R Ashwin is one away from 500 Test wickets. James Anderson needs five more victims to reach 700 Test wickets. Both bowlers, in the twilight of their decorated careers (yes, we’ve been expecting Anderson to hang his boots for at least five years now), are expected to touch these significant milestones next week when the riveting action resumes with the third Test between India and England in Rajkot next week.
Impressive as the numbers of these contemporary greats are, this is perhaps an appropriate moment to marvel at the man at the top of this exalted list of highest wicket-takers in Test cricket: Muttiah Muralitharan. Because Anderson has been at it for 21 years and Ashwin for 13, and yet they are a considerable distance away from the magical mark of 800 that the legendary off-spinner breached in the last of his 133 Tests in 2010. While Muralitharan stands on his own having set this statistical benchmark, he is also the fastest to 400, 500, 600 and 700 Test wickets.
The magnitude of Muralitharan’s feat has perhaps not been celebrated as much as it ought to be. The fact that he didn’t eloquently articulate his craft and talk up his achievements to the wider world may have played a part, but 800 Test wickets is just as otherworldly and out of reach as Don Bradman’s Test average of 99.94.
Unlike his famed spin rival Shane Warne, whose first steps to greatness came in his second year as an international cricketer with the ‘ball of the century’ to Mike Gatting, Muralitharan took his time finding his feet. He needed 27 Tests to get to 100 wickets, which as many as 12 players have achieved in less than 20 matches. He was also battling the insecurity of plying his trade with a bowling action that was under incessant scrutiny, with bitter experiences of being called for chucking by umpires in Australia dominating his early career.
The turning point arrived in 1998 when Muralitharan returned figures of 7/155 and 9/65 in a one-off Test against England at The Oval in London that Sri Lanka won by 10 wickets. It was Sri Lanka’s first victory on English soil and told us that Muralitharan, who had taken most of his scalps at home till then, could be just as much of a force in unfamiliar territory. He claimed 68 wickets in eight Tests that year, showing first glimpses of the bowler who would go on to become Sri Lanka’s greatest match-winner. Years later, Muralitharan termed his match haul of 16 wickets at The Oval as a career highlight.
“Everyone thought I was a good bowler then and I didn’t look back from there,” Muralitharan was quoted as saying by BBC in 2007.
If Warne had a languid approach to the bowling crease before casting a spell on the batter at the other end, Muralitharan’s flapping arms, diagonal run-up and bulging eyes at the point of delivery provided no less of a spectacle. Where Muralitharan was unique as an off-spinner was in his propensity to turn the ball a mile, using a congenitally bent right arm to his advantage to bamboozle batters around the world. Sample Muralitharan’s dismissal of former England left-hand batter Mark Butcher at Edgbaston in 2002, the ball pitching probably a metre outside his leg stump before exploding and hitting the top of off stump.
That a genial smile followed these deadly deliveries added to the theatre. Muralitharan produced these moments ever so often, leaving batters perennially confused by the sharp spin and fizz on the ball. The only way they could counter Muralitharan in his early years was by using their front pad rather than bat and remember this was a time when they could get away because technology wasn’t equipped to show the projected path of the ball for leg-before dismissals.
Muralitharan mastered the doosra — invented by Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq — in response, causing further problems by spinning the ball prodigiously either way now. It added another dimension to Muralitharan’s armoury, as the second half of his career clearly illustrates. After reaching 300 scalps in 58 Tests, he zoomed to subsequent century milestones at a rapid rate — he took just 14 Tests to go to 400, 15 for 500, 14 for 600, 12 for 700 and 20 for 800.
When Muralitharan announced his retirement ahead of the first Test against India in Galle in 2010, he needed eight more to reach 800 scalps. It was as if he had thrown himself a challenge one final time, and he didn’t disappoint, with figures of 5/63 and 3/128 across the two innings ensuring that his incredible tally was rounded off at exactly 800.
Another staggering number from Muralitharan’s illustrious Test career is his five-wicket hauls — 67, which is 30 more than Warne who is second on the list.
That ‘records are meant to be broken’ is a common expression in competitive sport. But there are some numbers, like Muralitharan’s 800, that are likely to stand the test of time and keep reminding us of the Sri Lankan’s genius.