In a way, the first Test between India and Sri Lanka at Galle put Muttiah Muralitharan's epic career into much-needed perspective even as it slotted nicely into a template that has held true through the off spinner's storied career: A typical first-innings breeze through the Indian batting order, including one moment of genius that winkled out MS Dhoni and then, as coda, a second essay that was more about the relentless toil, patience and odd moments of frustration, all capped by the eventual glory of snagging his 800th wicket with the final ball he will ever bowl in Test cricket.
Murali's 800th wicket wasn't just a statistical milestone as is perceived by many, but the ultimate testimony for a career that typified a triumph of cricketing greatness and a fitting tribute to a man whose career symbolized an incredible triumph of character against often insurmountable, occasionally repugnant odds.
This career or, as I see it, this story is not so much about the numbers as it is about being catalyst in the meteoric rise of a cricketing nation. Murali's arrival onto the Lankan cricket scene was important from the context of how the game was played in the country at the time. Along with Sanath Jayasuriya of St. Servatius (Matara), he managed to end the Colombo schools-centric phenomenon that defined Sri Lankan cricket through the eighties, coming as he did from the lesser known St. Antony's College, Kandy, Also, his entry into international cricket coincided with one of Sri Lanka's most frustrating phases as a cricketing nation - 1987 to 1992, a period when the number of political assassinations during the Civil War trumped the number of Test wins (0 in 17).
A nine-wicket win against New Zealand at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in December 1992 ended the streak and, as if by way of harbinger of what was to come, Murali claimed seven wickets in the game, even though his contribution played second fiddle to Jayananda Warnaweera and Don Anurasiri. The Murali story, thus, started in happy coincidence with Sri Lanka's rise as a Test playing nation; since then, Murali has featured in 53 wins for Sri Lanka out of the total of 61 for that country. Perhaps no statistic, not even the 800, best defines what Murali means to cricket in his country as that one.
Through this story, this journey, Murali has been put through several inquisitions, most significantly on his first ever tour to Australia in 1995. Fast forward to the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that year, and what was probably the toughest examination any bowler in contemporary memory has ever had to endure.
The facts remain vivid in our collective memory, so a quick recap will suffice: Darrell Hair called Murali for 'chucking', seven times in the space of three overs. Unusually, the umpire made the call from the bowling end - and even the bemused spectators weren't too aware, initially, of the reason for the call. Murali switched ends and bowled out the rest of the session; during the tea break, Hair informed the Sri Lankans that he was going to call Murali from square leg as well.
A then young bowler had to learn - with the eyes of the world on him - how to cope with the tactics of intimidation through victimization, and of injustice on a scale unheard of before. That tour of Australia made the Murali we know today; the trial by fire stiffened his mind, his cricketing spine, to where it has remained impregnable since. A few months later, Sri Lanka fed off its sense of injustice meted out to Murali to script one of the greatest success stories in contemporary cricket: victory in the 1996 World Cup. That tournament was always going to be about Australia versus Sri Lanka, and the Lankans in the build up to the tournament made it absolutely clear that payback was coming.
Two years later, Murali's solo-act (16 wickets) at The Oval in South London spun Sri Lanka to victory single-handedly against England - and it is my belief that this win changed Lankan cricket forever. It was not just the fact of the win, but the amount of self-belief that went into it, the intense emotionalism of it all, that proved catalyst in bringing about a change in Lankan cricket. It certainly settled once and for all the doubts surrounding Sri Lanka's ability as a Test nation, and changed the way they were perceived internationally. Happily, the period also saw the arrival of Chaminda Vaas on the scene; the young pace bowler struck up a happy partnership with Murali that saw the duo collect 589 wickets in a 15-year old partnership. The two shared a synergistic relationship: Vaas specialized in wrecking the top order, thus setting it up for Murali who would then administer the coup de grace, running through the rest of the side while ‘Vassy' came back with the older ball to maintain the squeeze.
The other day, someone asked me what made Murali one of the most respected and loved cricketers in the world today - and my response was, watch him bat. As idiosyncratic as it appeared, the fact was that Murali really enjoyed his batting to the point where he regularly practiced in the nets. It should tell you two things: one, that he took his cricket seriously, and concentrated on all aspects of the game in equal measure [there have, for instance, been few better fielders in the side during his tenure] and two, that he somehow managed to find joy in what was a serious business. Both those aspects are reflected in his batting, which made for engaging viewing, packed as it was with shots that made you chuckle - hell, often, even Murali chuckled at some of his more outrageous sallies with the bat. However, for all the unintended comedy Murali brought to the batting crease, he was a combative tail-ender, determined to do his bit for the side's batting effort.
