In a freakish league of his own
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.
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.
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