Forget the cynics, Muralitharan is a master December 12, 2005

A genius at work

Muralitharan has always lived life with a smile, refusing to be cowed by the poisoned darts sent his way

Muttiah Muralitharan has done much to elevate his sport into the realms of fantasy © Getty Images

With Muttiah Muralitharan, there never has been and there never will be any unanimity. Years from now, some will regard him as a rubber-wrist magician who contributed immeasurably to the revival of the slow-bowling art. Others, the eternal cynics, will talk of angles of flexion and straightening of arms while attempting to tarnish his achievements.

His spell on the second morning at the Kotla was among the most memorable that you'll ever see, but while some of us watched with unabashed admiration and considered it a privilege to be there, others took the view: "So what, he's still a chucker." The doosras that embarrassed Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were classic examples of bowling subterfuge, but for these hanging judges, they were mere illustrations of a flawed action.

You would expect such talk to make a man retreat into himself, and become some sort of embittered recluse. Murali, though, has always lived life with a smile, refusing to be cowed by the poisoned darts sent his way. When I first talked to him, months after his doosra had been outlawed and just days after he had undergone televised tests with Channel Four in the UK, he was philosophical about his plight. But there was no brooding, and looking back, the impression I have is of an impish character who you couldn't help but like - a larrikin, if you were to use Aussie-speak.

You also couldn't help but notice how there were no airs about him. As we chatted, a young boy knocked and came in with room service - Murali's dinner of dal and roti. After enquiring about the steward's job and his family, Murali took up the bill to sign it. His eyebrows arched like those of a Kathakali dancer, and he said with a laugh: "Six hundred and fifty Rupees? This dal must be made of gold."

He is justifiably proud of the distance he has traversed since he first twirled his arm over in the backyard of the family home in Kandy, and there was a beaming smile as he talked of confounding Allan Border as a 20-year-old unknown. One swish followed another, with the ball nestling in the keeper's gloves, and Murali's memories of the event shed some light on how perplexing a proposition he can be. "He thought I was a legspin bowler because I used my wrists so much. He played for that, rather than offspin."

He spoke of how he had always relished such challenges. "Contests against proven players are enjoyable but also difficult," he said. "I wouldn't call it cat-and-mouse, but it's hard. You stick to your basics, and remember that you get more chances as a bowler than the batsman. I can make a mistake, they can't."

If only winning over the doubters was as easy as befuddling batsmen. It was perhaps with that in mind that he subjected himself to that trial by TV, while his team-mates played Australia at Darwin and Cairns. It involved a brace made of stainless steel and moulded plastic - one that could be bent only by King Kong or Godzilla. Wearing it, Murali went through his repertoire - the offspinner, doosra and the top spinner.

It wasn't enough, and several in the cricket fraternity still view him with jaundiced eyes. The only time Murali lost his composure when we talked was at the mention of Bishan Singh Bedi. "I don't care for Bedi," he said, with something approaching a sneer. "Whatever he has said is purely out of jealousy. He was a spinner. I have taken 250 [now 311] wickets more than him. He's a jealous man, a man who loves creating a controversy. "I care only about the real legends of cricket, like Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar."

Arjuna Ranatunga is one legend who has done more than most to protect Murali from adverse reaction. When asked about the reaction to Murali in Australia, he said: "People only throw stones at ripe mangoes" - an oblique reference to what he saw as vested interests in those that ran the game.

Whether you like it or not, Murali - like the pigeon-toed Garrincha and the hopelessly flat-footed and freakishly elbowed Shoaib Akhtar - is an anatomical anomaly. And like Garrincha, the Brazilian winger who tormented a generation of full-backs, Murali has done much to elevate his sport into the realms of fantasy. Since we don't carry protractors with us into the press box, you can't really say whether the arm straightens 14 degrees or 16 while bowling the doosra. And sometimes you wonder if it even matters.

When you get to watch a delivery like the one - ripped almost like a Shane Warne legspinner - that ended an unequal contest against Mahendra Singh Dhoni, you can only sit back and admire genius at work. Unless you're mean-spirited, in which case you'll be too busy looking for feet of clay to appreciate the intricate art of a true master.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo