Muttiah Muralitharan should have every reason to believe he is the best bowler in the history of cricket. By the time he retired, after this year’s World Cup Final defeat against India, the off‑spinner had 800 Test wickets and 534 one-day international scalps.
But, when we meet at Grosvenor House where the 39-year-old Sri Lankan is receiving the Outstanding Achievement in Sport honour at the Asian Awards, he insists the facts and figures do not equate to greatness.
“I never really feel that I’m the greatest bowler in the game,” he tells me. “Statistics-wise I may be the greatest but I have seen so many great bowlers, great spinners over the years. Shane Warne is one of the greats and it’s good for the game that he took a lot of wickets [708 in Tests, 293 in one-day internationals] and was part of the winning Australian sides. He was a great ambassador for world cricket.”
This tribute to the man who was Murali’s great challenger as the king of world spin over the last two decades is both generous and genuine and is delivered very much in the style of Murali’s bowling. Just as batsmen found it difficult to squeeze runs off him, Murali hardly wastes a word, but what he says is very direct.
So, when I ask him about Graeme Swann, perhaps the best spinner in the world at the moment, Murali says: “He started very late. He has a long way to go. I’m not going to put him in Shane Warne’s category, but he’s a good bowler.
“England are a good team. But the best team in the world? That is difficult to say unless they go and beat people in other people’s own backyards.”
That challenge will come when England go to Murali’s homeland in March for two Tests. England beat Sri Lanka here early in the summer before going on to whitewash India but their greatest cricketing son is not despondent about his countrymen’s prospects.
“India looked a poor side,” he insists. “Sri Lanka weren’t poor. We lost only one Test, almost won the one-day cricket and won the Twenty20 match, so I think we did fairly well.”
The sentiments sum up the man who feels deeply for his country. His entire career was played against a backdrop of a 26-year civil war between the majority Sinhalese population and the Tamils, who live in the north and east of the country.
The country was torn apart by the conflict but Murali, the one Tamil regularly in the Sri Lankan squad, insists the tensions were never reflected in the dressing room.
“It was not difficult at all. At the time there was nothing really racist about Sri Lankan cricket. If you are good enough, you played for your country. For us players, the civil war and its problems didn’t matter. We didn’t care much as sport was going on.”
Indeed, Murali developed the reputation for being the joker in the dressing room, always playing pranks on his team-mates. He says: “You have to be a little bit like that when you’re playing. You have to be joking, have fun, otherwise you will get bored.”
Son of a biscuit manufacturer in Kandy, and brought up in middle-class comfort, Murali was turned from medium pace to spin at school, at the age of 14, by his coach, Sunil Fernando. He could have played for India as his grandparents migrated from there and he has Overseas Citizenship of India. Indeed, when it was time to get married, his parents arranged for him a Tamil bride from Chennai in India.
But, he says with a smile: “My first home is obviously Sri Lanka. India is a great country but a second home.”
However, in comments that will infuriate Indians, he is convinced Sachin Tendulkar is not the No1 batsman in cricket.
“Statistics-wise he may be but there are better players such as Ricky Pointing while Brian Lara is the best player that has ever been. When I bowled, I always found Brian Lara difficult.”
For Murali, no English batsman comes near Lara but he singles out Graham Thorpe, who retired from the international game in 2005 after scoring 6,744 runs in 100 Tests.
“When I started, English batsmen did not play spin much, then they were not good enough. Nowadays English players play spinners better: reading spin from the hand, not playing off the pitch. Graham Thorpe was the best English batsman, he read my spin and played me well.”
Murali had five seasons with Lancashire and Kent and while he was impressed with the county cricket set‑up, the iconic centre of the English game failed to charm the Sri Lankan.
“I do not like Lord’s, it’s a flat wicket,” he says. “It doesn’t captivate me at all. That may be for some people but for me it’s not the ultimate cricket place.”
Not even The Oval, where in 1998 he took 16 for 220 to inspire Sri Lanka to their first Test victory in this country, holds any special memories.
“It is just the same as Lord’s,” he says. “For me playing in your country, your people supporting you, that’s the way you want to play. That’s the most important thing. Galle is the ground where I’ve most enjoyed bowling.”
That ground has all sorts of special memories for him. This is where he bowled his best ever ball, his version of the ‘ball of the century’ that Warne used to topple Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993. Murali’s delivery was to New Zealand’s Martin Crowe.
“It pitched outside the off stump and hit the leg stump,” says Murali. And it was at Galle, playing against India in July last year, that, with his last ever Test ball, he took his 800th wicket.
Six years earlier, the city of Galle was a scene of devastation after it was hit by a tsunami. Around 35,000 people in Sri Lanka died and Murali recalls how he was almost caught up in it.
“I was going through to Galle in a car,” he recalls. “People were running around saying they thought something was wrong so I asked them. They said, ‘See what has come to the road’. I saw, we turned back and drove away and I didn’t get affected by the tsunami.”
Murali returned to Galle to help with the reconstruction and his foundation raised money to build a thousand houses and repair the infrastructure. The cricket ground, which became a temporary shelter for hundreds made homeless by the tsunami, was rebuilt and reopened three years later.
For all that Murali has achieved, he has been dogged by the accusation that he was not a legitimate bowler but a chucker. The controversy originated from the Boxing Day Melbourne Test of 1995 when he was no-balled by Darrell Hair seven times in three overs for throwing. While many of his countrymen see this as a racist action by an Australian umpire who has had problems with sub-continental teams, Murali exempts Hair of that charge.
“No, I can’t say that of Hair because he was doing his job. I think he was taught a different way and I proved I was different.”
It was a difference that had come at birth not through practice, nature having given Murali a bent arm just as it had all his three brothers: Sridaran, Sasidaran and Prabgharan. This, complemented by a generous wrist motion, gives Murali his unique bowling action. After much analysis, the ICC concluded that law 24 outlawing chucking was not violated as Murali created the “optical illusion of throwing”.
Not everyone was convinced and, in January 1999, in a one-day international against England in Adelaide, he was no balled again by Australian umpire Ross Emerson, leading to the Sri Lankans walking out and staying off for 15 minutes before play was resumed.
Murali’s action has led to a change in the rules. After he developed the doosra, his bowling action was found to exceed the ICC elbow extension limit but studies of other bowlers showed 99 per cent were also exceeding it so in 2005 the ICC amended the law.
Emerson remains unconvinced and feels Murali doesn’t deserve his record while Bishen Singh Bedi, the former Indian captain and left-arm spinner, has compared Murali with a pie thrower. As I raised the issue, the smile that had accompanied Murali’s answers vanished as he says curtly: “I don’t care who Bedi is. He is just another cricketer who played a long time ago. That’s it!”
Then, having insisted figures in cricket should not be the yardstick for success, he used Bedi’s comparable lack of success to condemn him. “He has only taken around 200 wickets , many people have taken more than 200 in world cricket,” he says.
“I believed in what I wanted to achieve and I achieved it. I have no regrets, I enjoyed my game. I retired when I thought it was time. I didn’t want to go on to take 1,000 wickets. Now I just enjoy my life with my family. I look back and think, ‘I’ve had a very good life.’ Imagine how many people are suffering to get one meal in this world. I am blessed.”