Hail Murali: the humble hero who changed the game

There are those who will tell you that Muttiah Muralitharan’s gains have been ill-gotten. You know the types: the sneerers, the cynics, those who see a dark lining in every silver cloud. Do not listen to such people.

Today, Muralitharan becomes a former Test cricketer. He finished his penultimate day in Test cricket yesterday with 798 wickets as India closed on 181 for five in Galle, 63 away from making Sri Lanka bat again.

He has been a great player; by any estimation he has been one of the greatest players ever. You don’t agree? You think he’s chucked his way to nearly 800 Test wickets? Well, here’s a challenge: next time you are down at the nets, run up and chuck an off spinner – bend that arm as much as you like – and see what happens. It spun, did it? More than normal? OK, now run up and do it for four hours at a stretch, preferably in 40C (104F) heat, landing it time and again on a sixpence; now throw in half an hour of ‘doosras’, again landing each ball on a sixpence, and then imagine Sachin Tendulkar at the other end.

That bit is not so easy, is it? I know, because I watched an England off spinner try it. In a one-day international a few years ago, this off-spinner was miffed that Muralitharan was turning the ball yards while his straight-arm off spinners could barely impart any turn. ‘Right,’ he said to me as I stood at mid-off, ‘I’m going to chuck this next ball. Just watch it go.’

I did watch and it sailed down the leg side, didn’t spin an inch and was signalled a wide. He didn’t try it again.

Muralitharan has bowled thousands of balls in Test matches. I cannot remember one that ignominiously floated down the leg side without turning on the way. He was at it again yesterday, inducing an India collapse. Having added the world’s most expensive cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and the world’s sulkiest, Yuvraj Singh, to his dismissal the day before of the world’s best, Tendulkar, he walked back to the pavilion at teatime in that familiar bow-legged way, his smile radiant. Two more later gave him his – wait for it – 67th five-fer in Tests.

So even if you think he is a chucker, you must admit he has been a bloody great chucker. If you still think he’s a chucker, your complaint should be with MCC and the ICC, not Muralitharan, for it is they, between them, who altered the law, and redefined the regulations, to allow for a liberal interpretation of what is legal. You might say they have allowed Muralitharan to keep on playing; more power to their elbow, I say.

In 2000, MCC added an extra sentence to Law 24.3, the definition of a fair ball. It reads: ‘This definition shall not debar a bowler from flexing or rotating the wrist in the delivery swing.’ Muralitharan is the only bowler I can think of who does that, so it is fair to say that the change was designed to accommodate one man.

Next, it was Muralitharan’s good or bad fortune, depending on your point of view, to play at a time of great technological advance. The use of super-slow-motion cameras revealed that every bowler straightened their arm to varying degrees on delivery, which meant that every international bowler and, by extension, every bowler in the game broke Law 24.3.

What was the ICC to do? If it supported umpires such as the Australians – and it has always been the Australians who have been most anti-Muralitharan – Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson, who called Muralitharan for throwing, and if it then kicked Muralitharan out of the game, it surely faced legal action on the basis of discrimination. It found a sensible way out, bringing in a playing regulation that allowed for a certain degree of latitude in the straightening of the arm. It also should have silenced, at a stroke, the naysayers. Not that it did.

Muralitharan has had to live with the ongoing jibes and doubts and criticisms before and since. The way he has reacted without bitterness has been extraordinary. How many great players would have subjected themselves to the indignity of bowling in a cast to prove his ‘innocence’ on television? Muralitharan did, and Channel 4 viewers might have been surprised that he managed to bowl both his off spinner and his doosra in that cast, albeit not at the pace he often did in a match. It was said before this experiment that nobody could bowl a doosra without straightening their arm. Muralitharan did.

It was because of his super-rotation of the wrist that he was able to do it, and it was this that was at the heart of his greatness. Before Muralitharan, most off-spinners adhered to the MCC coaching manual: a sideways position in delivery with the standard off spinner bowled off the index finger, with an arm ball as the variation. As a result, off spin, as a match-winning threat, was a dying art before Muralitharan came along, rendered so by covered pitches and an leg-before law that discriminated against them if a batsman was canny enough to use his pad as a second line of defence.

Then came Muralitharan. He bowled off spinners from the wrist rather than the finger and from a front-on position, which was the precursor to his discovery of the doosra – effectively the off spinner’s googly. As a result he has been a game-changing bowler, and one who has done it over a long period, unlike other ‘mystery’ bowlers who flickered briefly and were extinguished.

If that was not enough, he has done it for an emerging country rather than an established one. There have been other fine cricketers from Sri Lanka in the past two decades, but without Muralitharan they would not have become a genuine Test threat, would not have won a World Cup and would not have won abroad. When Arjuna Ranatunga won the toss and bowled on a plum pitch at The Oval in 1998, he was widely thought to have lost his marbles. He later explained that his strategy was based around giving Muralitharan a breather: if he had batted first, Muralitharan would have had no rest when, not if, England followed on, he said.

A game-changer, then, and the architect of a country’s emergence as a cricketing power. More than that, he played his part in rebalancing the game after the excesses of pace in the eighties. With Shane Warne and Anil Kumble, he reminded us you didn’t have to bowl quickly and at the head to induce paralysed terror among batsmen.

The battle for leading wicket-taker in Tests see-sawed between Muralitharan and Warne until the leg spinner took his leave of serious cricket for the Indian Premier League, poker and other attractions. The argument as to who was better is often framed by parochialism: to this disinterested observer, Warne’s cricketing brain put him a notch above Muralitharan, one reason, perhaps, why some batsmen dominated the off spinner (left-handers such as Stephen Fleming and Brian Lara spring to mind) as few did Warne.

Against that, Muralitharan had to overcome barriers that Warne and most cricketers could not imagine. A Tamil in a country where Tamils were persecuted; an up-country boy in a cricket team dominated by the elite from Colombo and born with a congenital defect of his arm that, initially, might have persuaded him that a career following his father as a biscuit maker was more likely than one in international cricket.

Humble and sweet-natured, Muralitharan is revered in his country as much for his humanitarian efforts as his off spin. In an era when great sportsmen have used a charitable foundation as a fashion accessory, Muralitharan has gone about his charitable work without fuss. It is fitting that his final Test match should be in Galle, on a ground that was devastated by the tsunami – which Muralitharan fortuitously avoided by 20 minutes – and was rebuilt in no small measure thanks to his efforts.

Galle will stand to him today when the curtain descends on his Test career. He has been a remarkable cricketer: an opponent to fear; a team-mate to treasure, and a man who, time and again, has not been found wanting. The Times, 22 July 2010