December 3, 2007

An undiluted champion

We Hebrews have a word for such occasions: mazeltov

You wouldn’t think there could possibly be anything more he could do to embellish the legend, but even as the warm breath of the Kandy Man’s most momentous feat enveloped the Asgiriya Stadium, came another reminder of his uniqueness.

When Fred Trueman became the first man to take 300 Test wickets at The Oval in 1964, he observed with typical drollness that, if anyone outdid him, he’d be “bloody tired”. Having sent down 38,000-odd balls to Trueman’s 15,000-odd, most of them in steamy, strength-sapping conditions, Muttiah Muralitharan had even more reason to prattle on about work ethics and sweat-drenched toil. Heaven knows he’d have been justified, in the heat of the moment, in hailing his historic delivery to Paul Collingwood this morning as the greatest ball of his career, an impeccable fusion of sorcery and sauce. What followed was as unexpected as anything he has ever served up for our delectation.

Collingwood was bewitched, bothered, bewildered and bowled by a ball that straightened: the “toppie” or doosra, or so we assumed. The author, astonishingly, disclaimed all responsibility: he’d tried to bowl the orthodox offie (as if anything he does can ever be regarded as such) but “the ball went the other way”, or so he confessed in typically disarming fashion to Sky Sports’ Nick Knight. Up in the commentary box, Sir Ian of Bothamshire was pinching himself black and blue.

In each of the seven categories to the right of the wickets column – best bowling, best match bowling, average, economy rate, strike rate, five-fors and 10-fors – Murali bests Shane Warne. Among that magnificent septet, those 61 five-fors are the most revealing (Robert Croft, the former England offspinner, justly equates such hauls to centuries). Yet even that staggering stat only hints at the colossal burden the tigerish Tamil has had to bear. Only one colleague, Chaminda Vaas (322 as I write), has scalped more than 100 Test victims; only Vaas (11) among Sri Lankans has taken five wickets in an innings more than five times. No bowler since Charlie Griffith, moreover, has had his action, and hence integrity, assailed by so many outrageous slings and arrows.

Through it all, almost without exception, he has resisted any urge to bitch back, to fire vengeful salvos about Brett Lee or Shoaib Malik or any other owners of dubious actions. Through it all, he has been mindful of the wider world, of tsunami victims and those less fortunate, as kind to dressing-room newcomers as he is respectful to the senior team-mates he has carried on that impossibly broad back. We Hebrews have a word for such occasions: mazeltov, meaning "congratulations". “Mazel”, though, means luck, and luck has played no discernible part in this cockle-grilling story whatsoever.

Warne may have done more to revive the art and heart of spin, but Murali has redefined our notions of sporting heroism. Verily, a champion for our times.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton