On top of the world
Muttiah Muralitharan’s record is likely to last a long, long time, if not forever, writes Stephen Brenkley
Does becoming the leading wicket-taker make Muttiah Muralitharan the greatest bowler ever? When England’s Sydney Barnes pitched up, in every sense, at Durban in December 1913, he created a world record that was to stand for about 23 years. Murali did something similar during the Kandy Test against England.
It is vaguely conceivable that some genius-cum-freak will come along in the next decade and start turning the ball around corners but considering that this generation has already had two such phenomena (Murali and Shane Warne), the next one may have to be a four-armed bloke from the planet Zog.
There was the sense that 35-year-old Murali knew his figure would be around for a long time. He had twice held the record before but this was when it counted, this was when he had rounded the final bend and broken everybody. This was when he had at last, inexorably, overtaken Warne with everybody else long since in the distance.
"Warne stopped after the last Ashes series and I continued; so this record will last," said Murali The only other challenger is Anil Kumble, if he plays for a few more years than me, otherwise it will stand for a long time." Few would be willing to rule out forever.
Murali has become appreciably more prolific as a bowler as the years have gone on.
In the 27 matches it took Barnes to take 189 wickets, Murali took 101. By the early part of the millennium, Murali had raised that rate to more than five wickets a match. Sometime in 2003, however, he developed the doosra, the one that went the other way. Since then he has been taking his wickets at more than seven a match, his last 260 since playing England four years ago at an average of 18.
It would be more than a pity if history was to judge him unkindly, it would be a travesty. Science has cleared him, players recognise they have to play him, whatever their private thoughts.
Muralitharan is a country boy, albeit the scion of a biscuit manufacturer. He represents a country which did not start playing Test cricket until 1982. He is playing in an era when grounds have become smaller, bats have got bigger, pitches have got flatter and batsmen have become larger.
All this counts in his favour when considering his place in the pantheon. He has taken 432 wickets in Sri Lanka, altogether 528 on the subcontinent. He has never performed well in Australia (as Warne never did in India), and that is perhaps to his disfavour.
He has no favourites among the wickets. They are all important, though number 520 (Zimbabwean Mluleki Nkala) when he first broke the record, and number 709 (Paul Collingwood) are unforgettable.
If there was not such euphoria when he first broke the record that was because the match took place in Harare in as low key a Test as it is possible to imagine. He will now hold it indefinitely.
Murali was delighted to do it in his home town. He first played at the Asgiriya ground as a 15-year-old for Trinity College, whose ground it is. As a schoolboy he took 100 wickets in a season there.
"The best batsmen I bowled to was Brian Lara because I played him more than anybody else. Subcontinental batsmen are good players of spin. I would also say that Andy Flower (Zimbabwe) and Graham Thorpe (England) were difficult to bowl to." Not as difficult as he was to face, but, interestingly, all left-handers.
Warne, it will be remembered, was voted as one of the five greatest cricketers of the 20th century. Quite right, too, because he revived an art form. But if the millennium was shoved seven years back, would Murali make the cut? It is doubtful considering the baggage.
If Barnes was the greatest bowler of the first part of the 20th century, he was succeeded by Australian spin bowlers like Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett. In the latter half of the century, pace came to the fore again because pace hurts.
No discussion is complete without the mention of Fred Trueman, who finished with 307 wickets and was the leading wicket-taker for 13 years, a tenure second only to Barnes.
After he took his 300th wicket, Trueman was asked if anybody would ever match his record. Echoing something that his fellow Yorkshireman had said after taking 200 wickets and scoring 2,000 runs in the 1906 summer, Trueman said if anybody ever broke his record they would be bloody tired. Tired? Three hundred wickets is a walk in the park these days.
The 1970s brought more ferocious velocity, an array of intimidating West Indies bowlers worth their place on the list of great bowlers. Many of them were the contemporaries of Aussie Dennis Lillee. And then came the Pakistan duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. All these men brought something different to the game. But the record will never be held again by a fast bowler. They would have to be around for 20 years, never injured and come from Zog.
Today, the standard of international bowling is not especially high. It is just one of those things perhaps, but it makes Murali somehow more eminent. He is a great cricketer whatever it is he does with the ball and he is an outstanding man.
— By arrangement with The Independent
Simply being part of the US Davis Cup tennis team was a dream come true for the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike.
Victory in last week’s final against holders Russia, which gave the USA their first success in the competition since 1995, was the crowning moment of the twins’ glittering careers.
