On Muttiah Muralitharan’s 49th birthday, we look back on some of the greatest moments in his career.
Muttiah Muralitharan’s first taste of international cricket came at the Premadasa in Colombo.
Only 20 years old, he lined up against Allan Border’s Australia. So beguiling was the off-spinner that in a tour match that preceded the Test series, Border had been left swearing Muralitharan was a leg-spinner. And this was before he had the doosra in his arsenal.
It was a quiet start for the Sri Lankan wizard, taking three wickets for the Test. His lone wicket in the first innings was that of Craig McDermott. No one could have foreseen that was the first of 800 he would claim in his Test career.
STARRING IN A HISTORIC WIN
Sri Lanka won an overseas Test for the first time in 1995, beating New Zealand in Napier by 241 runs, with two future greats at the heart of the victory.
Chaminda Vaas took 5/47 to bowl New Zealand out for 109 in their first innings and backed it up with 5/43 in their second. But the seamer was not alone in his dismantling of the hosts, with Muralitharan taking 5/64 as New Zealand was bowled out for 185.
They were crucial wickets too, with the offie accounting for five of New Zealand’s top seven. He removed Bryan Young early but the Kiwis’ pursuit of 427 was looking a distinct possibility as they reached 108/1.
Muralitharan turned the match on its head from there, accounting for Mark Greatbatch, Stephen Fleming, Shane Thomson, and Adam Parore.
WINNING THE WORLD CUP
Twenty-five years on it remains the most iconic moment in Sri Lanka’s cricket history – their ICC Men's Cricket World Cup victory in 1996.
Rank underdogs going into the tournament, Sri Lanka went on to beat one of the favourites in the final, defeating Australia by seven wickets as Muralitharan took an economic 1/31 off his 10 overs. He was one of only two Sri Lankans to leak less than five-runs-an-over for the match.
It was the kind of frugality Muralitharan stood out for throughout the tournament, with his economy of 3.77 the fifth-best of anyone who took more than five wickets at the event.
He took seven wickets for the campaign and went on to finish his career with 68 at 19.63 in World Cup matches. Only Glenn McGrath (71 at 18.19) has taken more.
STUNNING ENGLAND IN 1998
Sri Lanka unabashedly hung their entire game plan against England on Muralitharan in 1998.
Playing a one-off Test at the Oval, Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga surprised everyone when he elected to bowl first after winning the toss. Knowing Muralitharan was their best chance of bowling England out twice, Sri Lanka wanted to give him as much time as possible and were wary of needing to employ the follow-on, which would rob him of the chance to rest between innings.
He went on to bowl 113.5 overs for the match – the most by any bowler since 1962 and a mark that has not been eclipsed since.
More importantly for Sri Lanka, they were fruitful overs too with Muralitharan taking 16/220 for the match – the fifth-best Test figures of all time.
In the first innings, he won the battle of patience, taking 7/155 from 59.3 overs as England were bowled out for 445. In England’s second innings, he was a one-man wrecking-ball, claiming 9/65 to bowl the hosts out for 181 and set up a simple 36-run chase for Sri Lanka.
The lone wicket he missed out on was Alec Stewart, who was run out for 32.
As it turned out, 1998 would be a breakout year for the spinner, who claimed 68 Test wickets at 18.47.
“Muralitharan is not merely a top-class bowler,” Ranatunga was quoted on his return to Sri Lanka from England. “He is an unbelievable bowler who is found one in 100 years or so. It was important that we had him on our side and we needed him to get wickets and he provided us the results.”
ODI HISTORY AGAINST INDIA
Taking on an impressive Indian outfit at Sharjah in 2000, Muralitharan set a new record for the best-ever figures in a men’s ODI.
The Sri Lankan ran riot on his way to figures of 7/30 from his 10 overs, striking every time the Indians just started to get into a groove.
His first wicket, of Robin Singh, ended a 75-run stand. His second, of Sachin Tendulkar, removed the Indian maestro for 61. He went on to dismiss Vinod Kambli (10), Hemang Badani (42) and Vijay Dahiya (40) after they all made starts, with Yuvraj Singh (7) and Sunil Joshi (3) rounding out the seven-for.
The record only stood for a little more than a year, with compatriot Chaminda Vaas (8/19) setting a new benchmark against Zimbabwe in December 2001.
ALMOST BREAKING LAKER’S RECORD
Less than two years after his ODI record-setting performance against India, he came agonisingly close to breaking the record for the best figures in a Test match.
Jim Laker’s figures of 10/53 against Australia have stood as the benchmark since 1956. Muralitharan came within one wicket of ending Laker’s reign.
He struck with just his second ball of the match to remove Trevor Gripper and had four wickets in his first seven overs. By the time he dismissed Grant Flower for his ninth wicket he had only leaked 47 runs.
Alas, it was not to be as Vaas found Henry Olonga’s edge to end Zimbabwe’s innings and leave Muralitharan with the bittersweet haul of 9/51.
In the next match, he would pick up another nine wickets to take his Test tally past 400. He reached the landmark in just 72 Tests – quicker than any player ever has.
TOPPLING WALSH – 2004
Muralitharan took only another 15 matches to take his 500th Test wicket, removing Michael Kasprowicz at his home ground in Kandy to get there.
He was the third bowler to the 500-wicket mark following Courtney Walsh in 2001 and Shane Warne, who beat Muralitharan to the milestone just a match earlier.
However, Muralitharan still set the record for the fewest Tests to 500 wickets, racing there in just 87 matches. He is the only bowler to have taken 500 wickets in fewer than 100 Tests.
