In an era where political correctness is the norm – and the easier way out – Muttiah Muralitharan comes across as a breath of fresh air. It is not that he is irreverent or disrespectful; Muralitharan has always put honesty ahead of expediency, and he isn’t going to change now.
Murali takes great pride in being one of the oldest active cricketers, at 42, and while he is as keen as ever to a part of the playing XI for any franchise he plays in various domestic Twenty20 leagues across the world, he understands that certain compulsions will keep him on the bench more often than put him on the park. Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker has played only two of ten matches in the Pepsi Indian Premier League 2014 for Royal Challengers Bangalore, but as he reveals during this exhaustive conversation, he is neither frustrated nor disappointed.
Excerpts on his IPL journey, on Sri Lanka ending their run of defeats in ICC finals, and on Virat Kohli, the captain:
For someone who is as competitive as you are, how difficult has it been to sit out a majority of games this season?
I am actually enjoying it. At this age, to get to play is something… It’s an honour to play. At 42 years of age, not many have played competitive cricket. I think in England, a fair few players play in the county circuit but in world cricket, there are not many who play at 42. I got the opportunity, I just like to play and be a part of it. I have been playing well in the Big Bash League and in the Caribbean Premier League. I got an opportunity to play in the IPL too. I’d say I didn’t bowl well (in the first game against Kolkata Knight Riders), two overs were a bit expensive. Also, with our combination, it is not possible to have a spinner and two overseas fast bowlers because we are lacking a little bit when it comes to Indian batters. In the last game (against Delhi Daredevils), the wicket was spinning, so the management give me a chance to bowl. I did well, that’s the way it is. IPL is not all about playing, it is also about being in the team, helping the team. Sometimes you play and sometimes you don’t. But there is no disappointment.
What is it that keeps you going at 42?
I enjoy playing. The only thing I know is to play cricket. The opportunity is there, people want me to play, so I just play.
How have you seen the role of a spinner change in Twenty20 cricket?
It hasn’t changed at all. You just have to go and bowl and have a big heart. Some days you win, some days you don’t. That’s the way it is. It’s all about not over-confusing yourself, because in T20 cricket, you can’t plan a great deal. On the day, if you do well, definitely you have a chance. Sometimes, batsmen come after you and hit you. You can’t come back because you have only four overs. It’s a harder game for bowlers, especially. But in one-day cricket or Test cricket, you can come back. You get hit and you have another few overs to bounce back.
It was widely believed that T20 cricket would spell the death-knell of the spinner but increasingly, spinners are beginning to have a big say in the 20-over game….
In T20 cricket, if you bowl spin, people try to hit you. Sometimes, you get a wicket, you put pressure on the batsman in that over. Sometimes you get hit but it is easier to hit the faster bowlers if they don’t have much change of pace. Whoever has that change of pace, yorkers, greater variety, they are successful. But even an ordinary spinner can be a good bowler in T20 cricket. It is a format where you don’t have to buy wickets. You will get wickets if you bowl tight. You don’t have to be a big spinner, you don’t have to have magic in T20s but you have to have magic in Test cricket to take wickets, even to some extent in one-day cricket.
And do you see that kind of magic around the world?
There are bowlers, a lot of good bowlers, but the problem is now Test cricket is not played as much as it used to be played before. That’s why you see the bowlers are not adjusting to Test cricket quickly enough. They like T20s and one-dayers more than Test cricket. If bowlers want to do well in Test cricket, then they can do so. But sometimes, I think they take the easy way out.
Sri Lanka ended a run of defeats in ICC finals with victory in the World T20 in Bangladesh last month.
I am very happy for the team. We won the World Cup in 1996, and we were joint champions with India in the mini World Cup (the Champions Trophy), and I was a part of both those teams. I played three more finals – one World T20 and two 50-over World Cups but unfortunately, we couldn’t make it, we were failures. Then, after I retired, the team again reached the final of the World T20 in Sri Lanka in 2012, and they blew it up. For a small nation like us, every time we have played in the last ten years, we have been in most finals. That’s a very good achievement. There’s a joke that in the last seven years, the World Cup means it is Sri Lanka v the rest of the world. The rest of the world combine to fight against Sri Lanka in the final. I think it is good for the country. In the end, we have broken the jinx and won it for the country. Also, players like Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara), Mahela (Jayawardene) and (Lasith) Malinga deserve that because they have achieved so much in cricket and finally they got the main prize as well.
Speaking of Sri Lanka cricket, while Rangana Herath has continued to grow in stature, why has someone like Ajantha Mendis faded away?
Ajantha is a different spinner because he is a finger spinner. When people start to read him in Test cricket, it is easier for the batsmen but he still does well in T20 cricket and one-day cricket. But not so much in Test cricket, because people read him well, and they have time to play him. Once you know his art… If you take Sunil Narine, in Test cricket he struggles because people have a lot of time to play him, they don’t have to go after him. He will still be very successful in the shorter version, and he can become a better bowler in Test cricket if he wants to put in the effort, but maybe he doesn’t want to. If you see Rangana Herath, he has got an opportunity mainly in Test cricket, he hasn’t got many opportunities in other forms. So he tries very hard in the Test match format and he succeeds. It’s not all about how you good are. It’s all about how much you want it, how badly you want to do well in that format to be successful.
R Ashwin has some of the variations that Mendis and Narine have, and he has had more success in Test cricket too….
