Is Murali the greatest spinner ever?

A long, hard look at the man who has, in many ways, carried Sri Lankan cricket for so many years

Mukul Kesavan
This article was first published in July 2006 in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine
Normal people don't think about sportsmen, they watch them. The thinking comes later, it's a second-order pleasure. There are those of us who add Virender Sehwag's latest score to his aggregate and divide by the number of innings played (minus the not-outs) to work out how many decimal points his career average has risen, but we do this in secret because we know that it is, like picking one's nose, a furtive pleasure that not everyone is likely to understand. To understand Muttiah Muralitharan, to appreciate what he means to cricket, we should begin, not with his statistics, but his Presence.
The difference between the great and the very good is that the great ones have an aura. Sometimes, first-rate players are undervalued because they lack that je ne sais quoi. Among batsmen, Ken Barrington, Dilip Vengsarkar, Andy Flower, Jacques Kallis, even Rahul Dravid, come to mind as extraordinary players who aren't given their due because of a certain anonymity, whereas Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Javed Miandad, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Sehwag, even Mahendra Singh Dhoni, walk the field swaddled in an aura that magnifies them and their doings. Among contemporary bowlers, Anil Kumble suffers most in this area, forever typed as a dogged striver, a wonderful senior pro, but not a Master of the Universe, whereas Imran Khan's cricketing record is lacquered into immortality by his charisma. Glenn McGrath, without question the most dangerous bowler of the modern era, doesn't get his due because his sour glower - either natural or cultivated - and the mean parsimony of his manner make him hard to like or even admire.
Murali lucked out in the business of Presence. He is naturally theatrical, a television camera's delight. That bobbing run-up, the whiplash speed of his arm action, the helicopter wrist, the eyes huge with effort at the point of release, the conspiratorial smile at his team-mates as he returns to his bowling mark, the radiant joy in playing and competing, reach out to the spectator and draw him in. Murali lacks Shane Warne's confidence that every ball bowled might have taken a wicket but for the obtuseness of umpires, or the fiendish luck of batsmen; nor does his body language assert, as Warne's does, that he has an answer to every problem. Sri Lanka have lost too many matches, and Murali lived through too many ambushes, for that kind of swagger. To the spectator, Warne's minimalist, impassive walk-up implies magic; Murali's animation suggests electricity.
Cricket's history man
As a bowler, Murali's standing in world cricket is unique for several reasons.
One, not only is he the greatest offspinner the game has seen, he is an original. He's the first wrist-spinning offbreak bowler in the history of cricket. Before Murali, offbreaks were finger-spun; Murali's huge offbreaks are spun from the wrist. Setting aside the controversy about the legality of his action, he has pioneered a new tradition of spin bowling, and his most outstanding disciple is Harbhajan Singh. Two, while he didn't invent the doosra, the offspinner's googly (the credit for that belongs to Saqlain Mushtaq), he certainly perfected it. A delivery that might have gone down in cricket history as a freak ball that died with its inventor, is now an established part of the offspinner's armoury. Along with reverse swing, the doosra is the most radical extension of the bowler's art in modern cricket, and Murali is its maestro.
Three, Murali is the most important cricketer in the game today, because his career and its attendant controversies have changed the laws of cricket and subverted a century and more of cricketing common sense.
When Murali was called for throwing by Darrell Hair, he was already a Test-playing veteran. At the time it seemed as if the career of a potentially great spin bowler was on the line. To be fair to the umpire, it was a reasonable call to make. To most cricketers and spectators there was something strange and spasmodic about Murali's action. Yes, Murali hadn't been called in all the Tests he had played till then, and yes, Brett Lee's action had an obvious kink and he wasn't called, but being inconsistent is not the same as being wrong. Arjuna Ranatunga's magnificent brinkmanship, Australian insensitivity, and the ICC's subsequent fumbling with the definition of a fair delivery made sure that the issue became politicised, with Murali cast as villain or martyr, depending on affiliation. Looking back, though, given the laws of cricket as they then stood, Hair was within his rights to call Murali for chucking because to the naked eye Murali's arm did appear to bend and straighten.
The sports scientists called in to adjudicate the matter determined that the bending and straightening was an optical illusion caused by the rotation of Murali's congenitally crooked arm. This failed to satisfy the doubters and Murali was reported several times afterwards. On each occasion the scientists found in his favour till finally, a comprehensive survey of contemporary bowling actions established a paradoxical and ironical fact: not only was the manifest illegality of Murali's action an optical illusion, the taken-for-granted legality of the actions of the world's bowlers was an optical illusion too! Put simply, the scientists found that nearly every bowler in the world bent and straightened his arm, including never suspected paragons of bowling virtue like McGrath and Jason Gillespie. Hostile critics of Murali, like Michael Holding and Ian Botham, turned on a dime and accepted without a murmur the new definition of a legal delivery, which allowed all bowlers to flex their arms up to 15 degrees.
There the matter rests. As things stand, what started as a controversy about an individual's bowling action has ended by calling into question the traditional wisdom about every bowler in cricket's history. If all contemporary bowlers flex their arms, then it follows that nearly all bowlers in the past did so too, except that we lacked the technology to capture the flexion. If McGrath chucks according to the old definition, then so did Harold Larwood and Ray Lindwall and Fred Trueman and Wes Hall. In which case, why was poor Ian Meckiff's career cut short when Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee are given the benefit of the doubt? Why did Tony Lock have to change his jerky bowling action and geld his fast left-arm spinners when Harbhajan is allowed the cover of 15 degrees? Having appealed to science, the ICC is now bound to accept its verdict, but even those of us who support Murali's vindication should acknowledge that cricket has at one stroke repudiated a large part of its common sense and rewritten its past. This is a huge step for a game that otherwise sets store by tradition. Worse, it has done this without solving the problem: players like Harbhajan are reported and cleared over and over again and on-field umpires are forbidden from calling bowlers for chucking. Murali's vindication has, unavoidably, been achieved by fudging the Laws of cricket in a way that makes them unenforceable.
