SRI Lanka haven't been playing international cricket all that long so it must be immensely gratifying for Muthiah Muralitharan to have joined the elite club of bowlers who have taken 300 Test wickets. There may be those like South African opener Gary Kirsten who question the value of this achievement in terms of Sri Lanka's win-loss record, but one can safely ignore such statements.
Muralitharan came into the Lankan team in 1992, at the age of 20, to play against the Australians in Galle. His returns in that game were modest - one for 32 and two for 109. In his next 57 Tests, he took a further 299 wickets, an excellent strike rate when one considers that only Dennis Lille has got to 300 faster. Lillee did it in 56 Tests.
Initially, there was nothing to really bother Muralitharan. Not until the Australians suddenly decided that his bowling action needed some inspection in 1995-96. The incidents that followed that year and again when Sri Lanka came to Australia in 1998-99 are too well to bear repeating.
But that shows Muralitharan's grit. Here was a man under an artificial cloud, one who had to fight the demons in his own mind, get out there and show that he could still bowl as well as he had before the incidents. His returns thereafter have driven home the point that he is a spinner supreme.
Muralitharan has a physically deformed right arm. The only person I can recall who had something wrong with his bowling arm was the legendary B.S. Chandrasekhar whose right arm was affected by polio. Chandrasekhar is on record as saying that he often did not know what he was going to bowl next as he did not have complete control over his right hand.
Muralitharan has complete control over what he bowls but his delivery appears grotesque and twisted due to the deformity. He can impart prodigious spin to the ball but that is nothing new; there have been others who have been able to turn the ball as much, Stuart MacGill of Australia being only the most recent example. On a helpful wicket he is deadly, on an unresponsive surface he plugs away, sometimes with not the best reward to show.
Basically, one thing that has not helped Muralitharan has been the fact that he is a simple person, quite untouched by the fame he has achieved in Sri Lanka. He is not the hard, so-called professional type. He still retains an impish grin and is prone to get flustered at times - I still remember the time when he and his partner ran the winning run in a one-dayer in Australia and Muralitharan held up his hand to his partner to stop him from taking a second run (something the chap wasn't even dreaming about), despite the fact that Lanka had won the game! This was in a game where Ross Emerson, an Australian umpire who was on leave for reasons relating to stress, called Muralitharan for throwing.
Kirsten's churlish comment that Muralitharan's wickets have often been in a losing cause is factually correct. So is the comment that as he is the main strike bowler in the team, and often the only one, he gets to bowl long spells. However, if one allows a bowler like Nixon McLean to bowl 40 overs per innings, I doubt very much that he would get even half the wickets that Muralitharan does. That argument, thus, does not hold up very well; Michael Holding often did not need even 15 overs to run through a team.
Muralitharan took 27 Tests to reach his 100 wickets, another 15 to reach 200 and a further 16 to reach 300. He has faced the hurdle of often having to hunt alone for wickets with not much support at the other end. Additionally, on quite a few occasions, he has had just one innings to get wickets; on others, it has been one innings and a bit, given that Sri Lanka have lost many of the Tests they have played. And quite often that one innings has been when the wicket is new; spinners do much better when they have a worn surface on which to ply their wares. But he has persevered despite the odds.
Muralitharan matured at a time when spinners started having a little more influence in the game compared to the period from the mid-70s to the mid-90s when pace bowlers were emerging from many countries as though they were being manufactured on an assembly line. After the late '60s and early 70s, when there were good spinners around in the shape of Bedi, Prasanna, Venkat, Chandra, Underwood, Illingworth, Gleeson, Mallett, Gibbs et al, for nearly 20 years there was only the isolated quality spinner like Abdul Qadir around.
Not much has been written about the strain which Muralitharan would probably have been under during the early part of his career - he was the only Tamil in the team. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has left festering wounds which have led to a divide between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. And thus it is but natural to assume that such divisions extend to the field of sport, much as people try to make out that politics and sport do not mix. In this respect, Muralitharan has been greatly helped by Arjuna Ranatunge who has been a strong captain and one who was never loath to take up for him; during that troublesome period in Australia, Ranatunge's support was vital in helping the spinner handle the pressure.
But then Muralitharan is not the only bowler to face such a campaign. It is pertinent to remember here that there have been campaigns in times gone by to try and rein in cricketing nations which were gaining ascendancy in the game. It has happened with the West Indies and more than one writer has detailed how the cricket establishment repeatedly changed the laws of the game when the West Indies were threatening to dominate.
The first time in the 1950s, when Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were bamboozling the opposition, the front-foot lbw law was changed. Not many seasons after that, at Edgbaston, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May used their pads to negate everything which the two spinners could throw at them in a partnership of 411. The spin twins never recovered from this.
The next time the West Indies threatened to dominate was in the 1960s and Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith were the instruments. A campaign began to label Griffith a chucker (Richie Benaud was in the forefront); it succeeded to some extent but did not daunt the fierce Barbadian. Then the front foot no-ball rule was introduced. The pair were reined in.
The last time the cricketing authorities attempted to rein in the West Indies, their success was limited. Clive Lloyd's four-man pace battery had started its triumphant run and the question of bouncers was raised. Mind you, it had never been a bother when John Snow and David Brown were running amuck, nor when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were causing havoc in the ranks of opposing teams. This time, the move met with limited success. By this time, of course, the other cricket-playing nations were not mere pushovers; they had much more of a voice in matters than they had had during earlier eras.
But back to Muralitharan. He has successfully fought against and overcome the obstacles that were put in his path earlier on in his career. At 28, he has at least seven or eight years of international cricket left; spinners generally last longer in the game than fast bowlers. Which means that he may well be the one who challenges the record of being the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket. More strength to his arm.