Murali’s strong SA legacy

Muttiah Muralitharan (File)
Muttiah Muralitharan (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Muttiah Muralitharan, freshly retired and the world’s only 800-wickets man in Test cricket, tormented South Africa no less than he did most other nations.

Even more accurately, if you use that most credible tool of bowling average as a barometer, the off-spin icon fared fractionally better in 15 Tests against the Proteas (22.22) than he did in 133 appearances overall (22.72).

There is ample broader evidence, too, to safely state that South African cricket played its part in the assembly of his legend.

For instance, a South African in the form of Mark Boucher has the dubious honour of being the single batsman in the global game dismissed most often – 12 times in as many Tests -- by the saucer-eyed destroyer.

Next in line was Zimbabwe’s Grant Flower (10), and a quartet of “nines” in Sourav Ganguly (India), Waqar Younis and Mohammad Yousuf (Pakistan) and Bangladesh’s Khaled Mashud.

Daryll Cullinan is the next South African in line behind Boucher, having fallen seven times to the Kandy-born competitor with the always-scrutinised action but quite boundless enthusiasm and energy for cricket.

Still, perhaps it is a sign of the extent to which Murali carried the Sri Lankan attack at times (he averaged some 55 personal overs per Test match) that Boucher has also prospered against that nation at the crease despite the wiles of the man whose career spanned around 18 years.

The veteran South African wicketkeeper has registered exactly 700 runs against Sri Lanka at 33.33, which is a fair bit better than his career batting average of 30.96 as things stand.

It is also a signal that the Proteas have mostly tended to have their number in Test cricket, with the Lankans not registering a victory yet on our shores, never mind having any sniff at a series triumph.

And if South Africa have tended to come a cropper in Sri Lanka themselves in most recent times – with Murali very much to the fore as a heartbreaker – at least they can boast a series win (1-0 in a three-match affair) in their maiden tour there in 1993.

On that occasion, Allan Donald and Brett Schultz were at their explosive peak as a pace pairing, doing enough on the generally unhelpful pitches to negate Murali’s impact in the slow-bowling department.

The drawn first Test at Moratuwa was Murali’s debut against South Africa and seventh Test overall, and he announced himself with a “five-for” – the first of 11 against these foes – in the tourists’ first knock.

Led by Kepler Wessels, the South Africans got past the 100-mark without mishap after replying to Sri Lanka’s 331, with Wessels himself and Andrew Hudson doing the hard yards.

But then Muralitharan came into his own (5/104) as the innings subsided to a tenuous 267 all out, and the visitors more or less stayed on the back foot after that.

They were eventually indebted to Jonty Rhodes, showing rare conservatism and application, for salvaging a draw as the young KwaZulu-Natalian notched 101 not out and Murali probed for 31 overs for his economical but limited return of one for 48.

He was seldom not a factor in 13 years of Test combat against South Africa subsequently, right up to his last appearance against the Proteas in Colombo in 2006.

Fittingly, that was a match of high quality which Sri Lanka sneaked by one wicket (series 2-0) after being set a stiff 352 to win.

They had needed two further runs – and South Africa the final scalp to share the series – when Murali, the happy-go-lucky No 10 batsman, was bowled for two by Andrew Hall in a nail-biting finish, but got past the post.

Murali’s match contribution with the ball? The little matter of 12 wickets for 225, including second-innings figures of 7/97.

He was, as you might expect, more effective against South Africa in home conditions (69 wickets in nine Tests at 20.28) than here, although his record on our turf remains very decent: 35 wickets in six Tests at 26.02.

Muralitharan was most lethal against Test minnows Bangladesh (bowling average an incredible 13.37) and least prosperous against Australia, for so long the leading lights during his career (36.07).

South Africa are roughly in mid-table on the Murali-ometer, with all of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, West Indies, England and New Zealand experiencing more nightmares against him in bowling-average terms, but Pakistan, India and the Aussies less fallible.

On course to his “unbeatable” haul of 800 Test wickets, which began with the dismissal of Australia’s tailender Craig McDermott, Murali has gone past umpteen milestones, including sending South Africa’s Shaun Pollock packing for his 300th scalp and compatriot Makhaya Ntini for his 650th.

Whether grudging or not in some instances, it is hard to imagine Murali quit the game without at least some admiration and affection from various South African Test players … Graeme Smith has already led the way on Twitter with his “great Test career and a really good man” tribute.

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