Rajan's Wrong 'Un: Sri Lanka desperately miss that old Murali magic

 

Though a brilliant century by Mahela Jayawardena briefly threatened to derail them, Australia clinched a comfortable, 125-run victory over Sri Lanka in Galle on Saturday. Five-wicket hauls for debutant Nathan Lyon and Ryan Harris spun and swung the advantage to the tourists; but the decisive factor was Sri Lanka's weak bowling attack, which at times looked about as threatening as that of Weybridge 2nd XI.

It proved, if proof were needed, that the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan (pictured) has left a hole that will never be filled. Compounded by the loss of Lasith Malinga, who has retired, and Ajantha Mendis, who could not live up to the promise of his early career, it has left Sri Lanka fielding a battery of medium-paced trundlers alongside the capable left-arm spin of Rangana Herath, and the less capable off-spin of Suraj Randiv. But it is Muralitharan's absence that has made Sri Lanka's bowling look suddenly pedestrian.

No team in the history of Test matches has been as dependent on one player. In just over a year since his retirement, Sri Lanka have not won a Test, losing three and drawing six. An excellent analysis by S Rajesh of espncricinfo.com shows that, of their home Tests since 2005, Sri Lanka won 15 out of 20 in which Muralitharan was playing, with their bowlers averaging 24.53. In the nine home Tests in the same period in which Muralitharan did not play, Sri Lanka won only two, and their bowlers' average topped 35.

In the 132 Tests he played, 53 were won by Sri Lanka, with Muralitharan taking 430 wickets at a staggering average of 8.11 per Test. Only Shane Warne, who took 510 wickets in 92 wins for Australia, has surpassed that record. Muralitharan took 42.2 per cent of the wickets in those Test victories.

The emergence of Malinga and Mendis had at least offered hope for the post-Muralitharan era. Now they are gone too, and their successors appear uniformly uninspiring.

Australia ought not to crow about all this. Shane Watson did just that, saying his team would have won bowling first too. That is a nonsensical claim. Someone should tell the burly blond that his team are also hardly oozing with quality at the moment.

It was farcical, for instance, to hear Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, claim before the match that Trent Copeland's lack of pace was actually a good thing. When you hear a Test captain say he's pleased his opening bowler strains to reach 78mph, send for the sick bag. Copeland took one wicket. Mitchell Johnson continues to make Dennis Lillee regret calling him a once-in-a-generation bowler, and Harris is no Glenn McGrath.

And what of Lyon? The off-spinner took 5 for 34 on debut, including Kumar Sangakkara's wicket with his first ball in Test cricket. But he was ineffective on a helpful track in the second innings.

All things considered, this series looks utterly devoid of top-class bowling. Muralitharan played in a couple of fundraisers last month. Might someone bend his notoriously crooked arm a little, and entice him out of retirement? Cricket, never mind, his country, needs him desperately.

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