for offspinners. Saqlain Mushtaq may have invented it, but it was Murali who fully embraced it as his main weapon. Which brings us to..

Argument 2: For an off-spinner, Murali has struggled against the better left-handers (such as Lara, Ganguly and Fleming). His doosra is ineffective against the southpaws.

Not completely true. Those batsmen were excellent players of spin and deserve credit for their success against Murali, but let’s consider Murali’s battles with another fine southpaw, Graham Thorpe, over the course of England’s tours in 2001 and 2003. With technical advice from Duncan Fletcher, the main man Thorpe was able to blunt Murali in 2001 as England famously won that series. As Murali’s stock delivery would pitch outside the leg stump and turn away from the left-hander, Thorpe was to benefit from pad-play and received much praise for this survival tactic. By the 2003 series, Murali had added the doosra in his armoury and suddenly such a tactic was fraught with danger; he dismissed Thorpe five times in six innings, and with England’s best batsman tamed, the result was reversed. The ability to overcome opposition over time with a sharp cricketing mind was one of Murali’s assets.

Argument 3: Too many wickets against the lesser sides

Sri Lanka hasn’t been invited abroad nearly as often as the other big sides, and have therefore played Bangladesh and Zimbabwe a lot more, home and away. Shane Warne, among others, subscribes to the view that Murali’s figures have been inflated by his rich hauls against these teams. But Warne himself played a lot of cricket initially against hapless batsmen from England, South Africa and New Zealand who had no clue on how to tackle quality legspin, and enjoyed great success. This didn’t count against him, so why the level of opposition should be held against Murali alone?

Argument 4: Performances abroad – how can we remember?

As regards my previous point: Okay, I’ll admit there is a certain difference in quality of the opposition in my comparison, so let’s examine Murali’s performances abroad and leave out Zimbabwe and Bangladesh for the sake of discussion. In 49 tests against the remaining sides, he has 252 wickets at an average 28.78. Ten of these tests were won by Sri Lanka, in which he took 85 wickets at 17.42; undeniably impressive, even if his overall stats make for better reading. And if you’re struggling to recall Murali ever weaving his magic abroad – apart from his 16 wickets at the Oval in 1998 – how about:

5-64, bowling Sri Lanka to their first test win abroad, Napier 1995

5-34, nearly setting up Sri Lanka’s first win in the West Indies at St.John’s 1997

6-39 in the drawn Durban test, 2000

8-70 to square the series, Nottingham 2006

6-87 to square the series, Wellington 2006

Argument 5: Performances against the best in the world

It is part of the deal that top players will ultimately be judged by how they fared against the best during their time. While Australia proved to be Murali’s Achilles heel (in their own backyard, that is), I’ll contend that he troubled the Indians far more than Warne ever did. Let’s leave the last words to Mukul Kesavan:

When Sri Lanka toured India in 2005, his bowling at the Feroz Shah Kotla was a revelation. He went around the wicket to the Indians and had them groping, reduced to reading him off the pitch because they couldn’t tell the doosra from the hand, beating the outside edge over and over again, as his wrong’un spat and turned like a leg break. He took 5 for 23 in one inspired spell, destroying the Indian top order. Sri Lanka lost that game, but his 7 for 100 bettered his 8 for 70 against England….at Trent Bridge, he conquered the clueless – Warne’s done that. But at Kotla, he bamboozled the best.

(Note: I’ve used comparisons with Warne for illustrative purposes, but otherwise I do not intend this to be a Murali-versus-Warne piece)

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Article by Suhas Cadambi