A man apart
Not wholly hero, not wholly victim, Muttiah Muralitharan's place in the history of sport is unique.
When great athletes are done and dusted, team shirts slid into mothballed suitcases, boots plastic-bagged in a musty garage, the final entries inked into record books, judgement commences.
Epitaphs are pondered, legacies mulled over, contributions estimated. But just gauging quality of skill is not sufficient anymore. Eventually, in that great filing cabinet of history, we slot them into categories, deciding for future generations what these men represented. Were they heroes of cool courage and fine character, victims of injustice and bias, villains whose dark deeds tarnished their greatness?
With Muttiah Muralitharan, his career admittedly not done, we are unsure of what will be said, which file he belongs in. This man is history's dilemma.
A great ambiguity surrounds Muttiah Muralitharan; some paint him as sinner, others sketch him as saint. He is proof of wondrous skill for some and evidence of rules being conveniently bent for others; he is champion yet he is cheat. Argument over Muttiah Muralitharan is unending, it is alive with bias (both ways), and it is absent of conclusion except this: the page on his life will be marked with an asterisk. It suggests something villainous, and perhaps it does not.
Athletes across all sports have owned careers shadowed by suspicion, great deeds blotted by acts of alleged dishonesty, fine skill tainted by moments of indiscretion. It is a stain no powder can easily wash off.
Almost every profile of Vijay Singh, the golfer, will carry mention of a vague, unsubstantiated incident where he allegedly changed his scorecard years ago. He is a different man and an altered player, but this hideous charge pursues his every step. Eventually it may be reduced to only a footnote, and perhaps that would only be fair. History will be less kind to Mike Tyson, and perhaps rightly so, for when his record is spoken of, they will ask, which one, prison or boxing? The picture of a rapist handcuffed will stand alongside those of a gloved champion. We will see, too, Maradona's genius, yet it will not obscure totally his Hand of God goal and ephedrine use; we will note Ben Johnson's proud face at the finish of the 100 metres at Seoul 1988, yet also his head down in humiliation as he was whisked out of the country in drug disgrace.
Mohammad Azharuddin and Bruce Grobbelaar had brilliant careers coloured by suggestions of match-fixing; Florence Griffith-Joyner's grand feats are stalked by scepticism; Petr Korda's Australian Open win lost its purity with a charge that he had swallowed banned substances.
Muralitharan's beauty has been corroded somewhat by controversy, but it takes too great a leap in imagination, too great an embrace of prejudice, to put him in such company. He may stoically bear the burden of defamation ("chucker", "thief", "javelin thrower"), but he is no Tyson, no Maradona; he is neither criminal nor apparent cheat. He has not sent vile text messages or snorted cocaine or assaulted a woman. He has not been punished for using unfair means for, the clamour over his doosra aside, twice he has been cleared by the University of Western Australia.
Murali may stoke debate, some of it cruel, but here he does not belong. This is a better man, a decent human being, a cleaner practitioner, a man whose tarnish is different. His asterisk is unique; it is his alone.
Some might prefer to see him as heroic victim, presuming that the future will give us clarity, that time and distance will allow us to recognise he that was wronged, as if in a way he was some Jim Thorpe-like figure. The Native-American decathlete was stripped of his 1912 Olympic gold and publicly vilified after it was revealed he had earned $25 a week playing minor league baseball in 1909-10, thus negating his amateur status. Eventually, after his death, public outcry led to a reinstatement of medal and reputation.
But Murali does not fit here either; he is not seen as having committed one minor indiscretion, or as an uneducated man unaware of the rules. He is not seen as manipulated but as manipulative, at least by his critics. Thorpe was possibly ignorant; Murali is viewed in parts of the world as audacious. Thorpe's legend has been universally embraced; with Murali geography determines the response: the East believes him, much of the West does not.
But as much as some are loath to see him as victim, it is hard to deny that Murali has been persecuted. For nine years since he was first called in Australia in 1995-96, he has endured a scrutiny beyond comparison in modern cricket. If one considers the span of his hounding - nine years - then one might go further and argue that he has few rivals in sport itself. As Daryl Foster, of the University of Western Australia, who knows him well, says, "He is one of the most harassed human beings in sport."
Athletes are constantly facing adversity, in varying forms. For some the challenge is physical, like golfer Ben Hogan who won the US Open 16 months after breaking his collarbone, rib, ankle and pelvis in an accident. Others face a sterner examination, confronted not merely by the derision of crowds and media, but contempt by society itself. Nothing in history can rival the struggle for acceptance by African-American athletes, the scorn they met with dignity, their hurdling of obstacles.
Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team, encountered jeers from audiences, hate mail, death threats, and was even shunned by team-mates. On trips to athletic meets Jesse Owens would eat breakfast in the car, disallowed as he was from joining his white peers inside the diner. In a story told in Donald McCrae's In Black and White, when Joe Louis vanquished Primo Carnera, a wire reporter, using every base stereotype, wrote of him: "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle tonight to strike down Carnera." But they, heroes all, prevailed.
Murali is not the standard bearer of some cause, a breaker of barriers. He is not (though some may argue) discriminated against by virtue of his colour; he exists in a society seemingly more civilised and reasonable; he gets no death threats we know of. He does not belong with Owens, or Robinson; his burden is hardly so encompassing. But he is familiar with contempt, and yet again, his predicament is distinctive, his persecution has no particular parallel.
When he bowls, he knows cameras are focused on his arm, commentators on his action, and that words will be said, usually not pretty. Spectators in Australia simply bellowed "Nooo" with every delivery; an opponent has allegedly called him a "f------ cheat" to his face; every press conference is rich with allegation. It is an unrelenting pressure that demands an erratic response, either in behaviour or performance, but it has not come. This man has more character than we think; he has grace; he has been for some even heroic.
Foster says that "lesser men would have completely broken down", and perhaps that is beyond dispute. Through it all, Murali has stayed the course, remained committed to his craft; and his world record is testimony to a moral strength and self-belief that he is not adequately celebrated for.
But still, for all this, history will not know what to do with Muttiah Muralitharan. He is certainly not a villain, he will never be fully embraced as victim, and he does not stand as a conventional hero. He is truly a man apart.
Rohit Brijnath is a sportswriter based in Australia. This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket