July 23, 2010

Nobody could have done it better

Murali was top of the world on the field and classy off it

Years from now, it will become one of those where-were-you questions. There must be thousands of Indians who remember what they were doing when Sunil Gavaskar late-cut Ijaz Faqih at the Motera Stadium, just as legions of Pakistanis will recall the moment Ramiz Raja stared at the Melbourne sky and positioned himself under a skier from Richard Illingworth. Sri Lankans already have one such moment, at the Gaddafi Stadium in 1996, but this one ranks right up there. The perfect exit for the country's greatest cricketer. Even the denouement was appropriate - c M Jayawardene, b M Muralitharan for the 77th and final time.

A couple of years ago, at a function at the Tamil Union Club in Colombo, Chandra Schaffter spoke to some of us at length about its history and the role it had played in Sri Lanka's cricket. From Sir Donald Bradman's visit in 1948, through innumerable brilliant innings played by Mahadevan Sathasivam, to the riots of 1983, there was little that Schaffter's memory didn't dredge up. After evoking yesteryear's greats, he said: "Then, of course, in the early 1990s, Murali came down from Kandy." He didn't need to say more.

The modern history of Sri Lankan cricket is merely an extension of Murali's career. Aravinda de Silva's class and Arjuna Ranatunga's pugnaciousness were in evidence in the '90s, and Sanath Jayasuriya's devastating hitting illuminated a decade from '96. Chaminda Vaas was Tonto to Murali's Lone Ranger for most of his career, while Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara carried forward the flame of a batting tradition that dates back to Sathasivam and Fredrick de Saram. But while others came and went, Murali was the constant, the heart of a team that had found its place and voice in world cricket.

Murali may leave behind records that will never be broken, but he was never selfish. Time after time, he bowled himself into the ground for the team cause, and it was perhaps fitting that the final furlong to 800 was the hardest. In the first innings he needed just 102 deliveries for five wickets. The three in the second required 44.4 overs.

When VVS Laxman was run out, leaving India nine down and many in the crowd on tenterhooks, Murali merely smiled and celebrated with the other fielders. A lesser man would have been a bundle of nerve fibres, but Murali looked as calm as someone who knew that nothing could come between him and his destiny.

From the painfully shy hill-country boy who used to beg his captain to take him off so that he wouldn't have to front up to journalists' microphones if he took a bunch of wickets, to a chatty senior statesman with a wicked sense of humour, Murali's journey has been nothing short of remarkable. In Test cricket alone, he bowled 44,039 deliveries, more than twice as many as Bishan Singh Bedi, the most prolific of India's famous spin quartet from the 1960s and '70s.

For nearly two decades, Murali was Sri Lanka's Learie Constantine, the prime factor in his nation wresting respect from a grudging world

When he wasn't harvesting wickets by the bushel, Murali was dodging the critics' darts. Those that hold him responsible for legitimising "illegal" actions - Bedi among them - miss a very important point. The laws were not changed to accommodate Murali, they had to be tweaked because the research done on his action revealed that even those with "clean" actions straightened their arms more than 10 degrees.

Then there were the jibes about wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, as though it was Murali's fault that the Future Tours Programme is a joke that denies Sri Lanka and several other teams a level playing field. Was it his deformed elbow that ensured he never toured South Africa after December 2002? Or the suppleness of his wrists that was responsible for Sri Lanka never playing a Test at the spin-friendly SCG?

A lesser man would have lashed out far more often. It's to his eternal credit that Murali rarely bothered to respond to the barbs. At the post-match presentation in Galle, he had another opportunity, when Tony Greig mentioned the umpires who had no-balled him all those years ago. Murali responding by talking of the naked eye, and them having to "do a job". If only those that belittle him had that kind of class.

My favourite Murali memory will be of an evening a few years ago. Feeling peckish before an interview, he had room service at the Taj Samudra in Colombo. When the food - simple fare of rice and dhal - was laid out on the table, the bearer gave him the bill. Murali grimaced looking at it. "650 rupees for dhal? It's made of gold or what?"

As the bearer stared at the floor uncomfortably, Murali smiled and exchanged a few pleasantries. You could see the man's mood change. By the time he left the room with the tray, his chest was puffed out and you could be sure that his colleagues would have had to endure multiple retellings of the evening Murali spoke to him.

Treasure the 800 wickets, but remember, too, the 1024 houses he built for those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. They say more about the man than his athletic achievements ever will. Also recall the joy with which he played the game, the childlike delight that accompanied each plotted dismissal, the skip and jump into a team-mate's arms.

Neville Cardus once said of Learie Constantine: "When Constantine plays the whole man plays, not just the professional cricketer part of him. There is nothing in the world for him when he bats, save a ball to be hit -- and a boundary to be hit over. When he bowls, the world is three wickets, there to be sent spinning gloriously. Cricket, indeed, is Constantine's element; to say that he plays cricket, or takes part in it, is to say that a fish goes swimming. Constantine is cricket, West Indian cricket..."

For nearly two decades, Murali was Sri Lanka's Constantine, the prime factor in his nation wresting respect from a grudging world. There are a few more one-day scalps to claim and Twenty20 batsmen to embarrass. But for now he can put his feet up and contemplate a job that no one could have done better. Top of the world on the field, and a different class off it. Truly one of a kind.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 26, 2010, 23:49 GMT

    I think the opinions expressed here prove my original post - that the 800 wickets is a tainted record and will never be fully accepted across the cricketing world. Also it is across the racial divide with Bedi also being critical. The genuine world record belongs to Warne - that is agreed on by all cricket lovers. By the way, Tony Lock was called several times for chucking and it was after he saw himself on film on a tour of NZ that he decided to modify his action - especially his faster ball.

    In my view it is up to those involved a junior levels to weed out the chuckers. The Murali dispute has proved that once it reaches the test arena it is too late - there are too many other issues that get involved which cloud judgments - it becomes more a political decision making process rather than a sporting one and it is detrimental to the overall game.

    Clearly there are those who will never accept that Murali was a chucker. Equally, there are many who will always think that he was. Pity.

  • Ash on July 26, 2010, 22:35 GMT

    Murali has been pure magic to watch - @ McGorium: the more hot air you waste, the more obvious is your lack of appreciation of something wonderful & unique. In the boring verbosity stakes, you outdo even Roebuck- Congratulations!

  • P Subramani on July 26, 2010, 13:30 GMT

    I wish Billy CC would read what I believed was a wonderful article on the then recently introduced Flexion ammendment to the rules. That article brings out that the change in the rule was not brought out to legitimise Murali and Shoaib. It was to ensure that the Lees and the Magraths would'nt get tarred with the same brush. Mgrath was a great bowler but I will have to accept that he was so because of the Flexion ammendment. Lee, much as we love him also threw and everyone who saw him bowl did not need to see him in a laboratory to arrive at a judgement on this.The other thing is that I find it quite disgraceful that Australian people and media were only divided when Mgrath abused Sarwan in the vilest language during a Test match. He actually used language which most right minded people found disgusting.I wonder if that kind of language is common place in Australia.Mgrath went on in the same manner till he retired. The media could have brought about a change in him by admonishing him.

  • P Subramani on July 26, 2010, 10:54 GMT

    Billy CC the fact that Australians could even be divided over whether Magrath was right or wrong in behaving in the manner he did alone would show what causes such cheap behaviour to surface in cricket. It should have been condemned in the strongest terms. This was not sledging in any manner of interpretation.I just want people in Australia to realise that this is not Nationalism. Magrath behaved the same till he retired. So what good did this divided opinion do.

  • Supun on July 26, 2010, 10:01 GMT

    http://www.cricinfo.com/ci/content/story/136043.html It makes a good point: Murali's stock balls don't need the 15 degrees, and even his doosra was under 10 degrees. On the other hand, great pace bowlers such McGrath straightened their arm by over 10 degrees during 'normal' deliveries. The rule wasn;t changed for Murali: Murali's case and the subsequent testing of other bowlers made it obvious it had to be changed for EVERYONE.

  • Dummy4 on July 26, 2010, 5:58 GMT

    I respect murali for his humility . But in my opinion he is not as great as shane warne because of his bowling action controversies. ICC should be blamed for all this , player like malinga should be banned from cricket and strict rules should be followed to ban chuckers .

  • Arun on July 26, 2010, 0:35 GMT

    (contd): Hair could have taken the matter up with the referee, who could have investigated tapes and found instances of ball tampering, if any. Instead, he decided to be the judge, jury and executioner.Calling someone for chucking or ball tampering isn't the same as giving someone out LBW or no-balling someone for overstepping. You're casting aspersions on their integrity, and it needs to be dealt with with due process and representation.Your accusation about chucking in a crisis can be applied to *any* bowler.However, in the absence of data (not opinion),you can't do anything. My only issue with the Murali saga is the arbitrary choice of 15 degree limit. There seemed to be no process followed and there should have been.As I mentioned in an earlier post, this limit could've been determined based on statistical analysis of all bowler actions. Say 95 percentile is the limit.If Murali is an outlier, ban his doosra.Then,the burden to remodel and prove legality of his action is Murali's.

  • Arun on July 26, 2010, 0:20 GMT

    @reynard: While I agree with the idea that increasing the bent-arm limit to 15 deg to accommodate Murali's action was arbitrary and without due process, I have to disagree with your post. Appearances are deceptive; there's no shortage of optical illusions and I invite you to put the powers of Google to good use on this aspect. The burden of proof re. Murali's bent arm was always with the prosecution (i.e. the umps, and/or the ICC). Just because it was permanently bent was no reason to automatically assume that he chucked. The prosecution conducted a controlled experiment, as you say, and found that the action was legal. If you allege that he exceeded these limits in a match, it is incumbent on you to prove that he did (not say that it appeared that way). It is it not a blatant throw (I've never seen Murali do that), the benefit of doubt must go to the player. Hair made the same mistake with Pak when he alleged ball tampering without being able to back it up with evidence (continued)

  • Billy on July 25, 2010, 23:47 GMT

    Majr, once again your conspiracy theories show how little you know about what really happens in the cricketing world. The Australian media and public was divided over the McGrath-Sarwan issue; there was no quick forgiveness for McGrath over the incident. I wouldn't be surprised if you actually think McGrath, Lee and Lock all chuck because your theories make you very unreasonable and illogical.

  • Arun on July 25, 2010, 22:56 GMT

    @BillyCC: "No amount of facts or science can ever make me believe that he "chucked" any of the 30000 odd deliveries he bowled". Really? It's like one of those Bush things, is it? Iraq has WMDs because I say so? Or,those fundamentalists who believe that the earth is 6000 years old, humans & dinosaurs co-existed, and carbon dating is the work of the devil? The facts (something that is demonstrable and repeatable by anyone. As opposed to dogma), as far as we are given to understand, is that McGrath had a kink of 11 deg, over the then permissible 10 deg. Now, given the fact that all bowlers have a kink in their arm, the scientific process is to measure all first-class bowlers, and statistically pick a limit (say 95 percentile (2 std. dev) is the limit).This wasn't done; instead an arbitrary 15 deg was chosen, which conveniently absolved Murali of any illegality re. his doosra. If his doosra was an outlier in the statistical analysis, it would be illegal. At least the process is scientific.

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