Peter Roebuck
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Former captain of Somerset; author of It Never Rains, Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh and other books

In a freakish league of his own

Murali hasn't been combative like Warne or full of rage like Kumble; more unconventional than them, and tenacious to the core, he has surpassed them both

Peter Roebuck

July 14, 2010

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The <I>Mail</I> leads with praise for Muttiah Muralitharan, June 6, 2006
Few have complained about Murali's genial nature © Daily Mail
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Muttiah Muralitharan has made a mesmeric contribution to the game. It was no small thing for a boy from Kandy to attract the attention of selectors hitherto convinced that Colombo was their country's cricketing stronghold. It's no small thing for a skinny kid determined to bowl fast to switch to spin and to triumph. It is no small thing for a Tamil to prosper in a time of turmoil and torment and trouble. Nor is it a small thing to become the first great cricketer that your country has produced, to help it to lift a World Cup, to win a series in England, and to remain humble throughout. His action has been often enough criticised but has a bad word been said about him?

Already the list of achievements is long, but it is not yet complete. To top it off, Murali has overcome all sorts of hostility and devastating setbacks as his action was called into question, often publicly and mostly by a particular brand of Australian umpire. Humiliation does not come much stronger than to be called for throwing on the first day of a Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne, and from the bowler's end. Further embarrassments awaited in Adelaide and Brisbane, where a fool of a white coat called him while he was sending down innocuous legbreaks

Unsurprisingly, and despite hoots from the old guard, cricket went in search of a better way of dealing with throwing, long its thorniest issue, and emerged with a process as opposed to devastating rejection, only for that thoughtful recourse to be condemned as a feeble pandering to a powerful and unprincipled lobby. Part of Murali's achievement has been to force cricket to try to deal sensibly with the issue of confronting actions. A few offspinners continue to raise eyebrows, but blatant chuckers capable of breaking skulls have been identified at an early enough age to allow improvements to be made.

And even these successes are not quite the end of it. Through it all, Murali has remained popular and dignified. Sweetness may occasionally have deserted him but sourness never took its place. His slightly sheepish laugh remained intact. Upon taking a wicket, an event that occurred with a regularity denied to almost all contemporaries, he tended to drop his head into his chin in a shy way and chuckle to himself. Of course he was pleased but he was not about to flaunt his triumph. Floggings were accepted as part and parcel of the game. It was not in his nature to berate fieldsmen or umpires. To some degree it was a failing. He was almost too polite, lacked Anil Kumble's rage, his absolute refusal to acknowledge that the batsman was his master.

Whatever the position, Murali tended to keep bowling away. Durability has counted among his assets. Nothing on or off the field keeps him down for long. Until the last, too, his body has been as reliable as his brain. His career has endured as many gyrations as his bowling arm and always he has bounced back. To some extent the lack of fury, the very politeness that allowed the Tamil boy, raised in an unfashionable city, whose father was a confectioner, to survive everything the game has thrown at him, also held him back. Fatalism was part of his creed. It was not in his character to wrench matches from opposing teams, to change them with a sudden, soaring spell summoned from the bowels of his experience, called up from the recesses of his will.

Part of Shane Warne's magic existed in his mind, his ability to produce an extraordinary delivery at the vital moment, his theatricality, his defiance, his preparedness to personalise and confront. The bulk of Murali's magic was to be found in those exceptional fingers, wrist and arm. Where Warne was combative, Murali was restrained; where the Australian roared, he asked; where the blond teased, he probed; where the Victorian offended, he beguiled. Of course both were glorious bowlers, and Kumble as well. If distinctions must be made, Warne was the bowler to turn a match, Kumble the man to have in your side, Murali the fellow for worn surfaces. He has been the softest of them, and the most companionable.

Not that he lacked grit. Traduced, he went to England, placed himself in the hands of sceptics, put his arm in a brace so that it could not bend, told the cameras to roll, and bowled all his main deliveries live on television. It was a cricketing version of a lie-detector test and he passed with flying colours. Critics can cavil that he did not bowl flat out - not the easiest of tasks with an arm encased - but they were also forced to admit that he had surpassed expectations. More significantly Murali clearly expected to pass. And he was not mean enough to request that everyone else expose themselves to the same enterprise. Far too little has been made of this undertaking. At the very least it needs to be taken into account.

 
 
Through it all, Murali has remained popular and dignified. Sweetness may occasionally have deserted him but sourness never took its place. His slightly sheepish laugh remained intact
 

His ability to deliver his doosra without flexing his elbow caused widespread surprise. In some opinions, the ball simply cannot be bowled without a significant straightening of the elbow.

