Saturday, December 26, 2009

Jayasuriya & Murali - Two precious stones losing their lustre

There is no delicate way of putting this. Two of the finest cricketers of this age, two match-winners, two game-changers, Muthiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya looked in the recent series in India to have come to the end of the road. When such phenomenal performers with property rights over 22 yards of turf begin to look like journeymen two thoughts dominate.

One, gratitude for the many hours of pleasure they have provided with their varied skills, and two, a deep sense of loss. The feeling that the magic might never be seen again, certainly not over a five-day Test match, the real test of the great player.

By pushing him down the order in the one-day series, Sri Lanka were sending a message to Jayasuriya, who at 40 showed he was still good enough for the Twenty20 game but even on the placid wickets in India struggled in the one-day international. That he was not asked to open, and even kept on the bench are hints enough. Jayasuriya had retired from cricket three years ago, but returned when he was asked to by the country’s sports minister.

He is a game-changer, bringing to the international arena the cockiness that superior alley batsmen bring to their calling when boys. A quick eye, strong forearms and a big heart made up for the shortcomings in technique. Yet that technique was good enough for a triple century in Tests. Fast bowlers got used to the idea of seeing their best deliveries being picked out from the audience at cover point or fine leg. It began in the 1996 World Cup when Jayasuriya, born in Motera, outside Colombo the traditional nursery, brought to the game the unaffected, free flowing approach only those outside the pale of the coaching manual can bring to their efforts.

That he was able to continue this unorthodox approach through all forms of the game, at all times and through all the political upheavals that are a part of cricket in the region is a measure of the uniqueness of the man.

His teammate Muralitharan is just eight wickets short of 800 in Tests, and sentiment might see him play long enough to achieve that remarkable landmark. His impact on Sri Lankan cricket has been enormous, and it is no exaggeration to say that he is the single most important player from that Island ever to have played the game. The statistics alone are mind-boggling. He has played a role in 53 of Sri Lanka’s 60 Test wins, with 430 wickets at an average of 16. Forty of his 66 five-wicket hauls have come in those games.

If batsmen could not decipher the rotations of his wrist they could not be blamed – it took teams of scientists to work out that he propelled the ball legitimately without recourse to a bent arm. The International Cricket Council, forced to go deep into the vexed question of chucking came up with a definition that implied Muralitharan was a genius for being able to do what he could. If the definition of genius is, equally, the capacity for taking infinite pains, then Muralitharan qualified on that count too. A mild-mannered, gentle soul, he was barracked mercilessly in Australia and condemned by ex-players around the world. Yet his strength of character withstood the attacks that might have felled a lesser man.

The doosra, which he mastered, was one of the two technical advances in bowling in the latter half of the last century (the other being the reverse swing). Muralitharan expanded the possibilities in the art of spin bowling, adding to our enjoyment of a craft that is one of the game’s most intriguing. A dropped catch deprived him of a ten-in-an-innings feat, and occasionally a batting failure rendered his own bowling efforts futile but he remained the old faithful, inspiring a nation both by the intricacies of his bowling and the toil he put in to retain his place as one of the greatest bowlers of all time.

He said after the India tour that his body is no longer able to take the five-day game, although he would like to continue in the shorter version (he has 512 ODI wickets). The decline has been noticeable in the last two years. Since 2007, he has taken 73 wickets in 15 Tests, but 39 of them were against Bangladesh in five. He was 37 this year, and the enormous workload over so many years was already beginning to take its toll.

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