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Maybe the whispers and rumours will never cease; maybe Muttiah Muralitharan will forever have to lure international batsmen to their doom with a murky cloud of suspicion over his twirling arm. It would be a shame, though - for cricket in general, and for the off-spin assassin who bewitched players and spectators alike at The Oval last summer when taking 16 for 220 to give Sri Lanka their first Test victory in England.
These remarkable figures were the fifth best of all time in Test cricket, yet Murali's cunning strategies, his marathon patience and his sporting instincts were overshadowed by controversy. David Lloyd, the England coach, made remarks on television that implicitly suggested a problem with his bowling action. It was another day, another victory, tainted. Murali's response to the doubters is emphatic. "I don't care what anyone says now," he protests, the insistence in his gentle voice as sharp as the spin he imparts on a cricket ball. "I know I am not a cheat. It has been medically proved that I am not chucking." The 16 wickets at The Oval took Murali past 200 in Test matches, second only to Lance Gibbs among off-spinners. His new target is 300. A sense of history and a sense of injustice have now become powerful twin motivating factors to his career.
The eternal problem for Murali is that his action does look distinctly odd. First impressions are that he must be a chucker. The arm is bent, the wrist action is generous, to say the least. But that is nature, not nurture. The deformity in his right arm was there at birth. His three brothers, Sridaran, Sasidaran and Prabgaran, have exactly the same "bend". His wrist is also especially flexible, which means extra leverage on the ball. Yes, it may give him an advantage over other slow bowlers, but it is not an unfair one, according to ICC, which commissioned many hours of analysis into Muralitharan's action and found that it conformed to Law 24 because his arm does not straighten.
MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN was born on April 17, 1972, in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the first of four sons for Sinnasami and Laxmi Muttiah, who still run the Lucky Land biscuit and confectionery firm in the city. It proved to be a lucky land for young Murali, whose first cricketing memories are of street and park games with other children. His formal sporting education came at St Anthony's College in Kandy. "I started going to cricket practice at the age of eight," he recalls. "I was a medium-pacer, until the age of 13. But then the coach, Sunil Fernando, suggested I try off-spin and it seemed to work much better. One year I took 127 wickets in a schools competition, and the national selectors showed an interest." Until that time, Murali says, he had never considered the fact that he had a bent arm. It was just the way he was; but he soon discovered life and sport could never be simple again.
His progress through the Sri Lankan A team to the full international side was rapid, and he made his Test debut against Australia in August 1992. After one wicket in the first innings, he dismissed Tom Moody and Mark Waugh with successive deliveries in the second. Seven months later, Murali had his first bittersweet taste of triumph and trauma. He took five wickets in the match as Sri Lanka decisively defeated England in Colombo. However, as Wisden noted, there were murmurings about his action.
England's players were privately scathing, but refused to go public. Various umpires and match referees subsequently kept their suspicions out of the public domain too, until the dam burst on Boxing Day 1995, in the Melbourne Test against Australia. After 22 Tests, Murali was suddenly called for throwing seven times by umpire Darrell Hair. Ten days later, he was again repeatedly no-balled by umpire Ross Emerson in a one-day international.
His world fell apart. "It affected everything, my friends and family, all those who believed in me," he says. "It was very cruel. Everyone was watching me for all the wrong reasons, thinking I was cheating. I wasn't." For a short time he considered quitting cricket and retreating to the family business, a life of selling candy to Kandy. Instead, with support from the Sri Lankan board, Murali decided to fight back.
Medical experts gave evidence about his bent arm, the bowling action was filmed from 27 different angles, and ICC eventually sided with the Sri Lankan view that the problem was an optical illusion. The murmurings never ceased, but no umpire called him again until Emerson reappeared at Adelaide in January 1999. The general opinion was that the umpire discredited himself more than the bowler. What the whole process has done is give Murali an enviable mental toughness to complement his fiendish array of deliveries: the prodigious off-breaks, the occasional leg-break, the startling top-spinner that goes on yet bounces high at the batsman. It has made him an even more formidable cricketer.
Consistent success has flowed since, including the 1996 World Cup triumph, culminating in the waterfall of wickets at The Oval last summer. England captain Alec Stewart gave a gracious tribute afterwards, saying: "It was a very special performance, and clearly here is a bowler of great quality." Whatever the arguments, no one can deny that.