Murali Wonder

There is a lot going on in the world of international cricket at the moment but much of it is behind the scenes. Graeme Smith has been invited by the ICC to explain his call for a formal Test Championship, moves are afoot to formalise the ODI format of the game into something that people can recognise and there are high level (but low key) talks around a two or even three-tier Test format to allow ambitious nations like Ireland, Kenya and the Netherlands to have a hope of qualifying – even briefly – to play in the “Premiership” of Test nations.

More obvious and less ‘secret’ was the retirement in spectacular fashion of the incomparable Muttiah Muralitharan, the most prolific spinner of all time. He bowled more overs, spun it more and certainly smiled more than any spinner ever to have lived. OK fine, argue about it then. That’s my opinion.

Having spent 12 hours a day for the last couple of weeks working furiously with Mickey Arthur to finish the book on his five years as Proteas’ coach in time for the Christmas market, there has been just enough time to surface for air and appreciate what is happening in the rest of the world. Murali’s match-winning eight-for to win the first Test in Galle and finish with around 800 wickets is one of the happiest stories and most perfect endings of all time. If Murali had ended with 799 it wouldn’t quite have matched the Don’s batting average of 99.94 for tragic-comic irony, but it’s hard not to think that a greater cricketing force made sure everything ended up nice and neat. And great.

Things are still at a very rough stage with Arthur’s book and subject to editorial change and publisher’s whim, but at the risk of incurring their wrath, I cannot help sharing Arthur’s first draft recollection of the first Test in Colombo in one of his first series in charge of the Proteas. Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara had shared the world record stand of 624 in Sri Lanka’s total of 750-4 and South Africa batted a second time with a deficit of almost 600! “It wasn’t something too many of us had any prior experience of…” says Arthur with much wry amusement.

“Things started extremely well with an opening stand of 165 in 50 overs. Maybe, just maybe, we could bat for the rest of the match and save it! But Murali was in his element. He bowled over after over, 64 of them in total, and whatever we tried he just wouldn’t go away. When we attacked he backed off, and when we defended he set the field like a vice around us. And all the time he just smiled. Genius. Prince and Boucher both made good half-centuries to go with the openers’ efforts and we batted almost 160 overs before eventually losing by an innings. We made them work hard but eventually it was too high a mountain to climb.”

In the second Test, which Sri Lanka won by a single wicket in the most exciting and dramatic of circumstances, Arthur remembers things very differently: “We really took care of Murali in this Test. He could only manage five wickets in the first innings and in the second, with the pitch turning and bouncing appreciably, we restricted him to just seven…! On a serious note, however, it was a source of some satisfaction to me that the great man had needed to bowl 80 overs for his 12 wickets – and that we had managed to score 225 runs off him. But he was just too good. For all our plans and all our intentions, he was just too good. It would have made things easier to handle if he was a horrible person, but he isn’t. He’s a gentleman.”

Long live Murali. And may his detractors and critics smell of rotten fish for the rest of their lives – unless they, too, can bowl a doosra with an elbow bent by less than 15 degrees. Artists extend the boundaries of what was previously thought possible. It’s just that very few of them smile as much while they’re doing it.



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