The other one
But this is the ICC's problem, not Murali's. As far as he is concerned, the charge of chucking has been conclusively laid to rest, which makes it possible to discuss Murali's place in the history of spin bowling without being haunted by the spectre of illegality. This essentially means comparing Murali with Warne, because otherwise it would be a very brief discussion. Warne apart, there is no one who approaches the weight of Murali's achievement. A quick glance at Murali's five-wicket- and 10-wicket hauls, his strike-rate, his average runs per wicket and wickets per Test, will make it evident that, with the antique exception of Syd Barnes, there's no other slow bowler who can sustain the comparison.
The other reason to make the comparison is that the two of them are intensely aware of each other and posterity. Warne, in particular, is not above implying that Murali's figures are bulked out by wickets taken cheaply against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Murali doesn't reply in kind but he has his champions. Ranatunga rose to the defence of his great bowler, calling Warne overrated, deriding him as a bowler who had built his reputation against sides like England who are notoriously inept at playing spin bowling. Against the best players of spin, the Indians, said Ranatunga, twisting the knife, Warne's figures were embarrassing.
So who is the greater bowler? There are those who will point to the fact that Murali has taken more top-order wickets than Warne. There are others who will argue that the only reason this is true is that Murali is a one-man band and gets more opportunities against the top order whereas Warne comes on after McGrath and company have decapitated the opposition. Murali has had home advantage more often than Warne - is that to count against him? On the other hand Warne has the advantage of McGrath as a kind of siege engine, making the breech for him to surge through - so does that make Murali's achievement more considerable?
The truth is that this race between Murali and Warne is the closest thing to a dead heat that you're likely to get in cricket. There's nothing in it statistically. As for the other arguments, Warne can't be praised or blamed for being part of a great Australian team any more than Murali can be awarded brownie points or black marks for playing a lone hand.
Symbol, mascot, lightning rod
If we step back and view the two in the round, not just as cricketers but as representative types, Muralitharan is much the more interesting figure. Warne belongs to the space where Australian laddishness meets modern celebrity. In his adventures with drugs, women and bookmakers, Warne lives the tabloid life. He represents himself, or the amalgam that makes up the modern individual: ability and appetite. He is justly celebrated for both. Muralitharan, famous as he is, carries a weight Warne has been spared - the burden of representation. Murali represents a divided, polarised nation. As a Tamil in Sri Lanka, he is a symbol, whether he likes it or not, of a minority community. Descended from Indian Tamils who migrated to Sri Lanka's plantations a few generations ago, he has been personally touched by Sri Lanka's sectarian violence: his family was attacked by gangs of Sinhalas in the anti-Tamil pogroms of the early 1980s. Given that there is a civil war in progress between Tamil separatists in northern Sri Lanka and the government of that country, Murali's presence in the Sri Lankan cricket team is automatically charged with symbolic meaning.
For his articulate team-mate Kumar Sangakkara, Murali is a symbol of reconciliation and peace: "For Murali, caste, class, ethnicity or faith is irrelevant - we are all equals. His life - the exploits on the field, his resilience in the face of intense provocation, his natural kindness and generosity, his remarkable charity work with The Foundation of Goodness - evokes a powerful spirit of reconciliation for a polarised nation.
"He has taken much from the game of cricket, but he has given back so much to our society. More than any other public figure in Sri Lanka, he stands apart, a source of joy on the cricket field, an example to us all and an answer to the ethnic conundrum we face in Sri Lanka."
But as anyone familiar with the history of sectarian conflict in South Asia knows, Murali could just as easily have been stigmatised as a Tamil mascot used by the Sri Lankan state to disguise its Sinhala chauvinism. That he isn't so regarded is a tribute both to Murali and to the solidarity and affection shown him by his team-mates.
Murali has lived most of his cricketing life dealing with the consequences of being both a symbol and a lightning rod for forces larger than him. He has symbolised the Tamil in Sri Lanka, he has been Sri Lanka's champion in the lists of world cricket, he has even been the unwilling focus of lazy attempts to explain the rifts in world cricket in terms of race and colour. He has transcended these attempts to co-opt him by being true to his genius and by playing the game year after year with undiminished pleasure.
As an Indian fan who believes that Indian batsmen define the gold standard when it comes to playing spinners, I'll get off the fence if pushed and declare myself for Murali. Warne is a wonderful bowler but I've never seen him reduce an Indian batting line-up. Murali's record against India, like Warne's, is markedly less impressive than his overall figures. But the last time Sri Lanka toured India, his bowling at the Feroz Shah Kotla was a revelation. He went round the wicket to the Indians and in one virtuoso spell had them groping, reduced to reading him off the pitch because they couldn't tell the doosra from the hand, beating the outside edge over and over again, his wrong 'un spitting and turning like a legbreak. It was breath-taking. He took 5 for 23 in one inspired spell, destroying the Indian top order. Sri Lanka lost that game, but given the quality of the opposition, his 7 for 100 bettered his 8 for 70 against England when he spun Sri Lanka to victory at Trent Bridge in June this year. At Trent Bridge, Murali conquered the clueless - even Warne's done that. At Kotla, he bamboozled the best.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in July 2006 in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine