Muralitharan, Muttiah

Muralitharan, Muttiah
▪ 2004

      In May 2003 Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan became the third cricketer in history to take 450 Test wickets, placing him behind Courtney Walsh of the West Indies (with 519) and Australia's Shane Warne (with 491). His strike rate of a wicket every 60.2 balls was also a match for Warne's rate of 60.8, though his diffident, quiet, and polite manner was far removed from the flamboyance of the Australian. At the age of 31, Murali (as he was widely known) looked set to become the leading wicket taker of all time, but appreciation of his exceptional talent was tempered by concern about the legitimacy of his bowling action. To the naked eye, Murali appeared not to bowl the ball but rather to flick it with a bent arm and flexible wrist. According to the rules of cricket, if his arm was bent and then straightened at the point of delivery, the ball would be deemed a throw, but Murali's arm remained bent throughout the action. Exhaustive studies by the International Cricket Council (ICC) of both his action and the physiology of his right arm showed that the bend was natural and therefore, under Law 24, not illegal. Like his three brothers, Murali had a deformity that stopped his arm from straightening fully. “I know I am not a cheat,” said the Sri Lankan, but his protest did not stop the whispers.

      Murali was born on April 17, 1972, in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He attended St. Anthony's College and began bowling off-spin on the advice of his coach, Sunil Fernando. In his first school year as a spinner, he took 127 wickets. He made his Test debut against Australia at the age of 20, taking two wickets in successive balls. When England toured the following year, many players were distinctly unhappy about the way the young Sri Lankan off-spinner bowled, and batsmen found his spin difficult to read. He was also, like the more orthodox leg-spinner Warne, supremely accurate.

      In 1995 Murali was finally called for “chucking” seven times in one day by Darrell Hair and again in a one-day international match by Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan, all Australian umpires. Murali briefly thought about quitting cricket, but he fought back and, having been cleared by the ICC, resumed his career. He was not called again for throwing until Emerson was umpiring again in Australia four years later. By then, however, the peculiarities of Murali's action had been accepted within the game. At the Oval in 1998, Murali took 16 wickets against England, including 9 for 65 in the second innings. It was a virtuoso performance, matched only by his 9 for 51 against Zimbabwe on his home ground in Kandy three years later. In May 2003, in the second Test of the series against New Zealand, he took his 37th five-wicket haul, beating the record set by former New Zealand star Sir Richard Hadlee.

Andrew Longmore

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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