Ironically Murali's bowling was not necessarily improved by the doosra, though his career was certainly prolonged by it. Like Warne, he was at his most formidable in his early years, when he could make the ball talk and spin and seem to spit. Certainly he was unfamiliar, presented challenges Western batsmen, especially, had not previously encountered. But he was a handful for everyone. After all, he could land the ball on the edge of the pitch and bring it back to hit leg stump. Often batsmen prepared to cut and too late realised their folly.

Arguably Murali was not quite as dangerous with the doosra at his disposal. Different fields had to be set and a straighter line had to be bowled so that it did not stand out or lose the element of surprise. He was forced to aim more at the stumps and his offbreak was easier to tuck away to leg. In time he began to rely too much on the doosra for wickets, and eventually batsmen began to pick it. Perhaps he had little choice. By then the fingers had lost a little of their snap and the wrist could not perform its gyrations quite as well. To watch him from close quarters was to marvel at his wrist work, not least its ability to rotate through 360 degrees with ball still in hand. His action did not look half as jerky from a yard away as it did from the boundary's edge. Indeed it was disconcertingly fluent. His constancy of speed and pitch hint at smoothness.

Of course he had his weaknesses. Left-handers found him easier to play than did their less fortunate and favoured comrades. Sourav Ganguly, Andy Flower and Brian Lara countered him with a confidence missing from colleagues reduced to miserable poking and prodding. Lara's duel with Murali in a losing cause in Sri Lanka is considered by judges as shrewd and seasoned as Tony Cozier to count among the most fascinating the game has produced. Lara's display in that series is widely regarded as among the most brilliant the game has known. It takes greatness to subdue greatness.

Nor was Murali effective in Australia, where the hard pitches denied him purchase as the batsmen denied him hope. Although never crushed, he was often beaten in the antipodes. Handicapped by his team's lack of new-ball penetration, he was often reduced to the role of a workhorse. But there is usually something left on the table. Among modern Test bowlers only Malcolm Marshall has seemed complete.

Inevitably Murali has been compared to his distinguished peers, Warne and Kumble. Between them they have done so much to revive spin after it had been rendered apparently redundant by the great West Indies sides of the seventies and eighties. But it is not quite right to compare him to orthodox spinners. Warne was the master of disguise, a bowler of supreme accuracy and wit, but he did not produce anything new or strange; rather he turned a craft into an art, showed it was possible to be both Arthur Mailey and Clarrie Grimmett, the millionaire and the miser, to execute the skill with such precision and strength that a legspin attack could be launched and sustained without the high risks previously associated with the practice. Kumble was faster through the air and off the pitch than was common in the genre. Simply, he had the intelligence to identify his best speed and to turn it into strength. Although awkward and unusual, he too was essentially mainstream.


Muttiah Muralitharan is measured by a biomechanics researcher during a series of tests on his action at the University of Western Australia, Perth, April 1, 2004
Murali submitted himself for tests without any bitterness © AFP
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Murali was another case, belonged in a category of his own, or at any rate in the loose confederation of freakish spinners that over the decades have astonished batsmen and amazed spectators. In so many ways he belongs alongside Jack Iverson, Sonny Ramadhin, John Gleeson, Ajantha Mendis and other originals who resisted pigeonholing and dared to follow their own path come hell or high water. Significantly he has lasted longer than any of them, much longer. Once the others were rumbled, they did not last that long. Ramadhin was undone by alarmed and cynical English batsmen from private schools prepared to exploit absurdly unfair lbw rules in order to stop him. Despite the fuss over his action, Murali has been luckier. At times he has been bent but never broken.

Now it is time go to. Perhaps he has lingered a little too long but that is understandable, not least because his team has often needed him and his successor has faltered. Gradually he has gone from casting a spell to bowling long spells. The Galle Test against India will be his last. Often a happy hunting ground, it is an appropriate place to bid farewell. Moreover he played his part in restoring it after the tsunami. Murali's numerous good works and his native goodwill are not the least of his contributions.

Apparently he intends to make himself available for the 2011 World Cup, but he might not last that long. Of late he has looked tired and sore, and much less menacing. In any case Sri Lanka need to move along. He will be missed. At once a finger- and wrist spinner, his impact has been enormous.

He has been an entertainer too, thrashing around with the bat, performing pranks in the rooms, crossing divides. But his bewitching bowling set him apart: the flashing eyes, the smile that is never quit a grin, the hitch of the bowling arm, the trot to the crease, the arms half high, the sudden twist of elbow and wrist, the flick of fingers and the buzz of another ball on its way down the pitch. He has been a cricketer to appreciate and a man to admire.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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Posted by BillyCC on (July 17, 2010, 22:08 GMT)

Why are people suddenly bringing Kumble into the debate? Murali and Warne are miles ahead of Kumble in any measure. I can understand patriotism and bias, but the case must be backed up. Kumble's greatest asset was actually not spin, it was the bounce and the spitting ball from the pitch that allowed him to take his wickets, an asset enhanced by home advantage.

