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Chucking: the irony

Muttiah Muralitharan gives Nathan Lyon some advice in Colombo Cricket Australia

So much of what is going on in the world right now is mired in hypocrisy, contradiction and an ever-changing game of thrones where yesterday's friends are today's enemies and vice versa. In politics we see alliances that were forged in blood a few decades ago now rent asunder as regimes, religions and philosophies are turned upside down. Allies, once spawned and funded by the politics of convenience, are now declared bitter enemies. At a time when there is so much in the world to be sad about, cricket's recent history offers hope that one day we might see the dawn of new friendships (or truces) where today there is distrust and hatred.

Saeed Ajmal, Mohammed Hafeez and Sunil Narine have all been in the spotlight recently - a coincidence, conspiracy or crackdown, depending on which side of the fence you sit on. With exceptions, the general consensus among most Australian cricket fans is that it is about time the ICC took a strong stance against chucking. Darren Lehmann added his voice to the chorus of support for the banning of suspect bowling actions, especially timely for his team, as both Ajmal and Hafeez posed significant, imminent threats in the UAE. The emasculation of Narine, too, will have significant implications for the World Cup early next year. Depending on your current political stance, it is either a case of "about bloody time" or "why now?"

I stress "current" because that is just the way things roll these days, in world affairs and cricket politics. How does the old saying go - one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter? In a cricketing sense, this can be seen as hypocrisy or pragmatism, based on what is best for you in the here and now. But rather than perceiving it as a negative, it can be viewed through another prism; forgiveness and tolerance may not be as difficult to come by as they seem on even the darkest of days.

Consider this: Muttiah Muralitharan is now coaching Australia's next generation of spinners. Irony doesn't come any more ironic than that. Barely 20 years ago, Murali was publicly humiliated at the MCG and widely reviled by the Australian cricketing public. The condemnation was almost universal. Even the then Australian prime minister, John Howard, jumped on the "Murali is a chucker" bandwagon, prompting a somewhat hasty reaction from Murali, who threatened to never play in Australia again. Coincidentally, this was the same PM who led Australia into war the last time combat troops were engaged in Iraq because he was convinced the regime harboured WMDs. Will he ever admit to receiving incorrect "intelligence" on the Murali issue too?

In a classic case of politics imitating art (sport), it mattered little to those accusers that the toothless global governing bodies, be they the United Nations or the ICC, cautioned against populist militant responses in case they were later proved to be ill judged. And yet, cricket offers hope to political leaders in the bizarre situation of Murali being employed to teach Australian spinners how to perfect an art form that was for long, and still is in some quarters, seen as a dark art. Who would have thought it likely that Australian cricket would ever pay Murali the ultimate compliment, almost an apology of sorts, by inviting him to be their spin guru? In an era that included other wonderful home-grown spinners like Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, it beggars belief that the man they turned to (pardon the pun) was once the arch-villain, the man who supposedly destroyed the integrity of the brotherhood of spin.

"How does the old saying go - one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter? In a cricketing sense, this can be seen as hypocrisy or pragmatism, based on what is best for you in the here and now"

At the height of the controversy, there were so many purists who staked their reputations on the theory that Murali had forever tainted the record books. Many of them are now hoping he can impart those same skills to Australian spinners. What? Teach our spinners to bowl like Murali? But wasn't he one of "those" types of bowlers, the sort who deliberately bent the rules? Oh, it's okay now, he is now "playing" for our team. Phew, what a relief. He must be one of good guys after all.

On ABC Radio in Brisbane last week, there was a news item about the new testing centres being approved by the ICC in Chennai, Cardiff and Brisbane. In a light-hearted vein, the radio presenter asked the rhetorical question about who decides if someone has a suspect bowling action, and then answered the question herself by wondering if it was "whoever is getting bowled out". Clive Lloyd's inference recently that Narine's fate had been predetermined before the Champions League T20 lends more credence to this sort of conspiracy theory.

The cynics would argue that the fat cheques of the Big Bash League do wonders for bruised egos, but that may be doing everyone a disservice. It is to the credit of both parties, Murali and Australian cricket, that they were willing to forgive and forget, a timely reminder to us all that there is no situation that is beyond repair, despite each side being adamant that their position was justified at the time. Sometimes, it may be too hard to get people to admit they were wrong but that in itself does not preclude a peaceful future - as hard as that may be to envisage when reckless guns are being fired in the heat of battle.

Even today, the irony is bittersweet, as Australian coaches continue to support the harsh stance taken against suspect actions, while the country's spinners learn the finer points of the doosra from Murali. That both parties can work together and possibly disagree on major philosophical issues that sit at the heart of words like "integrity", "chucking" and "cheating" is testament to the human capacity for renewal. Is it conceivable that this sort of tolerance and forgiveness is possible in a global geopolitic context?

Bob Dylan was not thinking of cricket when he penned the words to his famous anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin'" but he might well have been talking about the sudden naming and shaming of spin bowlers, judging by these words:

Don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'