Peter Roebuck

Muttiah Muralitharan might have lingered a little too long. Watching him these days is to observe a spinner suffering from fatigue and showing signs of wear and tear.

At his peak batsmen groped as the ball dropped like a shot bird. In his pomp he could turn the ball sharply both ways and deny the batsmen time to adjust.

Now opponents can let the ball bounce, observe its movement and tuck it away at their leisure. Murali’s bowling has lost its snap, crackle and pop

All the more reason to praise his forthcoming retirement. Players of his calibre need to choose the right moment so that their memory is not tarnished.

Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne timed it to perfection. They left the field with heads held high and the Ashes regained. Last week both turned out in the 20-over match against the Australians that marks the start of the season.

Typically McGrath kept an unerring line and length to take three for 18. Warne was compelling.

Rare insight

Both talked viewers through their tactics, thereby offering a rare insight into their thinking. McGrath described a dismissal before it occurred, the set-up and the sting. Neither, though, could have lasted an entire day. Cricketers retain their minds but lose their bodies and reflexes.

By the look of things, Murali is no longer able to impart as much spin. Placid pitches in Ahmedabad and Kanpur have not helped, but in his prime he could make batsmen struggle on shirtfronts. Admittedly the batting has been superb but the contest has been one-sided.

Always a fighter, Murali has been forced to go meekly to his fate. Particularly in these parts, where they become symbols of wider success, it is hard for champions to retire but the signs cannot be ignored. Murali senses his powers are waning, can feel it in his fingers. He knows that the kind words of his comrades are merely sympathetic offerings.

Still it has been a remarkable career. Sri Lanka has been able to produce some extraordinary players. Somehow talent is not stifled or directed, finds its own distinctive voice. Murali is a case in point. He is a freakish bowler with an action that has raised eyebrows and astonishment in about equal measure.

Over the years his critics have been too mean and his protectors too strident. Of course the action caused consternation.

Murali had the final word by going onto television, putting his arm in plaster and bowling all three of his main deliveries. He walked into the Lion’s den. It was an impressive performance and everyone except the diehards took note.

Inevitably the controversy never completely went away. At times in Australia it became downright unpleasant. As the seasons passed, though, Murali was able to win people over not merely with his action but also with his personality.

Sunny disposition

His bowling might seem dark but his nature was sunny. World XI colleagues reported that he held the patchwork side together with his jokes and pranks. Nor did he ever say a cross word on the field. Even his batting was well humoured as he thrashed around merrily and sometimes effectively. He is amongst the most popular of cricketers. But it is his bowling that has set him apart, the immaculate length he kept, the variations, his perseverance, his pride.

Only exceptional batsmen could subdue him for long. Brian Lara, Andy Flower and Sourav Ganguly emerged unscathed from memorable duels with him.

Until recently, right-handers had a harder time of it. Tamils, Lankans and cricketers ought to salute Murali as he passes into the night. There has never been a dull or cheap moment.

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