From Merlin to Mandrake and now Murali: a Salute

Mahinda Wijesinghe

All of us from 8 to 80 are fascinated by magicians, since fact is inevitably intertwined with fiction. Were the various feats attributed to them true or a figment of one’s imagination? That very doubt is what sustains and titillates one’s curiosity and interest.

In the middle ages it was Merlin, King Arthur’s counsellor and magician, who not only guided the monarch to withdraw the sword Excalibur from the Stone, but also is credited as being the creator of the Round Table, and in general, used his magical powers for the King to attain various goals. Then came Hungarian born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) who baffled the world with his amazing stunts of escapades from seemingly impossible situations, and right down to the costumed crime fighter created by Leo Falk during the 1930’s in comics and later in newspaper strips, namely, Mandrake the Magician.

  However, in modern times and right at our own doorstep, — indeed he happens to be my neighbour as well! – alighted a modern magician, albeit a cricketing one, Murali!  Who but a magician, and a determined one at that, could have bowled 62,096 deliveries for his country and scalped 1,320 international wickets in all three forms of the game? Sri Lanka has won 60 Test matches since the first Test played in 1982. In the 45 Test matches Sri Lanka has won with him in the side, Murali has captured not less than 373 wickets! Put another way, a stunning average of 8.3 victims per game when he was operating! How his captains must have felt with this man in the side. No wonder he can be rightfully termed a conjuror as well.

  “Smiling garlands” photo courtesy of Lake house  Murali, would always be a benchmark for international bowlers to aspire to. Currently, Murali is well established as the star-turn in the pantheon of bowlers of all-time. The holder of almost every conceivable international bowling record rests lightly on this modest cricketer. True, Sydney F. Barnes (1873-1967) achieved an incredible, round 7 wickets per Test when pitches were uncovered in his 27-Test career, bagging 189 victims, for England at the beginning of the 20th century. On the other hand, Murali’s statistics reveal, a slightly lower figure of, coincidentally, a round figure of 6 wickets a Test, so far, having scalped 792 wickets in 132 Tests. Why? Because the Sri Lankan has played a mind-boggling 105 more Test matches than Barnes, and in an era of covered pitches to boot. Also, one must not forget that in the modern era, sophisticated technology is freely available for the opposition to scrutinize, analyse and prepare to take remedial counter measures. Would Barnes have maintained 7 wickets/Test if he played 132 Tests as Murali has done so far? Not likely.

Murali is a statistician’s dream. No schoolboy fiction writer would have attributed to his hero what Murali achieved in real life. Cricket historians have the opportunity of writing tomes about the multitude of records no other bowler in this planet has achieved, especially, given the circumstances. However, I will try my best – though not easy as one can observe! – to leave that aspect to such experts. Murali the man is what inspires me. He is the Simple Simon in today’s highly commercialized world of international cricket. The son of a biscuit manufacturer from Kandy, Murali is a sporting icon, a shining example for youngsters to emulate, and a man who is silently involved in many social activities to alleviate the sufferings of the less privileged.

  To keep performing, as he did for nearly two decades, while green-eyed monsters kept yelling vituperative expletives whilst he is bowling and others continued writing malicious comments despite technologically his action had been given the green light more than once by the experts who had been specifically appointed by the ICC to inquire into this issue, cannot be easy. This could indicate Murali’s tenacity and guts, or it could simply mean that he just loves playing cricket! Even after donning the national ‘cap’ for over 1,000 games, one can still observe how his saucer-like eyes still gleam and glitter when he comes to deliver any one of his 60-odd thousand deliveries or glare and growl at an errant fielder who concedes an extra run. If only he could have batted with quarter of that intensity! No, let us not be avaricious. After all, Australia with all the baying hounds posing as spectators, a hostile press and umpires not easy to satisfy, was not a happy hunting ground nor was India where great spinners lurked in every maidan from time immemorial.  

  Detractors point out the 176 wickets he captured in the 25 Tests – averaging a tad over 7 wickets per Test — played against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe has boosted his figures. No doubt about it. However, Murali captured 48 wickets in 6 Tests he was pitted against England. That is a round 8 victims per game against the ‘mother’ nation who ‘invented’ the game! So, simply remember one performs against whatever opposition that is put in front of you.

   It is strange that when a field umpire refers, when in doubt, to the Third Umpire, the latter then gives his decision, using his mortal vision from the shade of the pavilion whilst watching a two-dimensional television screen. Everybody is happy and content. Justice has been served, everyone would declare. Yet, when experts in biomechanics, using modern technology – and in three dimension, remember  – attach machines to Murali’s body and puts him through a rigorous series of tests with a battery of sophisticated cameras trained on him, and return an unbiased verdict of ‘not guilty’ some still do not want to accept such scientific findings. As the saying goes, people believe what they want to believe. The experts have repeatedly concluded there is only an ‘optical illusion’ created in his bowling action, due to a congenital birth defect Murali has on his wrist and shoulders, that confuses the umpire and the onlookers.

  Let us savour Murali. Call him a magician, a smiling assassin, the saucer-eyed conjuror, or by any epithet that takes your fancy. Murali is simply a once-in-a-lifetime sporting icon that has done yeoman service to our nation. Thankfully, most thankfully, he has publicly announced that he would not sully his name by entering the murky world of politics. That indeed is a relief for all genuine fans of Murali.

  In his final Test at Galle due in a few days time, he needs just 8 more wickets to makes his final tally of victims to a round 800. As Murali himself declared, 800 is a mere statistic and he prefers to make sure Sri Lanka wins this game. Even if he fails to reach that tantalizing figure of 800 by a whisker, remember Murali, you would end up in very high company. Sir Donald Bradman failed to reach a final Test average of 100 by a mere boundary stroke after having previously aggregated 6,996 runs, while Sir ‘Jack’ Hobbs, despite making frantic efforts at the tail-end of his career, to reach 200 first-class hundreds, failed by 3 centuries. In effect, Bradman missed by 4 and Hobbs by 3. Yet, have either been forgotten?

                So, remember Murali you will never be forgotten, and thanks for the memories.

1 Comment

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One response to “From Merlin to Mandrake and now Murali: a Salute

  1. Nandi Jasentuliyana

    Well said! This, along with Harsha Bogle’s piece, says everything that the best off spinner the world has seen desrves.

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