From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.05 :: Jan. 31, 2009

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COVER STORY

The spin predators from Sri Lanka

Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis form an interesting but potent pair. While the former relies on flight and vicious spin, the latter is quicker through the air and depends more on subtle turn and bounce. Their contrasting styles are a nightmare for the batsmen, writes S. Dinakar.

The ball hisses in the air and fizzes off the pitch. Spin, control, two-way turn and bounce confound the batsmen. Bowling is transformed into an art where the angles and the trajectory are explored. Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis are spin predators who can slice through line-ups. The two create pressure from both ends with their precision and strike with their craft.

Muralitharan and Mendis form the premier spin bowling combination in world cricket today — in both Tests and one-day internationals. This is an interesting pair. Muralitharan is 36 and Mendis 23. Muralitharan relies on flight and vicious spin. Mendis, quicker through the air, depends more on subtle turn and bounce.

Their contrasting styles do not allow the batsmen to settle into a rhythm. Both are off-spinners by name. The two can send down virtually all forms of deliveries. These balls are laced with venom.

The Pakistani innings was in a shambles in the second ODI in Karachi recently. Muralitharan and Mendis had spun a web in a series turning game. The former conquered yet another peak during the three-match series by becoming only the second bowler, after Pakistan’s Wasim Akram, to scalp 500 batsmen in the ODIs. The Sri Lankan’s feat is remarkable in an era of heavy bats and shrinking boundaries. Muralitharan has reached the 500-wicket mark in 324 games with an economy rate of 3.87 and a strike rate of 34.8 — exceptional figures for a spinner.

Akram’s 502 wickets — economy rate 3.89 and strike rate 36.2 — came from 356 matches. Both are legendary bowlers but Muralitharan’s achievement — the statistics favour him as well — is higher on the scale of difficulty. And let’s not forget for a moment that Muralitharan is the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket — 769 wickets in 125 Tests at 21.95 (economy rate 2.43 and strike-rate 54.00). He is now poised to take over from Akram as the most successful bowler in one-day internationals during the five-match India-Sri Lanka ODI series.

In the three-Test series against India at home last year, Mendis and Muralitharan called the shots. The accomplished Indian batsmen, save the marauding Virender Sehwag — who makes his own rules — and Gautam Gambhir, were brushed aside by the Mendis-Muralitharan combo. This was the series — played in Colombo and Galle — where Mendis set a Test record for most wickets — 26 — by a bowler on debut in a three-Test series. The break-up of the wickets taken by Mendis and Muralitharan in the series shows the two often bowled and struck in tandem. When Murali scalped 11 batsmen (five wickets in the first innings and six in the second) in the first Test at the SSC, Mendis picked up four wickets in each innings. Mendis prised out six batsmen in the first innings and four in the second at Galle. Muralitharan claimed two and three wickets. Then at the P. Sara Stadium, where Sri Lanka nailed the series, Mendis took five in the first and three in the second innings. Muralitharan played a supporting role with two and three wickets.

Mendis has been sensational with his unique style of bowling. Muralitharan has acknowledged that the arrival of the young spinner will enable him to prolong his own international career. Mendis does take an enormous load off Muralitharan. He has, on occasions, donned the cloak of the spin spearhead. The carom-ball bowler ambushed India in the Asia Cup final in Pakistan with a sensational six for 13 and then destroyed a famous line-up in the Test series in Lanka.

However, the Indians did handle him better in the following ODI series clinched by Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men. The skipper himself showed the way by countering Mendis off his front foot; of course, the absence of bat-pad men in the abbreviated form of the game made this ploy easier.

Vasu Paranjpe, a famous coach from Mumbai, avers that batsmen have to move forward early against Mendis and play the ball late. “A batsman’s trigger movement should take him about five or six inches forward at the point of delivery. The head, still and steady, and the shoulder should move forward. The elbow should come back towards the body,” he says.

While the batsman’s trigger movement takes him forward, he does not commit himself. Thus, he is well placed to stroke off the back-foot if the length warrants the switch. Mendis is hard to pick due to his quick-arm action. Thus it becomes crucial for the batsmen to follow the course of the seam. They need to watch the hand very closely.

The Lankan’s potent delivery is one that spins away like a leg-break. Mendis holds the ball on the seam — between the thumb and the index finger — with the seam facing gully. He then flicks the ball forward with his strong and supple middle finger. One clue to the batsman about the approaching carom ball is that Mendis’ other fingers are raised at the point of release.

Even deceptive bowlers can be sorted out by thinking batsmen. Paranjpe points out that Mendis flights only his googlies. Yet, the Lankan is a canny customer. The manner in which he out-thought a well-settled Rahul Dravid in the third Test at the P. Sara ground last year is fresh in memory. Changing the angle and pace, Mendis dismissed Dravid with a quicker one from round the wicket.

Indeed, for someone so young, Mendis has a sound temperament. He is unruffled by the pressures of a big game. He plots and executes his plans. His variety — he can bowl the flipper, top-spinner, googly, leg-break and off-break — makes Mendis a compelling bowler.

His early international record reflects his success. Mendis has 33 wickets (strike rate 37.4) from just four Tests and 59 scalps (strike rate 17.7) from 24 ODIs. His economy rate in the ODIs — 3.68 — throws light on his control.

Sri Lanka has won three of the four Tests in which Muralitharan and Mendis have combined. But for an inspired Sehwag at Galle, the tally could have been four out of four. The potency of this spin pair makes Sri Lanka a dark horse for a surge up the Test rankings at a time when Australia has slipped.

The South African batsmen, in particular, could be probed by Muralitharan and Mendis. The close cordon and the tendency of present day umpires to hand out fatal leg-before verdicts off the front foot makes this pair even more dangerous in Test cricket.

If the batsmen do not read these two bowlers from the hand — playing them off the surface requires a lot of luck — they could be in big trouble. Thrusting the front-foot forward instinctively may not be an answer.

Muralitharan continues to evolve. The slider — a close cousin of the flipper — is his latest innovation. Despite a mountain of achievements, he retains the hunger and the reflexes. The ease with which he held the ball when Pakistan’s Khurram Mansoor boomed one back at him in Karachi indicates that this Lankan lion has a lot of cricket and fight left in him.

The success of Muralitharan and Mendis in the ODI series in Pakistan is creditable. One of the Power Play set of overs can be taken by the batting side but then these two spinners can strike if a strong inner ring is in place. And they have a cerebral captain in Mahela Jayawardene to manage the overs and the field settings.




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