Muttiah Muralitharan: The finger snap, the big eyes, the bent arm: the one-off nears the end

Curtain could come down on Muralitharan's controversial yet brilliant one-day career today.
  • @stephenbrenkley

What stands out about Muttiah Muralitharan apart from the corkscrew wrist, the finger snap, the arm bent at birth, the bulging eyes, the Everest of wickets, is the sheer joy. Here he is, a plier of his masterful if controversial trade at the highest level for 19 years, which is two, perhaps three careers' worth for most international cricketers, and still he treats every wicket as if it were the first.

He will do the same today in Sri Lanka's World Cup quarter-final tie against England. Some poor sap will try to hit him over the top or plunge forward desperately and next thing you know Murali will have his arms aloft, his mischievously beaming face that of a kid allowed the run of a chocolate factory.

The likelihood is that he will take a wicket somewhere along the line. He has bowled in 36 World Cup matches before and in only five of them has he failed to strike. In his 17 one-day matches against England he has gone wicketless three times and in one of those he was no-balled for throwing.

It could be his last international match. Already retired from Test cricket with a neat 800 wickets, a record he achieved on his home-town ground of Kandy last July, he is withdrawing from one-dayers after this World Cup.

So far he has 530 wickets, 231 more than the only man in the top 20 list who is still playing, Shahid Afridi. These are both in the category of never to be beaten figures.

If England win they are ending the international career of a legend (though Murali will go on in a kind of world Twenty20 tour embracing the Indian Premier and, for the next two summers, the England T20 for Gloucestershire). At 38, he is not the potent force that he was for the middle 12 years of his career. The arm does not rotate as quickly as it did, the wrist is not as supple. But he has been a handful in this World Cup on pitches which could have been hand-stitched to fit in Savile Row, and he has taken 11 wickets while conceding a mere 3.55 runs an over.

England might have to work out, therefore, where the rest of their runs will come from. Should it end today, or the semi-final, or the final a week today, Murali has seven days as an international cricketer left at most. There is always a sadness when a great champion departs but in his case it will be accompanied by some relief.

Even now after 19 years and several scientific clearances, there are doubts about the legality of his action. In this World Cup, there has been some occasional head shaking. Some people still cannot believe the story about the arm defective from birth. It looks decidedly odd and the world in general resents odd looks. Murali long ago learned to live with it, and if he has been an adornment to the game, it is also probably true that if another one like him came along tomorrow, he would be shunted for remedial work at cricket's equivalent of the Priory in no time.

It is, of course, to his enduring credit that he has had such a prolific career in spite of the doubters. That may be because of his unadulterated joy in what he does. There is nothing new to say about him by now, so his captain, Kumar Sangakkara, did not try yesterday. "He's a guy who rises to the occasion and does really well in big games," he said. "The side is very confident about what he can produce for us in the important matches." Well you don't say.

It all started for Murali in August 1992 at the R Premadasa Stadium where today's match is taking place, when he was picked aged 20 for the second Test against Australia. His first international victim was Craig McDermott. Both stadium and bowler are a little more upholstered these days.

One of Murali's closest and most unlikely friends in cricket is Andrew Flintoff, with whom he played for several years at Lancashire. But there is a reason for the liaison as Flintoff explained on a BBC radio programme last week.

"He's a bit of a free spirit," Flintoff explained. "He just lets himself go, he enjoys the moment and just gets on with it – and probably I do too." England could do without the free spirit soaring today.

Murali's record collection

530 ODI wickets, making him the leading-wicket taker of all time in this form of the game.

18.76 Has a sub-20 World Cup bowling average, the most efficient wicket-taker in the tournament's history.

3.55 Economy rate for this tournament, taking 11 wickets.

347 ODIs for Sri Lanka. He is the only member of their 1996 World Cup winning side still playing.

59 Holds unenviable record of most ducks in international cricket.