It would have taken a brave man to bet on a scrawny 20-year-old who made his debut in Colombo against Australia in 1992 to become one of the most important bowlers in cricket history. Muttiah Muralitharan started his career with unflattering figures of 3/141. The off-spinner’s rise was spectacular in the years ahead and he became one of the pillars behind Sri Lanka’s emergence as world-beaters in the second half of the 1990s.
Murali’s unorthodox action and ability to get prodigious turn, especially against the right-handers, meant that his wickets tally kept shooting up at an extraordinary pace. At home, he was near unplayable but nonetheless, was effective in foreign conditions too. Sri Lankan captains the Kandy-based tweaker has played with have highlighted his attitude and work rate behind his success. It was not uncommon to see Murali bowl forty overs or more in an innings. He could perform a holding role or be the main strike bowler. Very few batsmen of his time had worked him out and had consistent success.
Despite being a well-loved character across the world, controversies were never far away from Murali. He was twice called for chucking by umpires and had constant scrutiny over his bowling action throughout his career. That, though, didn’t deter Murali from scaling to the top of the bowling charts, finishing as the highest wicket-taker in the history of the game. He finished with exactly 800 wickets, a record unlikely to be beaten in the years to come. Here, take a look at some of his extraordinary numbers.
Murali picked up his first One-day International wicket against India (Pravin Amre) and the landmark 800th wicket also came against the same opponents with Pragyan Ojha being the victim. His rivalry against Australian great Shane Warne was also something that kept statisticians on their toes. While the two are bulwarks in their own right, Murali still finished comfortably on top, picking up more five and ten-wicket hauls than any other player. He has the second-best average among bowlers with 400 or more wickets to their name. He took an extraordinary 16 wickets against England in 1998, a match haul that sets him out from the rest. Former India captain Anil Kumble, though, has a ‘perfect 10’ but Murali has two nine wicket-hauls.
Top 10 wicket-takers in Test cricket
|M Muralitharan (ICC/SL)||1992-2010||133||800||9/51||16/220||22.72||2.47||55.0||67||22|
|SK Warne (AUS)||1992-2007||145||708||8/71||12/128||25.41||2.65||57.4||37||10|
|A Kumble (INDIA)||1990-2008||132||619||10/74||14/149||29.65||2.69||65.9||35||8|
|JM Anderson (ENG)||2003-2020||152||587||7/42||11/71||26.87||2.86||56.2||28||3|
|GD McGrath (AUS)||1993-2007||124||563||8/24||10/27||21.64||2.49||51.9||29||3|
|CA Walsh (WI)||1984-2001||132||519||7/37||13/55||24.44||2.53||57.8||22||3|
|SCJ Broad (ENG)||2007-2020||139||491||8/15||11/121||28.38||2.95||57.6||17||2|
|DW Steyn (SA)||2004-2019||93||439||7/51||11/60||22.95||3.24||42.3||26||5|
|N Kapil Dev (INDIA)||1978-1994||131||434||9/83||11/146||29.64||2.78||63.9||23||2|
|HMRKB Herath (SL)||1999-2018||93||433||9/127||14/184||28.07||2.80||60.0||34||9|
Murali’s bowling average kept dropping with every passing year. Even before Sri Lanka’s triumph in the 1996 World Cup, he had become his side’s all-time top wicket-taker. He switched gears towards the end of the 1990s with visiting batsmen increasingly looking clueless while facing him as Sri Lanka became increasingly dominant at home across formats.
Yes, there were pitches tailor-made to bring the best out of the spin wizard. The wicket-taking frenzy never stopped. Murali had six seasons where he bagged more than 50 wickets. In 2006 alone, he accounted for 90 wickets, which included five ten-wicket hauls. That dream run came to an end in 2009, his penultimate Test season, where he hit a lean patch.
There has been a hint of scrutiny over Murali not replicating his jaw-dropping feats in Sri Lanka in conditions that traditionally don’t suit spinners. Mind you, here was a spinner leading the line where top sides were operating with at least two good pacers in their ranks. Left-armer Chaminda Vaas was the only bowler who complimented Murali in the wickets column on a regular basis.
A fresh-faced Murali played a vital hand in Sri Lanka’s first Test win away from home – against New Zealand in Dunedin in 1995. The same year, he picked up 19 wickets in three matches as the Lankans wrapped up a series win in Pakistan. His best match haul, as discussed above, came on English soil at the Oval. Against Hansie Cronje’s formidable South African side, he earned a five-for in Centurion. India and Australia were the only countries where he failed to make a mark.
Murali was on the winning side 54 times in the 133 matches he played. Out of those games, he picked up a whopping 438 wickets at 16.18.
Home and away
In a foreign land
|in New Zealand||1995-2006||6||30||6/87||10/118||19.96||2.29||52.2||2||1|
|in South Africa||1998-2002||6||35||6/39||11/161||26.02||2.57||60.5||3||1|
|in Sri Lanka||1992-2010||73||493||9/51||13/115||19.56||2.30||50.8||45||15|
|in West Indies||1997-2008||6||37||5/34||8/106||23.00||2.71||50.8||4||0|
Just like Sir Don Bradman’s batting average, Murali’s record of 800 Test wickets might never be broken. Among active players, only England pacers James Anderson and Stuart Broad are close but with both bowlers entering the twilight of their careers, it is highly unlikely that they would go on to even challenge Warne’s tally of 708 wickets let alone come anywhere close to Murali.
A fellow spinner stands a better chance but even India’s Ravichandran Ashwin has some distance to go. The off-spinner currently has 365 wickets to his tally and is a Test specialist these days. Australia’s Nathan Lyon has 390 victims in his kitty but, more often than not, plays on surfaces that assist Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins more. At least on home soil.
With limited-overs cricket overshadowing Tests, workload management is the key for most teams preserving their best players for big-ticket events. That is where Murali stands out as an anomaly –
a freak of nature who conquered formats, playing conditions, of course, most wicket-taking records.