Hussain v Murali incident December 14, 2003

Murali's no tell-tale

Charlie Austin on Nasser Hussain's verbal broadside
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Muttiah Muralitharan: branded a schoolboy snitch
© Getty Images

On Thursday, Nasser Hussain raised the stakes in this Test series. He was no doubt frustrated by England's inability to mop up Sri Lanka's tail and probably annoyed by the apparently chummy attitude between some of England's younger players and Muttiah Muralitharan. However, Hussain appears to have deliberately tried to rile Muralitharan with a verbal broadside.

According to Murali, it was not a cheeky one-liner or a sharp-tongued barb - it was a foul-mouthed attack upon his integrity as a player. Hussain was accused of calling him "a ****ing cheat and a ****ing chucker" as he walked to the crease. Bizarrely, though, it's England's players who are burning up inside with a sense of injustice. Sri Lanka have been accused of being squealers, and Murali is apparently a schoolboy snitch.

Hussain, aware no doubt that the stump microphones had not picked up his comments, naturally denied that he'd made such comments when he was hauled into Clive Lloyd's office after the close of play for an official inquiry. Had he been found guilty, Lloyd, the match referee, would have thrown the book at him as a former England captain. He would probably have been banned for one Test and fined. But Lloyd had no option but to clear Hussain for a lack of hard video evidence.

It was Murali's word against 11 tight-lipped English players. Lloyd, though, made it clear that he thought Hussain had muttered something nasty and warned that he would not tolerate any further behaviour, from both sides, that "threatened the integrity of the game."

The following evening, Graham Thorpe conveyed the team's surprise that Murali had bleated, first to the umpires and then to his manager when he returned to the dressing room. Thorpe likened the reaction to that of a wet-faced schoolboy. "As cricketers, we have come to expect a little bit of jabbering out in the middle," said Thorpe. "Most of the time it's in the right spirit. The only thing that surprises me is not too many players tell tales out of school. Sometimes you can push too far, but generally most players know where the line is. You don't have to run off and tell people about it."

Thorpe went even further, suggesting that Muralitharan had resorted to unsporting football style tactics to get an opponent sent off. "It's like trying to get players sent off in football by waving hands at the ref and telling him it's got to be a yellow or red card - you don't need to do it. That's not sportsmanship in my book." Fletcher also backed Hussain, although he did so in his typically bland code: "Test cricket is tough, you just have to get on with it."

No one disputes that some on-field banter is acceptable. Test cricket is a game for men; few sports provide such a searching examination of character. Witty one-liners like Kumar Sangakkara's on the third evening to Gareth Batty are fair enough. "Where's England's best offspinner?" he asked Batty at the start of his innings.

Heat of the moment comments can also be acceptable, although Darren Lehman's racist outburst in earshort of the Sri Lanka management in Brisbane earlier in the year was intolerable and rightly punished harshly. But cold-blooded, pre-meditated and obscene verbal assaults on the integrity of a player need not be tolerated. They are boorish, unnecessary and threaten the very essence of a game that is not just about winning.

We cannot be sure that Hussain said what has been alleged, although the Sri Lankans are convinced. If he did, then he did cross this fuzzy "thin line" that we keep hearing about and he should have no complaints about Murali's reaction. Michael Vaughan, the captain, who was conspicuous by his absence at the hearing on Thursday evening, also needs to decide whether he condones such behaviour within his team.

Rather than being ridiculed as a tell-tale, Murali should be lauded for standing up for himself and the game. There are few in world cricket that can match his unbridled passion and love for the game. To be accused of being a cheat would have appalled him (like it did Michael Atherton during an altercation with Kumar Sangakkara during the last tour). Sledging has never been part of his game and he, quite justifiably, does not see why he should play according other people's crass standards simply because other players have put up with obscenities before.