Even over a slightly dodgy telephone line, you can make out the excitement in Muttiah Muralitharan’s voice as he settles down to talk about all things spin. It isn’t difficult either to visualise the twinkle in the same eyes that widened to assume saucer-like proportions every time he delivered the cricket ball.
In all, Muralitharan bowled 63,162 deliveries in international cricket – that translates to 10,522 overs. Of them, 44,039 balls in Test cricket fetched him an incredible 800 wickets at the astonishing average of 22.72 and a wicket every nine overs or thereabouts. He finished his celebrated career with a record 1347 international victims, a number that is unlikely to be matched in our lifetime, if ever.
Happily retired for nearly six years now, international cricket’s most prolific head-hunter is as qualified as anyone else to hold forth on what it takes for a spinner, any spinner, to master the art of taking wickets. But he is momentarily taken aback, however, when you ask him about the art of bowling on dry tracks that help spinners from ball one. The provocation, of course, is the first Test in Pune where the under-rated left-arm spin of Steve O’Keefe produced 12 for 70 and bowled Australia to a staggering 333-run victory.
“Art of bowling on a turning track, did you say?” the master offspinner asks, almost by way of clarification. “It’s easy. Flat tracks are the hardest ones on which to bowl because you don’t get the deviation of the ball off the pitch. On a turning track, it will turn very big. And also, you can use the angles. If you are bowling to a right-hander, especially bowling from round the wicket, for the batsman it is very hard. You have the chance of getting him leg before with the angle and also turning the ball to keep the close-in fielders on the leg side interested. So it’s very hard for the batsman because he also doesn’t know how much each ball will turn.
“Even on a turning track, some areas will be better areas, the ball won’t turn much and it goes on straight. But from some other areas, it will turn quick, so it is difficult for a batsman to gauge and adjust to the spin. For the bowler, it is all about hitting your right line and length, and being patient. Definitely wickets will fall, wickets will come because the batsman will be under pressure always.”
“When I played most of my cricket, we usually mentioned to them not to make turning tracks because we knew we had the capability of turning the ball even on a flat track. If you have good spinners in your side and if you give a turning track, the opposition spinners will also become dangerous. If you have good spinners, if you give a good wicket, your spinners will take wickets, their spinners will struggle, so you dominate the match.”
Murali is emphatic that a surface that is out and out a spinner’s ally doesn’t necessarily call for any great adjustments from the tweakers. “No no, not at all. Why should it be difficult? You try and get as much purchase as you can, and use the angles judiciously. If you are bowling over the wicket to a right-hander, it will turn big. But if you are bowling round the wicket, that angle will cover the turn,” he tells Wisden India. “It’s all about angles; that’s what spin bowling is all about – angles. Spin, you can’t help it. I have heard people say I will turn the ball so much, but not so much and I say ‘yeah, yeah!’ But nobody can control the spin. It all depends on the wicket.
“If somebody is saying that without the angle, I can control the spin – I can spin one ball a little and I can spin one ball big, he must be lying. In my life, I couldn’t do that. Because whatever you bowl, when you are looking to turn it, on a turning wicket everything depends on the pitch. If the pitch is dry, even if you put in just a little bit, it will turn a lot. You can’t control that. But you can control the spin with the angle. And on a pitch like Pune, you will also vary your pace – faster and slower. That’s the way you try and fox the batsman.”
Murali helped out the Australians ahead of their ill-fated Test series in Sri Lanka last year, working for two weeks with the spinners in a consultancy role that raised the hackles of Sri Lanka Cricket in particular. Having worked with O’Keefe at close quarters then, and before that when they were both part of Kochi Tuskers Kerala in the Indian Premier League before the franchise’s termination, the ace offie is in perfect position to analyse O’Keefe’s unexpected success.
“I was with them for just two weeks, working with O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon, on how to bowl in spinning conditions,” Murali recalls his brief stint towards the middle of last year. “During the Test series (which Sri Lanka won 3-0), I was not there. Unfortunately, O’Keefe got injured in the first match, in the first innings (in Pallekele). He flew back home, he couldn’t play the rest of the Tests.
“He is like the perfect bowler for spinning tracks because he doesn’t spin the ball much, but because the wicket is helpful, the ball will turn. He bowls a little bit like (Rangana) Herath (the left-arm spinning Sri Lankan Test captain) in terms of control, so he has a better chance of getting an lbw and bowled – one ball will spin and one ball won’t spin, it’s hard. I talked to him a little bit about how to maintain control, how to be patient bowling on these tracks. I think he has learned a bit, he was also with me in Kochi for one year. He is a good bowler. People have underestimated him. The Australians themselves always underestimated him, they didn’t play him much because Lyon was doing well and Australia needed only one spin bowler. But he has shown that he is good enough to bowl and do well in Test cricket.”
“If somebody is saying that without the angle, I can control the spin – I can spin one ball a little and I can spin one ball big, he must be lying. In my life, I couldn’t do that. Because whatever you bowl, when you are looking to turn it, on a turning wicket everything depends on the pitch. If the pitch is dry, even if you put in just a little bit, it will turn a lot. You can’t control that. But you can control the spin with the angle. And on a pitch like Pune, you will also vary your pace – faster and slower.”
Murali picked up 493 Test wickets on home soil, but reiterates that Sri Lanka never sought out raging turners to maximise home advantage. As if sensing scepticism, he quickly adds, “In the subcontinent, there are two kinds of wickets you can make, it depends on the home side. You can make a sporting wicket, or you can make a good batting wicket that will turn on the fourth-fifth day. That depends on the team, what they want and how the groundsmen prepare the wicket, which is most important. When I played most of my cricket, we usually mentioned to them not to make turning tracks because we knew we had the capability of turning the ball even on a flat track, especially in Sri Lankan conditions.
“We didn’t want to give that advantage to the other bowlers. We wanted to give our batsmen the chance to score big runs and put the opposition under pressure,” he explains. “They (the opposition batsmen) will anyway struggle even on a decent track in Sri Lanka; they may not struggle as much as you might like, but they will struggle. So we wanted to play more matches on pitches like that. If you give them a turning track, what happens is that their bowlers also will become dangerous. If you look at the Sri Lankan pitches, most of the time we played on tracks that didn’t turn enormously. Except in Galle, wherever whatever pitch you make, the ball will turn. Other than that, the two other two pitches – Kandy and SSC in Colombo – are very good tracks.”
Warming to the theme, he uses the pitches on which India hammered England 4-0 in a five-Test series in November-December last year to drive home the point. “If you have good spinners in your side and if you give a turning track, the opposition spinners will also become dangerous. If you have good spinners, if you give a good wicket, your spinners will take wickets, their spinners will struggle, so you dominate the match,” Murali rationalises. “That’s the main thing.
“Did you play any match on a turning track against England? No. They were also not big spinners, just OK spinners, they didn’t make an impact. Even on a fourth-day wicket, you could make 600 runs. Once you put runs on the board, it is very hard for the other team to come back. Some pitches, you can’t blame the team or you can’t blame anyone else. Sometimes, if the wicket is dry and naturally dry at all times, you can’t make it into a perfect batting wicket. It is very difficult. The last match that Australia played, that turning track, that wicket has always been like that (in Pune),” adds Murali, drawing from his experience of having played at the MCA Stadium during his IPL days. “It’s a new ground; the wicket is not used too much and it is always dry. Even in the IPL, it used to have cracks there.”