Simon Barnes, courtesy of Cricket Monthly, February 2016 and ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “Favourite Moments. The pricking of pomposity” … Murali’s 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998 were not only match-winning, they were epoch-changing
When it comes to cricket I’ve always been a secret Sri Lankan. The combination of maverick and underdog is irresistible. Besides, I’ve always had a wonderful time in Sri Lanka. The place gave me a great friendship with fellow gonzo journalist Nalin Wijesekera and a close encounter with a blue whale. So I’ve always resented England cricket’s patronising treatment of Sri Lanka. It was all but 20 years before they agreed to play a Test series of more than one match against Sri Lanka. So they had it coming all right. And they got it at The Oval in 1998.
I’ve also resented the treatment of the great Muttiah Muralitharan. Even after his action was cleared by scientific measurement, there were still plenty of people who knew better. They knew nothing of the science of the thing, of course, but what did that matter? They felt in their water that there was something amiss. And they actually thought that was good enough, and frequently wrote as much, generally in the Australian press.
They were faced with a choice: either this was the most remarkable bowler who had ever taken up the game, or he was a rotten cheat. Too many people went for the second assessment because – well, because it was more their size.
So Sri Lanka came to England in 1998 for their solitary Test match, and someone absent-mindedly prepared a turning wicket at The Oval. Not that England were complaining after Sri Lanka won the toss and put them in to bat and they made 445 runs despite Murali’s seven wickets. Sri Lanka went on to score 591, thanks to a brilliant 213 from Sanath Jayasuriya. And then the fun began.
I have three possibilities for my chosen moment. The first is when Mark Butcher was stumped as he looked to hit Murali out of the attack, the first wicket of the innings. The second is the run-out of Alec Stewart by the substitute Upul Chandana, which probably prevented Murali from taking all 10. But I have chosen the last wicket of the innings, in which the defiant Darren Gough was bowled behind his back by a doosra, giving Murali figures of 9 for 65. Jayasuriya knocked off most of the few remaining runs, whacking a couple of derisive sixes as Sri Lanka hammered England by 10 wickets.
England’s manager, David Lloyd – the delightful Bumble – was in a sour mood afterwards. “I have my opinions that I have made known to the authorities.” There’s still a view in England cricket that this was a result that didn’t count. That the pitch was a freak and the bowler was a cheat. Not best pleased: David Lloyd on the balcony © PA Photos
And yet the truth is obvious and glorious: that there are times when a single genius, in the company of a skillful and motivated team, can change the course of a cricket match and cricket history. For Murali was the most wonderful bowler. The bouncing run, the wrist rotated with the fantastic delicacy of a classical dancer, the looping flight well above the batsman’s eyeline, and then the guessing game, the three-card trick, what Americans call the Shall Game: Which way will it go? Left or right or straight on?
Murali was a rare kind of cricketer, one who can seize control of an occasion and do so without arrogance or strut or self-consciousness. There were times, very many of them, in which he simply accepted that it was his moment and that he could do nothing other than bowl the opposition out. On occasions he seemed half-embarrassed at having to point out a batsman’s obvious flaws, as if it really wasn’t his fault that batsmen were so incapable of judging the flight and turn of his deliveries.
And at The Oval, those splendid five days, in which he took 16 wickets for 220 runs, were the most glorious up-yours to all England’s snobbery and long-outdated notions of patronising cricketers of the subcontinent.
It was England cricket’s deathbed conversion to the new realities of international cricket. It was an acceptance, however unwilling, that extraordinary cricketing ability was a more widely distributed thing than they had previously considered. It was the most glorious pricking of pomposity.
And for everyone with cricket in the blood, it was an occasion of pure joy. Sporting excellence is a rare thing, the rarest thing of all, and in the end it matters far more than the joys of partisanship or the pleasures of great drama. Here was a genius in his pomp.
Poor Goughie. All that admirable resistance undone in a moment of perfection. It was time for a lot of things to be reassessed. Here was a ball-playing genius on par with Roger Federer and Lionel Messi – players who redefine their own game and go beyond the limits set down by previous generations. Those who fail to cheer such things don’t really understand what sport is for. And don’t deserve to have sport in their lives.
Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books
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