Facing Murali, the king of offspin, is an honour I’ll never forget

2010-07-21 00:00

I REMEMBER the first four deliveries very clearly. They were half-volleys that fizzed past the outside edge of my bat and I missed every single one. In my head they should have been dispatched to the boundary, but as I looked up at the broad smile and the big eyes of the bowler, I knew I was mesmerised.

These were the first few balls I faced from the spinning legend Muttiah Muralitharan, without doubt the greatest offspin bowler of all time.

With his remarkably unorthodox action and thousands of deliveries under his belt, Murali’s body has finally said no more. The unquestioned king of offspin bowling will bow out of Test cricket at the end of the Test match between Sri Lanka and India in Galle.

The last few years have been tough for Murali and he has missed many a game due to injury. Finally he has decided that enough is enough. With an incredible 793 Test wickets to his name and possibly more to add in his final Test match, he has a record that will surely stand the test of time.

Murali, one of the great characters of the modern game with his unconventional action and ability to vary his deliveries, has drawn millions of spectators to the game. Offspin bowling has never been the same since he arrived on the scene.

For some time leg spinners monopolised the limelight, but Murali and his “doosra” (the offspin delivery that turns the other way) changed all that.

Unfortunately, Murali has not had it all his way during his impressive Test career. Sadly he has been called for throwing and the legality of his action has been called into question a number of times.

He’s even had to endure the indignity of having his arm placed in a cast to prove he doesn’t bend it. Murali has proved his accusers wrong every time, though. Despite having to bowl in the nets with a cumbersome cast Murali was still able to turn the ball and bowl the “doosra” and the offspinner.

Muralitharan has won games for Sri Lanka almost single-handedly and thanks to him his country has become a formidable Test nation. It was not unusual for him to take the new ball on occasion and also to bowl from one end for an entire innings. His endurance and his insatiable appetite for wickets are his trademarks.

Facing Murali was intimidating. I took some comfort in the fact that if I got out to him I would simply join the ranks of scores of international cricketers who have fallen under his spell.

As I was a left-handed batsman, Murali put two fielders on the leg side and seven fielders on my offside, with five fielders close to the bat. I could see gaps everywhere, but just couldn’t get bat on ball to exploit them. Murali’s grin and the high-pitched sniggers of the Sri Lankan fielders started to get to me.

To make things worse, I had Andy Flower, probably one of the best players of spin in the world at the other end. Andy was getting singles off Murali with ease, while I stood at the other end not knowing where my next run would come from.

After trying every option, I decided to abandon everything I knew about technique and not to aim at the ball. Miraculously this approach worked, but this was the type of spell Murali could weave with batsmen. Facing this truly great offspinner was an honour I will never forget.

Murali needs just seven wickets in his final Test to reach 800 Test wickets. The unlikelihood of any other bowler surpassing his record highlights the fact that he is in a class of his own. World cricket is the richer for his incredible career and cricket lovers all over the world will miss his magic.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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