Posted by gautm on (July 17, 2010, 15:55 GMT)

@nfer: I respect your sentiments and opinions. But all said and done Murali will remain a chucker in my books and that is MY opinion. I regard Chaminda Vaas as the greatest Sri Lankan bowler for toiling tirelessly on placid wickets and also with a GENUINE action because of which he suffered his fair share of injuries. The 15 degree relaxation rule that ICC brought in to allow bowlers of Muralis ilk to prosper will remain one of their biggest blunders.

Posted by Lion_of_Lanka on (July 17, 2010, 14:17 GMT)

@gautm : ICC said he doesn't chuck. Wisden said he doesn't chuck. Bradman said he doesn't chuck. And recently in an interview WARNE said Murali doesn't chuck. "Murali's action has been passed by scientific tests ... I always thought it was probably legitimate" Eat your own words haters... Only Bedi followers (NOT ALL Indians are Bedi followers) and majority of Aussies think he chucks...You people can say whatever you want but that doesn't change the fact that he is the highest wicket taker in both ODI and Test and according to Wisden - the bible of cricket 'The greatest bowler of all time'

Posted by rupakr on (July 17, 2010, 10:57 GMT)

Kumble and Murali excelled against Warne by being the better sports person and example for the younger generations. Personal controversy free, humble and absolute statesman like behavior when it comes to dealing with difficult situations.

Wickets they took separate them but many things come into that equations, oppositions they played against, the pitches they bowled on, the captains they had and the other bowlers they had in the team.

Measure of success as a sportsman and a human being is something we forget among the statistics.

Posted by rupakr on (July 17, 2010, 10:57 GMT)

Kumble and Murali excelled against Warne by being the better sports person and example for the younger generations. Personal controversy free, humble and absolute statesman like behavior when it comes to dealing with difficult situations.

Wickets they took separate them but many things come into that equations, oppositions they played against, the pitches they bowled on, the captains they had and the other bowlers they had in the team.

Measure of success as a sportsman and a human being is something we forget among the statistics.

Posted by Lion_of_Lanka on (July 17, 2010, 10:22 GMT)

@keralite : Different people got different opinions. If you don't think his action is legitimate well, it's okay because no one cares about what you think...But please don't say that Murali is where he is right now because of India. It's one thing to say that Indian cricket board financially supports us but please don't say that Murali's existence in the cricketing world is because of india.

Posted by gautm on (July 17, 2010, 9:30 GMT)

So the greatest chucker of our times calls it a day finally huh... How the ICC bent the rules to allow him to flourish exposed and confirmed their ineptness towards handling the game. Instead of nipping it in the bud, they allowed chucking to become legal and encouraged bowlers worldwide to emulate Murali. Murali is a very nice guy on and off the field.. Period.. But there is no denying that he should not have been playing top level cricket. If he really had problems with his elbow/arm/wrist or whatever it was that caused him to bowl that way, he could have played cricket for the disabled. Anyway the damage is done and he is the highest wicket taker in record books.. I sincerely hope that a bowler with a genuine action breaks this record in my lifetime although it will be near-impossible.. But my hope lingers

Posted by keralite on (July 16, 2010, 14:53 GMT)

I am an Indian and I don't like the Aussies. But the Australians were not totally wrong in Murali's case. I don't consider his bowling action to be legitimate. If Indians did not back him ( and Sri Lanka) he would have been nothingggggg....

Posted by harikeshan on (July 16, 2010, 9:12 GMT)

@ Majr - you sound revengeful and harbor a lot of hatred towards the Australians...India dominating because of the money power is nothing less than what the so called white man did. Remember what goes around comes around. Instead of stereotyping all Aussies and lashing out at them at every given opportunity, hope we can all take a moment appreciate the contribution this great yet humble legend has given back to the game of cricket.

Posted by Neil247 on (July 16, 2010, 4:11 GMT)

Warne was the better bowler...Murali was the better chucker

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Peter RoebuckClose
Peter Roebuck He may not have played Test cricket for England, but Peter Roebuck represented Somerset with distinction, making over 1000 runs nine times in 12 seasons, and captaining the county during a tempestuous period in the 1980s. Roebuck acquired recognition all over the cricket world for his distinctive, perceptive, independent writing. Widely travelled, he divided his time between Australia and South Africa. He died in November 2011

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