Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, Colombo, 5th day

The Murali muddle is more than just cricket

The Wisden Verdict by Paul Coupar in Colombo

March 28, 2004

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Murali: under fire again © Getty Images
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Chris Broad's decision to report Muttiah Muralitharan for a suspect bowling action will reverberate far beyond the cricket field in Sri Lanka.

There is genuine anger here. Not quite of effigy-burning proportions. But anger all the same. This seems odd, even absurd to some outsiders. But to understand the importance of Murali you have to understand a little about Sri Lanka.

For a start, cricket is the national game. It is said that the economy suffers when the national team plays, because attendances at work drop. For one-day internationals, this might be true. Certainly the cricket team is one of the focuses of national identity.

It also important to remember Sri Lankan history. It is a small island, about the size of Ireland. It was long subjugated. From the 17th century until 1948 it was ruled, in whole or in part, by foreigners. And even their post-independence history is troubled. Civil war broke out in 1983, and 65,000 people died. But Sri Lanka is now on the up, something that is the source of justifiable pride. Since a ceasefire in 2001, tourists and foreign investment have returned; GDP grew by 3% in 2002, and 5.5% in 2003.

So the country is delicately poised between a sometimes difficult past of subjugation, poverty and war, and the prospect of a bright future. In this society Murali is a potent symbol. He has taken more Test wickets than almost any other bowler. He is one of the world's most feared cricketers. Every time he takes the field he demonstrates that Sri Lanka can be the best. That makes him a powerful symbol of what the nation is capable of.

So when people say he cheats they are questioning something that goes deeper than cricket. This can be difficult for outsiders to understand. As one Englishman from Leicester told me in Colombo after the one-day series: "You wind them [Sri Lankans] up about him being a chucker but they don't get it. And you end up having to say 'No, he doesn't throw really. It was just a joke'."

For these reasons, Murali overtaking Courtney Walsh to become the highest wicket-taker in Test history is eagerly anticipated in Sri Lanka. He currently has 513 wickets to Walsh's 519. So he would surely have taken the record in Zimbabwe in mid-April. Although he is eligible to play, there have to be questions now about whether he will tour. And even if he does pass the record there, the shine will have been knocked off the achievement.

Many Sri Lankans will feel that this decision was timed to block Murali and allow the glory to go to Shane Warne, a white man. Several sets of officials, Sri Lankans protest, have passed Murali's doosra since it appeared in a new more vicious form against England in December 2003. Why does Chris Broad, they say, in his first series as a match referee, think differently?

Even this morning, before the story broke, a major national broadsheet, The Island, carried a waspish piece saying: "Match referees these days tend to be following double standards ... it seems like the Aussies and the English could get away with anything." In such a volatile atmosphere, this will be a huge story. And one that's about more than a cricketer with a bent arm.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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