In my view, Ashwin is a very good bowler, but he over-tries things, things that don’t suit him. I personally feel if you are playing T20 cricket, it is okay. You bowling the carrom ball, this ball, that ball – it is fine, you will adjust. But when it comes to Test cricket, your main offspinner has to be good because if you are not good in your stock ball, people have time to adjust to other variations. I have seen sometimes, he bowls too negatively, bowls too much on the pads. It can happen. But the best of people advise him and try to get him what he wants. Only mentally, he has to improve –talent-wise, he has what it takes. It’s up to him.
Increasingly, offspinners across the world are beginning to bowl a lot from round the stumps. What is your take on that?
Generally, you bowl round the stumps if you are a good turner of the ball. What happens is if you are bowling from over the stumps and it is turning a lot, you won’t get an lbw opportunity. By bowling round the stumps, you have that chance. But you can do that for variety; as a rule, if you can go both over the wicket and round the wicket, depending on the batsman and the pitch, it will be better. But you can’t be going consistently round the wicket, you won’t be successful.
Bowlers go round the stumps to not give much room in T20 cricket and to not give elevation for the batsmen, it’s easier to have control bowling round the stumps. If you bowl over the wicket sometimes, bowl a little bit outside the offstump, the batsman can free his arms and get some elevation. In Test cricket, you have to mix it and then the other balls will also be effective because of that. Sometimes, it then starts to look like the ball is turning more, even if the amount of turn is not that much. It is an illusion thing, a mindset thing.
Are bowlers taking the Twenty20 mindset into Test cricket?
Your mindset has to change. In Test cricket, you have to buy wickets. You can’t keep on bowling maiden overs and waiting because you won’t be successful. You have to have some tricks; you have to flight the ball, have variations. Test cricket teaches you so many things. People adjust, I have seen. Ashwin has bowled well in India, Amit Mishra has bowled well, sometimes (Ravindra) Jadeja has bowled well; and someone like (Graeme) Swann. People do bowl well in Test cricket. Sometimes, a little T20 or one-day mindset comes in, they forget it. If the management or the captain reminds the bowlers, people will adjust. There are talented bowlers in every country.
What do you make of Yuzvendra Chahal, your legspinning mate in Royal Challengers?
He’s talented. There are a lot of talented spinners in India. If you provide opportunities, they will be good. But how hard they work and how much they want it – people can’t guarantee that.
As a spinner, how much did you benefit from having the confidence of the captain?
The captain has to believe in you. If he believes in you and gives you the ball, then more things will happen. So a captain is very important in any form of cricket. His belief and the player’s belief combined – that’s when the results come. I’ve played under a lot of different captains. I played a little T20 cricket under MS Dhoni. He’s one of the standout captains because he takes it very cool. He’s the one captain I have seen who, if you bowl a good ball and get hit for six, will still say ‘well bowled’. Not many people say that. Sometimes, good balls also get hit. That’s the kind of encouragement you get from the captain.
You have played a little bit under Virat Kohli. What do you make of him as captain?
He’s learning. He’s still young, and you can’t expect miracles like what MS Dhoni has done for long years. Give him some space and time; he will be good because everyone has to learn. He’s the best batsman in India undoubtedly, you may even say worldwide in all formats. Give him a chance and he will learn.
How involved are you in Sri Lanka cricket?
Not much, I’m not involved at all. I help them, I go and bowl to young batsmen when I want to get some practice. The only thing is I can’t give them (Sri Lanka Cricket) any commitments because I’m still playing. I also have a three-year contract with the Cricket Association of Bengal to help train spinners. So I’m looking for good spinners in Bengal to develop future players for India.
What kind of advice do you give young spinners?
It’s all about the basics. We don’t try to change them; we talk to them about how to perform, practise, become good. How disciplined and focused you should be, how much you want it – those are the important things. And then a few tricks – how to develop balls. Nobody taught me how to bowl. I have developed it on my own in practice. I tell them how long it will take to develop a ball – it will take six months to one year. CAB have contracted some players – 14, 16, 18 and 24-year-olds, we have some 20 spinners. I’m looking forward to developing at least one or two for India in the future. The plan is to do it by 2020.
For a spinner, is it important to be able to turn the ball and then work on line and length, or to first sort out lines and lengths and then try to get the ball to turn?
You can teach them how to spin the ball, too. You have to do some drills – you will get the spin, the ball’s movement and how to rotate it. If someone can naturally turn it, it will be easier to teach him other things. But if someone is not a natural turner, then it will take a little bit more time to teach him. It’s not impossible but you have to change things a little bit.
During your playing days, did you have a better relationship with Indian players compared to players from other countries?
I’ve been good friends with everyone. I am not partial to these guys or those guys. I have a great relationship with Anil Kumble. We’re still very good friends. We talk about bowling, strategies, about cricket when we meet. Also Harbhajan (Singh), whom I’ve known since his younger days. I played for three years with Ashwin. If I meet Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed or Daniel Vettori – we’re all friends. We’re competing with each other but we discuss our strengths and how to do something. We understand things. Cricket teaches you one thing in life – however good you are, be down to earth, be good to people and respect them. Everyone is good on his own terms. You can’t expect everyone to be me, Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara. We have to respect them, their abilities and achievements. Be friendly with them and talk to them. It’s not rocket science. If you’re arrogant, you won’t get anywhere in world cricket. How friendly you are, how great you’ve been with people – that’s what matters.
Everyone knows people need money; they make money. But the other thing is building relationships. It means building trust, for a long time. Sometimes, when Waqar Younis sees me, he asks: ‘Are you still playing?’ Gary Kirsten also: ‘Murali, why are you still playing?’ That’s the kind of friendship we have. It’s all about building bonds.