Two matches later he became Test cricket’s greatest ever wicket-taker for the first time in his career, going past Walsh’s 519 poles in a match against Zimbabwe at Harare.
He was mobbed by fans on his return home.
"I'm very happy to have achieved this record for the country," he said. "It's a huge honour and I am very grateful for all the support I have received. Everyone has done so much for me."
STUNNING ENGLAND AGAIN
Eight years after inspiring a famous victory for Sri Lanka in England, Muralitharan did it again in 2006.
Chasing 325 to win at Trent Bridge, England had enjoyed a solid start thanks to Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss. The pair had put on 84 runs when Muralitharan produced the breakthrough, bowling Trescothick through the gate for 31.
He went on to take each of the next six wickets and looked on course to take all 10 until Matthew Hoggard was run out. As things turned out, he would finish with figures of 8/70 in a 134-run victory.
"That was probably one of his best performances," a nonchalant Mahela Jayawardene said after the match. "But there have been quite a few. He does this on quite a regular basis, so it's probably in his top ten or whatever."
GOING PAST WARNE
Muralitharan reclaimed the record for the most Test wickets in his 116th match when he bowled Paul Collingwood with a doosra. Fittingly, he did so at his home ground of Kandy.
The spinner had gone to bed the previous night tied with Warne on 708 Test wickets and was forced to wait for the milestone moment by some inclement weather in his hometown. But the wait did little to dampen the mood when he finally got there.
"Congratulations to Murali - he's been a wonderful player for a long period of time," a now-retired Warne said of the achievement.
"He's an excellent competitor and has been great for Sri Lankan cricket. He's a great bloke too. He'll probably go on and get 1000 now but today I'd just like to say 'well done on the record'."
LIFTING SRI LANKA TO ANOTHER WORLD CUP FINAL
Muralitharan excelled in every World Cup he played in but his most fruitful tournament was the 2007 edition in the Caribbean, where Sri Lanka reached the final for the first time since 1996.
The veteran took 23 wickets at 15.26 for the campaign, leaking just 4.14 runs an over and striking every 22 deliveries.
He loomed as the dangerman for Australia in the final, going into it in hot form after taking back-to-back four-wicket hauls, including 4/31 in the semi against New Zealand.
Muralitharan was a key part of the attack when Sri Lanka beat Australia in the ’96 final. This time around, however, the Australians would finish the victors.
Muralitharan became just the second bowler ever to take 500 ODI wickets in 2009, joining Wasim Akram in a club that still only features two players.
Fittingly, the 500th wicket came against Pakistan as well.
Four matches later, he went past Akram’s record of 502 when he drew an edge from India’s Gautam Gambhir.
To his credit, Akram could not have been happier for the Sri Lankan.
"I noticed his progress in 2003 and realised he was the only man who could break my record," he told AFP at the time. "At times I jokingly told him not to play one-day cricket, so that my record would remain intact, but he is relentless in taking wickets. I am happy that a bowler of his calibre has broken my record.
"No matter what type of surface he has played on, no matter in which country, and against which team...he is simply great and more than a good bowler, he is a good human being."
A FITTING FINALE
Playing his 133rd and final Test, Muralitharan signed off from the red-ball game in style at Galle in 2010 against India.
Heading into the match on 792 Test wickets, his hopes of becoming the first bowler to ever take 800 Test wickets looked slim but if there was anyone who could do it, it was him.
It took until day three for him to take his first wicket, trapping Sachin Tendulkar in front, and it was only on day four that he took his second, bowling MS Dhoni through the gate with a delivery that turned in sharply. But from there, things started to happen quickly as Muralitharan took 5/63 in India’s first innings and Kumar Sangakkara enforced the follow-on.
He took Test wicket No.798 with the final ball of day four, removing Yuvraj Singh and took wicket 799 early on day five when he trapped Harbhajan Singh in front. But his hopes of taking his 800th wicket were dealt a blow when Lasith Malinga knocked over Abhimanyu Mithun and Angelo Mathews ran out VVS Laxman to leave India nine down.
For 15 overs they would be nine down as every bowler not named ‘Muttiah’ bowled conservative lines outside off waiting for a man they had all idolised growing up to have his moment. Finally, on the 44,035th and last legal delivery of his Test career, Muralitharan struck, drawing an edge from Pragyan Ojha to bow out of the format with 800 wickets at 22.72.
FAREWELLING SRI LANKA IN STYLE
Muralitharan’s last home match for Sri Lanka was in the semi-finals of the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2011, taking on New Zealand for a spot in the decider.
He took 2/42 in the match and, just as he had in his final Test, struck with his last ball of international cricket on home soil, trapping Scott Styris in front in the 47th over.
Sri Lanka went on to win the match and while the final would not be a fairy tale result for Muralitharan, he at least got to enjoy a triumphant lap of honour at the Premadasa after the semi – the same ground he made his international debut on fourteen years earlier.
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION
Six years on from his final international match, Muralitharan became the first Sri Lankan player to be inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame, during the Champions Trophy in England.
With 800 Test wickets at 22.72 and 534 ODI wickets at 23.08, it was always a case of when not if.
“It is a moment of great pride and honour to be receiving this award, especially from the ICC which is the ultimate any cricketer can aspire to achieve,” he said. “The induction during this prestigious ICC Champions Trophy makes it even more remarkable.
“I thank the ICC for making this possible because this is a moment I will cherish throughout life.”