Those big eyes still reflect hunger and intensity. At another level, they also mirror the simple and almost childlike joy of still playing the game.
Spin bowling legend Muttiah Muralitharan, now turning out for Uthura Rudras in the Mahindra Sri Lankan Premier League, shared his thoughts during a free-wheeling conversation here on Wednesday.
Crucially, Muralitharan revealed he received an offer from Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene to come out of retirement for the ICC World Twenty20, beginning in Sri Lanka in September.
“Mahela asked me during the IPL whether I could come back for just one competition. Sri Lanka needed a spinner,” he said.
“But I had already made the announcement and felt it would not be fair on the other bowlers if I returned.”
The off-spin wizard, with a world record 800 Test wickets (from 133 matches) and 534 ODI scalps (from 350 games), believes left-arm spinner Rangana Herath is coming along well for Sri Lanka. “Rangana may not be a big spinner of the ball but he has variety and patience.”
Asked about the face-off between the ECB and Kevin Pietersen, Muralitharan said, “He (Pietersen) has been dropped from the Test side, but, unless the two sides really harden their stance, I do not see Pietersen staying out of the team for long. I feel the issue will blow over and Pietersen will return to the side. But the whole episode has been unfortunate.”
Muralitharan then turned his attention to India’s legendary Sachin Tendulkar. “Nobody should tell him when to quit. He should continue playing as long as he is enjoying the game. Tendulkar still has so much to offer to the game.”
One of the best
Is Tendulkar the best batsman he has bowled at? “One of the best,” answers Muralitharan.
Then he elaborates. “Tendulkar was a very aggressive batsman when he began. As his career progressed, he cut out the risks and became more organised. Tendulkar would play you carefully but Brian Lara would always attack you. I thought Lara played me very well. He was dangerous.”
Muralitharan also talks about an immortal member of the spin tribe. “Somehow I feel Anil Kumble has not got the credit he deserved in India. He was in the shadow of the great batsman. If you ask me, he is India’s biggest match-winner. He has won more matches for India than anyone else. He has to be right up there with Tendulkar,” says the man from Kandy.
Queried about the best spinner in contemporary cricket, Muralitharan replies, “Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal has been impressive. He has a very good doosra.”
Muralitharan, however, does not believe in a teesra. “I believe you can only spin the ball in two directions.”
The off-spin legend has words of comfort for India’s Harbhajan Singh. “His confidence was low. Ashwin is a good spinner but I thought the media put Harbhajan down at that point. I feel both of them can bowl together for India.”
Muralitharan says his 16 wickets in the Oval Test of 1998 was a career-defining performance by him. He is delighted that he departed from the Test scene in a blaze of glory with his 800th Test wicket against India at Galle.
His one regret is Sri Lanka’s failure to win the 2011 ICC World Cup final in Mumbai. “India played well but the dew factor went against us under the lights,” he recalls.
Muralitharan cherishes his memories with the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. “We won so many trophies and shared a great bond. But because of the auction system I had to leave. Playing for Kochi was the low point of my career but I enjoyed representing Royal Challengers Bangalore last season.”
The 40-year-old champion bowler is of the opinion that the Sri Lanka Premier League will gradually pick up steam with crowds filling up the stands.
Asked to pick the best captain he played under, Muralitharan’s answer is brutally honest. “All of them wanted to give me the ball,” he quips.
Now, his eyes had a hint of mischief.