Muttiah Muralitharan had more detractors than he merited, partly due to his bowling action that came under question on a few occasions during his career. But sporting a smile on his face the Sri Lankan spinner broke one record after another to leave little room for his critics.
Some still found ways to belittle his remarkable feat of 800 Test and 534 ODI wickets – the highest in both formats of the game – but history will remember Muralitharan as one of the greatest spin bowlers to ever grace game, if not the greatest ever.
His numbers have always made him stand apart from his peers. A closer look at his career trajectory will tell you how the spin wizard transformed himself after 1996, a landmark year for Sri Lankan cricket in more ways than one.
It was the year when his bowling action first came under the scanner in Australia during a match against West Indies, but the International Cricket Council cleared him.
Taking the setback into his stride, Muralitharan continued to pick wickets. In fact, after 1996 his career took off.
Till 1997, having played Test cricket for five years, Muralitharan had 95 wickets to his name. In the next two years alone, he added 108 more to his tally.
In ODIs, since making his debut in 1993, Muralitharan had 71 wickets till the end of 1996. In the next two years he accumulated 68 wickets.
Muralitharan's Test record till and after 1996
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Muralitharan's ODI record till and after 1996
|Matches||Wickets||Average strike rate||Average Bowling average|
His strike rate in ODIs improved significantly since 1996, as did his economy rate. In Test cricket, the graph was no different.
He had a fairly ordinary World Cup by his standards picking up just seven wickets, but his tight bowling in the middle overs created a lot of pressure on the opposition.
It was around the same time he was practicing the ‘doosra’, an off-spinners’ wrong’un that was invented by Pakistan spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that Muralitharan was able to perfect it and use it as a weapon. As things turned out, the Sri Lankan’s version of the doosra became one of the trickiest deliveries for batsmen to deal with in international cricket.
“On my first overseas tour of India in 1993, I was getting hit everywhere despite getting wickets. I went to Kapil Dev and he said you can turn as much as I don’t care, if you can’t bowl straight one, it’s not going to work,” Muralitharan told India Today in 2018.
“I saw Saqlain Mushtaq then and he was bowling the doosra and I didn’t understand and then I practiced and practiced and somehow I got my wrist in play. Nowadays people want to get more variations... each person’s grip is different and you have to adapt,” he added.
After perfecting the doosra, Muralitharan became an altogether different proposition for batsmen to face.
His best performance came in a solitary Test against England at The Oval in the same year when he bagged his career-best figures of 9/51. A run out in the second innings denied him a chance to take all ten wickets in an innings. Sri Lanka won the Test match with Muralitharan taking 17 wickets in the game.
Muralitharan retired with a total of 1341 international wickets to his name, 340 more than his closest competitor Shane Warne. He would look back fondly on the year 1996, not just for the World Cup win but also as a year that transformed him from a promising youngster to an all-time great.