'Murali will always be a beacon of hope'
My first association with Murali was while playing Under-15 cricket for Trinity School. I used to attend training sessions held in the back garden of Sunil Fernando, the coach who discovered Murali's precious talent and asked him to switch from medium-pace to spin. I still remember the day that Sunil called Murali into my net to bowl. Even then, on concrete, you could only marvel at his talent as the ball turned square. We knew he was very special.
Thereafter, a few years his junior, I followed his career closely from my television set in the Kandy hills. I remember his first Test in 1992 and the bemusement of Craig McDermott and Tom Moody, his first victims, as they were exposed to his unique brand of spin for the first time. I watched him bowl magnificently during the 1996 World Cup and marvelled at his brilliance in 1998 when he single-handedly destroyed England at The Oval. I watched him win match after match and I was in awe.
Then, in 2000, I was suddenly elevated into the Sri Lanka team. In those days my wicket-keeping was far from polished. I'd just replaced Romesh Kaluwitharana, one of Sri Lanka's favourite cricketers. Many were upset by Kalu's omission and I felt a huge pressure. But after just a few deliveries keeping to Murali I felt out of my depth. I was trying my hardest but I was missing more of his deliveries than I gloved. It was impossible to read his trickery. Murali, though, was also the first to come up and give me encouragement. He spent hours helping me. I will never forget his support back then.
Indeed, that has been a hallmark of him throughout his career. He is a big man, Sri Lanka's best ever cricketer, but he is also the first man to help any youngster in the side. For such a great cricketer he carries so little pride - he is just one of the guys. I have watched newcomers coming into the squad feeling awkward and nervous. Invariably, he is the first to aid them, going out of his way to help them relax, building up a wonderful rapport and a sense of familiarity. Murali cares deeply about his team and all those around him.
I have been fortunate because as wicketkeeper I have had the best view in world of his magic and artistry, the extent of which never ceases to amaze me. He has so many different deliveries and tricks, subtle variations over which he has complete mastery. I have watched the best batsmen in the world, the Lara's and Tendulkar's of this planet, try to combat his wiles and I have seen just how hard they are forced to work. Even the very best, those with the keenest eye, are deceived on a regular basis.
Remarkably, he keeps getting better and better too, inventing new tricks all the time and constantly developing one of the sharpest minds in cricket. The sky is the limit for his career. Despite now having 600 wickets, he remains young and could still play for a long time. Perhaps he will take 800, maybe even 900. Who knows? His greatness as a spinner is assured.
But I will also remember 'Murali the Man'. When I think of him I see that big, wide grin and a fierce strength of character that has carried him through the ignorance that has made his career and life so tough. There is not single ounce of doubt in my mind about the legality of his action. I have witnessed it from close quarters and seen all the testing over the years. But tragically so-called "experts" have made his life miserable at times. I could not have taken what he has been through. His inner strength is astonishing: he just takes it on the chin, with a smile. Through it all his love of cricket shines through.
Murali is a simple, humble man, but a beacon of hope for the whole of Sri Lanka. I have never met a man so honest and willing to speak his mind, a trait that has created misunderstanding at times. But he cannot be silenced when confronted with injustice. He has a basic goodness and humanity that is inspiring. For Murali, caste, class, ethnicity or faith is irrelevant - we are all equals. His life - the exploits on the field, his resilience in the face of intense provocation, his natural kindness and generosity, his remarkable charity work with The Foundation of Goodness - evokes a powerful spirit of reconciliation for a polarised nation. He has taken much from the game of cricket, but he has given back so much to our society. More than any other public figure in Sri Lanka, he stands apart, a source of joy on the cricket field, an example to us all and an answer to the ethnic conundrum we face in Sri Lanka.
Through all the troubles, the drama and controversies, Murali has emerged victorious. He has never allowed his spirit to wane and has always played the game fair. He will always be remembered for being Murali. Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay him is that the number of friends he has made around the world is far greater than the number of wickets he has taken.