The final of ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 is a fitting setting for Muttiah Muralidaran to take his leave of the international cricket stage. Having taken a total of 1347 wickets in all international cricket so far, he will be hoping to put even more daylight between himself and the chasing pack. Second-placed Shane Warne is the only other player with more than a thousand, and the leading other current player is Brett Lee with “only” 676. If Murali's total of wickets is unlikely to be broken, how has he performed in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings over the course of his long career?
Having made his Test debut in August 1992, his first three years brought him 81 wickets in 23 Tests at a respectable average of 33.88, but gave no real indication of the huge strides he was to make later in his career. However, 42 wickets in his next seven Tests propelled him to his first appearance in the top ten, which came in June 1997. At that time, the top four bowlers were all pacemen - Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath led the way, tied on 861 points each, followed by Allan Donald and Wasim Akram. Murali had 715 points, but the only way was up from then onwards.
It was another five years before Murali first hit the top spot, after taking 9-51 and 4-64 against Zimbabwe at Kandy in January 2002. That first innings was the occasion when he nearly made cricket history. Having taken all nine Zimbabwe wickets to fall on the first day's play, he had Travis Friend dropped by Russel Arnold at silly-point the following morning to narrowly miss becoming just the third bowler to take all ten wickets in a Test innings.
That haul took him past Glenn McGrath at the top of the bowling rankings with a total of 907 points, and he scarcely dropped from the rarefied air of the 900-point mark for the next six and a half years. His peak came in July 2007 when he reached 920 points after taking 6-28 and 6-54 against Bangladesh at Kandy, a points tally only surpassed by three bowlers in the history of the game - Sydney Barnes, George Lohmann and Imran Khan. However, Murali's total set a new record for a spinner - going past Tony Lock's 912 points from 1958.
He spent a total of 1711 days as the top-rated Test bowler - a fair way down the list, but it should be noted that far more Test Matches are played now than in previous generations. This places him 13th on that particular list, which is headed by Bill O'Reilly - who had the Second World War to boost him up to 3643 days on top.
However, when we examine the number of Tests each bowler has spent in the number one position, Murali's total of 214 puts him on top. In fact the leading thee bowlers in this respect are all modern-day players, with Glenn McGrath (174 matches) and Curtly Ambrose (145 matches) filling the next two spaces on that list. By contrast, O'Reilly was top for just 24 matches.
Murali made his ODI debut a year after his first Test appearance and his first 21 matches brought just 19 wickets at a cost of 40 runs apiece. He came to the fore as Sri Lanka triumphed in ICC Cricket World Cup 1996 in the Subcontinent, and his star rapidly rose in the shorter form of the game at the same time. He first cracked the top ten in early 1997 during a successful series in Sharjah, and he spent the vast majority of the next 12 years in the world's top ten.
It was October 2000 when he first sneaked above Glenn McGrath and made it to top spot in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI bowlers. His figures of 7-30 against India at Sharjah were a world record for ODI cricket at the time and took him to 851 points. Two days later he took 3-6 in six overs against the same opposition to rise even further to 880 points, and he didn't move out of the top three for the next five years.
However, unlike his domination of the Test bowling rankings, this period provided a large amount of tussling for positions at the top. From the time Murali first reached number one to when he finally relinquished it in October 2004, a number of other bowlers also enjoyed top spot. In fact, that period could well be considered one of the golden eras of ODI bowling with the Sri Lankan maestro having to share the limelight with Shaun Pollock, Glenn McGrath and team-mate Chaminda Vaas.
Murali's peak points tally came in April 2002 when he had the astonishing figures of 10-3-9-5 against New Zealand at Sharjah. That performance propelled him up to 913 points, which is the fourth-highest achieved by anyone since ODI cricket started in 1971. Only Joel Garner (941), Richard Hadlee (924) and Shaun Pollock (917) have ever acquired more points, and by way of a comparison, today's top-ranked bowler Daniel Vettori has a total of 701.
Despite this fierce competition for the top spot, Murali spent a total of 244 matches and 731 days at the top ranked bowler in ODI cricket. Whereas these are a fair way behind the respective leaders in those fields - Shaun Pollock (844 matches) and Curtly Ambrose (2057 days) - this represents a massive contribution given that he hardly ever had the opportunity to enjoy the new ball.
By his own incredibly high standards, Murali's returns in One Day cricket in 2009 and 2010 were fairly modest, and it may have appeared as if his powers were somewhat on the wane as the effort of bowling more than 60 thousand deliveries in international cricket began to take its toll. But he roared back into action in ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 as 11 wickets in four matches helped Sri Lanka reach its third final.
It would only be fair to make a passing mention of his batting. Always unorthodox, but occasionally very effective, he boasts 1261 Test runs and even has a fifty to his name with an innings of 67 against India at Kandy in 2001. He never quite made it into the world's top 100 in Test cricket, peaking at 102nd late in his career in 2009 after an innings of 29 against India at Kanpur.
With fewer batting opportunities in ODI cricket, he peaked early in his career with 266 points and 112th position late in 1998. However, he was responsible for winning at least a couple of matches for Sri Lanka with the bat - notably against Bangladesh at Mirpur in early 2009 and against Australia at Melbourne in late 2010.
And so he takes his leave from the international stage as the top wicket-taker in both Test and One Day International cricket, will we ever see his like again? Possibly not, but one of the joys of cricket is that we never know quite what is around the corner and records are always there to be broken.