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Missing Murali? Not so much

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Muttiah Muralitharan's is a huge shadow to break out of. He has been the single defining face of his country's cricket, to an extent that perhaps no other cricketer has been in the history of the game. It is something of an irony then, that Sri Lanka's best opportunity to launch a challenge to be the number one Test side comes at a time when Murali is just months away from retiring from Test cricket.

The question now is can Sri Lanka continue on the upwardly mobile path they are on even without Murali? The answer is rapidly hurtling towards a 'Yes'.

Murali’s career average of 22 maintained over 120 Tests and a wickets tally of 770 are no doubt something no captain would like to miss in his team. But dividing his career into four parts provides some interesting insight – the rise of Muralitharan as a player and secondly, the rise of Lanka as a test team overall. The peaks don’t coincide.

The quarter break ups are the years 1992-96, 96-00, 00-04, 04-till date. A statistical overview of these quarters suggests that Sri Lanka are becoming less and less dependent on Murali. Though, obviously, this doesn't imply that Murali is becoming irrelevant.

In his 2nd quarter, Murali's average in matches Sri Lanka won progressed from 24 to 16 as compared to his first quarter. Lanka won 14% more matches during this period, which throws light on Murali's impact on Sri Lanka's wins. 
 
However, even as Murali's average in winning matches stabilized in his 3rd and 4th quarter, Sri Lanka's fortunes rose higher than ever before. Their winning percentage rose by 23% in his 3rd quarter, and a stunning 30% in his 4th quarter (as compared to the 1st). While Murali continues to be the wizard-in-chief of the Lankan successes, it is evident that there are more players stepping up to contribute to winning causes and share the master's mantle.

But what gives the story a more interesting turn are the Man of the Match figures. Between 2000 and 2004, Murali won the Man of the Match award in 30% of the matches Sri Lanka played, a stunning statistic that reflects the giant impact of the little man on the game. Between 2004 and now, Murali's share in the Man of the Match stakes have gone down by half - it now stands at 15%. At the same time, however, Sri Lanka's failure rate has seen a sharp drop from 35% between 2000-2004 to 26% in Murali's last quarter. The figures are significant even if you account for the inherent subjectivity that may be involved in picking the MoM.

The fact that Sri Lanka have won a Test series whilst playing without Murali for only the first time in this decade (having played four of them) is not enough to arrive at this firm conclusion or that, but it is a clear sign of potential and of things to come.

An interesting sub-plot here is that while Sri Lanka seem to be showing clear signs of finding their feet in a Murali-less world in Tests, their dependence on his subterfuges in the game's mutant form, T20, is moving in an inverse direction. Murali's T20I run has so far been better than the Lankan team's overall performance (he averages 20 and has an economy rate of 6.1 as compared to the team's average of 23 and an economy rate of 7.8). Further, his performances in Lanka's wins - which includes 6 wins from WC'09 - gets even better with an average of 16 and an economy rate of 5.9. Contemplating what will happen when he does retire from Tests and concentrates solely on the limited over versions of the game makes for very interesting food for thought.

It is no co-incidence, then, that these Test match figures come at a time when Sri Lanka is enjoying the strongest batting line up in its history - one that outmatches any of their previous line-ups by far, with batsmen of such tremendous impact and promise such as Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Samaraweera and Dilshan beginning to find a stable, successful equation and balance. The bowling has ceased to be a Murali-Vaas two-man orchestra, with new players with a strong spark of genius emerging almost every series, as evidenced by Ajantha Mendis, Ranagana Herath, Lasith Malinga and Thilan Thushara.

The question now is not whether Sri Lanka has sufficient bowling talent to fill one of the biggest boots in world cricket ever. The question now is of molding the talent at hand, training it and building the consistency that was the biggest hallmark of Murali's million tricks. Perhaps this will be the last of the many great tasks Murali has performed for Sri Lankan cricket - to groom Lanka's young and promising Test bowlers in his remaining 14 months to ensure that they miss him as little as possible.

There's no way to not miss those giant, bulging eyes, and the endearingly lunatic batting, though. There are some things about Murali whose impact you simply cannot measure statistically.

(Click here to know more about Jatin)




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