Wisden's Leading Cricketer in the World, 2006

Muttiah Muralitharan

Simon Barnes



Muttiah Muralitharan: 'He has reinvented spin bowling' © Getty Images
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The time has come to grasp the nettle, to remove the mental * and †, to reject the frown, the shrug, the pursed lips and the quizzical look. Muttiah Muralitharan was, without qualification, the finest cricketer on the planet last year and, by implication, is one of the best cricketers that have ever played the game.

While many cricketing people found themselves distracted by the building-up and the knocking-down of the Ashes series, Muralitharan was completing a run of three rather lower-key Test series and, in doing so, setting one of the most remarkable collections of numbers ever collated in international cricket.

In six Tests, he took 60 wickets. He took ten in each of four successive matches, the second time he has performed such a feat. A ten-wicket bag is the crowning achievement of a lifetime for most bowlers; Muralitharan has now done it 19 times. The opponents for his 60-wicket haul were England away, South Africa at home and New Zealand away: serious opposition. In all, Muralitharan took 90 wickets in 11 Tests in the calendar year, a feat surpassed only by Shane Warne in 2005: Warne had 96, and required 15 matches.

These figures are the evidence of Muralitharan's excellence, but not the sole reason for his selection as Leading Cricketer in the World. He has been the heart and soul and backbone of the Sri Lankan side for more than a decade. It would be absurd to say that he has carried the team, but he has frequently been the difference between Sri Lanka being a good team, and a very good team. And even on their more dispiriting days, he has made them a team who can never be bullied with impunity.

He has reinvented spin bowling and created a new genre, of which he is the first and the last. He has no imitators, he has created no scuola di Murali. Born with abnormalities in his bowling arm, he has transformed these apparent disadvantages into the most potent weapon in cricket.

Along with the ability to spin the ball, he has the mind and the musclememory to retain control and accuracy in the most trying circumstances. And like all the greats, he relishes a confrontation. When it comes to the real hand-to-hand fighting, you see him light up like a pinball machine: eyes registering complex delight at the temerity of any batsman who dares to oppose him.

There is no controversy about Muralitharan's bowling action. That has been examined by the ICC, and passed. There may be controversy about the ICC and its interpretation of Law 24, but that is a different matter entirely, and should be undertaken only by those seriously prepared to argue about "the angle between the longitudinal axis of the upper arm and forearm, in the sagittal plane". The regulations lay down a tolerance of up to 15 degrees of flexion in the bowling arm: Muralitharan fits within that. Most of his deliveries come with a flexion of two to five degrees: it is only the doosra that requires a full 15.

The change in the Law is a reflection of advancing technology, not politics. Almost every bowler examined under ultra-slomo has a kink in his action as great, if less superficially apparent, than Muralitharan's. No: his action is legal, and if you dislike this truth, your quarrel is not with the bowler but the administrators.

But it has certainly been a long and messy quarrel, with accusations of white conspiracy on one side, and of self-serving subcontinental politicking on the other. This December, Martin Crowe attempted to soften the blow of New Zealand's failure to see off the Sri Lankans by yet again questioning the legitimacy of Muralitharan's doosra.

However, the questioning, the debate itself, is fatuous. Time to accept, and to do better than that, to salute a unique talent that has enriched world cricket, both in terms of the individual genius, and in the way it has given the international game another team to be reckoned with. He has also enriched his own country: a Tamil, a man from the minority race who is a hero the length and breadth of the island.

There are people who will continue to express reservations. They are a familiar type: sneerers and begrudgers, the pusillanimous possessors of small minds and large opinions. Muralitharan is a truly great cricketer, and those that cannot go along with such a sentiment have something lacking in their souls. The spirit of cricket, perhaps.

© John Wisden & Co. Ltd