Above all, what defined Murali is his smile - whether it came when employing the typical agricultural hoick over mid-wicket, or that extraordinarily blind pull-shot that often used to get him out, or even while bowling: he would be smashed for six, and what you noticed was the wide smile, the enjoyment he took in every contest, even when he was being bested [among contemporary greats, Murali alone stood out for never giving a bested batsman a send-off; he reveled in the contest, but when he won, he accepted that triumph with a grace and humility bordering on the inhuman]. Murali was the same off and on the field - a typical islander, taking things at his own pace, chirpy and colourful, yet one of the humblest cricketers to have served this game.
His story has another, perhaps subliminal yet relevant sociological narrative, not primarily because of his Tamil identity but because of when Murali arrived on the scene, in context of post-independent Sri Lanka. He came into the game at a time when the Civil War was at its peak, and through his cricketing and off-the-field career, became not just a modern day Tamil hero, but also one of Sri Lanka's finest ambassadors ever. At a time when a generation of Sri Lankan Tamils looked up to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the then chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the only genuine Tamil hero, Murali in his unostentatious fashion used his cricket to become the authentic Tamil icon, one who endeared himself to even the most die-hard Tamil nationalist at home and across the diaspora.
You could talk of Mahadevan Sathasivam who is still regarded as one of Sri Lanka's finest batsmen ever, but even in Kandy or Hatton or for that matter Ratnapura or Matale, you'd hardly find people who've heard of Satha. During the Civil War, Sinhalese society tended to view the Tamils with a degree of contempt and intolerance - attitudes that would have been blanket had it not been for the presence of Murali in their midst. With cricketing skills that were unparalleled and with a smile as wide as all outdoors, Murali won the nation over, and came to symbolize a unified, collective Sri Lanka, one in which Sinhalese and Tamils could coexist, even thrive.
How did he accomplish that? For a start, he refused to make political statements, one way or the other - and even during the worst of times, like for instance the tsunami of 2004, quietly reached out to the Tamils in the east with charity and philanthropy. Last year, during a chat, Murali was telling me about his passion for charity, and the paucity of time; now that he has retired, he has all the time he needs to expand on his already excellent work, to fulfill his dream of extending his foundation's work to the the war-ravaged North, where he hopes to work for the rehabilitation of the hundreds of thousands of ‘Internally Displaced Persons', a euphemism for people who are refugees in their own land; to work to improve their living conditions and most importantly, take cricket to Jaffna and Vanni and the like.
Somehow - you wonder who writes his script - Murali managed to pick the perfect time to quit, when his skills were still better than anyone else around [consider that Harbhajan Singh, who Murali picked as the only bowler capable of matching him, went wicketless in the game], but still fell short of his own phenomenally high standards. And having announced his decision, he typically bowled his heart out, and played his usual stellar role in another Lankan win - a fact that will mean more to him than his 800th scalp, even, for Murali has always been about country first, personal successes next.
In sport, you often watch players soldiering on, and wonder why they can't see what the rest of us do - that it is time to go. It is typical of the man that Murali knew, even before the rest of us, when his time was up - and again, typical of the man, he announced his own exit with an absence of fuss and fanfare.
It is the perfect ending to the story: if his entry into Sri Lankan cricket marked its resurgence; his exit puts his nation on the cusp of history previously unimagined. If Sangakkara and his men should win the series 2-0, the world number one ranking in Test cricket is theirs - and if ever the Lankan team needed motivation to achieve the once impossible dream, Murali has given them the motivation, and the perfect start.
We'll probably see more glimpses of the magical spinner - in the IPL perhaps and, who knows, perhaps even in the ODI World Cup of 2011. Again, the symmetry would be perfect: Murali's travails in Australia gave his team the impetus to win the Cup, on sub-continental soil, in 1996; perhaps with his rested body and refreshed mind, he can provide his team one more impetus, one more unlikely triumph.
What the future holds - and whether Murali at this point even has the desire to continue playing - no one knows. But one can safely say that Murali has already bowled himself into immortality; his achievements will remain, unmatched. And given the direction the game is increasingly taking - towards the coldly commercial, and away from the passion and electric excitement of bygone years - we could also safely say that no cricketer is likely to emerge that can match not only his on-field accomplishments, but also his unrivalled charisma.