"This ranks at the very top," Bob Bryan said in an interview after the Americans had clinched the three-day tie 4-1 at the near-capacity Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
"I would clean out my whole trophy case to put the Davis Cup trophy in there. I would give away all the titles for this one."
The dominant Bryan brothers have won 44 ATP titles together, including five Grand Slam crowns, and have ended 2007 as the world’s number one men’s doubles team for the third successive year.
In the Davis Cup final, the crowd-pleasing, chest-bumping Bryan brothers crushed Russians Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 to give the Americans an unbeatable 3-0 lead.
Another major plus for the USA in their 2007 campaign was the form of world number six Andy Roddick.
In the final, though, the pivotal match was the gutsy 6-3, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 victory by American number two James Blake over Mikhail Youzhny on the first day.
"When James plays like that, it’s going to be tough to beat this team," Bob said. "Youzhny was incredible and James stepped up and beat a really tough player."
The road ahead
After wrapping up their first Davis Cup title in 12 years, the USA look forward to a daunting run of likely away ties in their 2008 defence.
Although the triumphant Americans have become formidable on hardcourt surfaces, Bob Bryan accepts they face an uphill task playing top claycourt teams away from home.
"It’s going to be tough to win two singles matches against teams like Spain or Argentina," Bob told a news conference after losing his reverse singles match to Russia’s Igor Andreev on Sunday.
"That’s pretty obvious. They’ve got some incredible players, monsters. If we get one of those teams, we’re probably going to be severe underdogs."
The USA have been drawn to play Austria away in their opening World Group match in February. After that, they face the prospect of France at home in the quarters before a trip to either Germany or Spain in the last four.
However, a key to their 2007 success was winning two tricky away ties against the Czech Republic, in the first round, and Sweden in the semifinals.
"The win in Ostrava was big because we played a claycourt away tie against a very good team," US captain Patrick McEnroe said as he celebrated his team’s breakthrough Davis Cup success after seven unsuccessful years in charge.
"The three other years we’ve made it far, the semis twice and the finals, we played very strong countries on clay.
"So this year, when we won that, we thought maybe things can break right for us," added McEnroe.
"To go to Sweden and to win away in the semis was big and I think we caught a little break when Argentina lost (to Sweden in the quarters). They would have been very tough on clay.
"The experience these guys have had over the years was really key towards handling our away matches and also handling the emotion of the home matches really well," he said. — Reuters
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite — better known as Kaka — had long been the outstanding front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (golden ball), one of the most prestigious awards in football.
Few could contest the fact that during the year, the Brazilian attacking midfielder has been the stand-out player across the globe.
It was back in April that he virtually assured he would walk off with the Ballon d’Or — formerly known in English as the European Player of the Year award before it was this year opened up to the world — after a virtuoso display in the Champions League semifinal (first leg) at Old Trafford.
Kaka twice bedazzled the Manchester United defence and although his AC Milan team eventually went down 2-3 in a thrilling contest, his two strikes proved crucial when the Italians won the second leg 3-0 at home to progress to the final.
Until those two matches, there were two contenders for the unofficial title of world’s best player, with United’s Cristiano Ronaldo sharing column inches and gushing praise with Kaka.
But over those two matches, Kaka proved he was the finished article to Ronaldo’s advanced work-in-progress.
Since then the Brazilian has simply re-confirmed over and again his status as the successor to Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro.
At 25, he has already won all there is to win, individually and collectively.
He was part of the Brazil squad that won the 2002 World Cup, although his contribution to that success was limited to just 19 minutes as a substitute against Costa Rica, and he won the Champions League with Milan last season, also finishing as the tournament’s top goal-scorer. He won the Italian domestic title in his first season at Milan, having joined from Brazilians Sao Paulo.
Kaka is a complete player. Not especially quick and certainly not with the same dribbling skills as Ronaldo or the same box of tricks as Ronaldinho, he is simply a more effective all-round player than anyone else.
What also sets him apart are his spiritual beliefs.
Kaka’s goal celebration is as well known as Alan Shearer’s once was. After every strike he raises his hands to the sky, looks up and thanks God.
Kaka is a devout evangelical Christian and proudly boasts that he was a virgin until marrying his wife Caroline. The couple got engaged in 2002 but were not married until December 2005.
It is clear that God comes first in Kaka’s life. He is a member of the "Athletes of Christ" organisation and following Milan’s Champions League triumph last May, he took off his shirt to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the words — "I belong to Christ".
And while some of his peers, particularly Brazil team-mates, display the excesses of making the most of their fame and fortune, Kaka stands out for his exemplary lifestyle. — AFP