Rohit Brijnath is a sportswriter from India based in Singapore. This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. It was reprinted in Michael Roberts, Essaying cricket. Sri Lanka and beyond, Colombo; Vijitha Yapa Publications 2006, pp. 192-93. It is appropriate that it should receive yet another airing because it anticipates the encomiums that are being presently heaped on Muralitharan as his career is reviewed after he announced his retirement from the premier form of the grand game. Besides, this is a magnificent survey that will be an education for younger generations. Enjoy.
Pic Left is Courtesy of Kushil Gunasekera
Pic right is Courtesy of Lake House
Not wholly hero, not wholly victim, Muttiah Muralitharan’s place in the history of sport is unique. When great athletes are done and dusted, team shirts slid into mothballed suitcases, boots plastic-bagged in a musty garage, the final entries inked into record books, judgement commences. Epitaphs are pondered, legacies mulled over, contributions estimated. But just gauging quality of skill is not sufficient anymore. Eventually, in that great filing cabinet of history, we slot them into categories, deciding for future generations what these men represented. Were they heroes of cool courage and fine character, victims of injustice and bias, villains whose dark deeds tarnished their greatness?
With Muttiah Muralitharan, his career admittedly not done, we are unsure of what will be said, which file he belongs in. This man is history’s dilemma. A great ambiguity surrounds Muttiah Muralitharan; some paint him as sinner, others sketch him as saint. He is proof of wondrous skill for some and evidence of rules being conveniently bent for others; he ischampion yet he is cheat. Argument over Muttiah Muralitharan is unending, it is alive with bias (both ways), and it is absent of conclusion except this: the page on his life will be marked with an asterisk. It suggests something villainous, and perhaps it does not. Athletes across all sports have owned careers shadowed by suspicion, great deeds blotted by acts of alleged dishonesty, fine skill tainted by moments of indiscretion. It is a stain no powder can easily wash off. Almost every profile of Vijay Singh, the golfer, will carry mention of a vague, unsubstantiated incident where he allegedly changed his scorecard years ago. He is a different man and an altered player, but this hideous charge pursues his every step. Eventually it may be reduced to only a footnote, and perhaps that would only be fair. History will be less kind to Mike Tyson, and perhaps rightly so, for when his record is spoken of, they will ask, which one, prison or boxing? The picture of a rapist handcuffed will stand alongside those of a gloved champion. We will see, too, Maradona’s genius, yet it will not obscure totally his Hand of God goal and ephedrine use; we will note Ben Johnson’s proud face at the finish of the 100 metres at Seoul 1988, yet also his head down in humiliation as he was whisked out of the country in drug disgrace.
Mohammad Azharuddin and Bruce Grobbelaar had brilliant careers coloured by suggestions of match-fixing; Florence Griffith-Joyner’s grand feats are stalked by scepticism; Petr Korda’s Australian Open win lost its purity with a charge that he had swallowed banned substances.
Muralitharan’s beauty has been corroded somewhat by controversy, but it takes too great a leap in imagination, too great an embrace of prejudice, to put him in such company. He may stoically bear the burden of defamation (“chucker,” “thief,” “javelin thrower”), but he is no Tyson, no Maradona; he is neither criminal nor apparent cheat. He has not sent vile text messages or snorted cocaine or assaulted a woman. He has not been punished for using unfair means for, the clamour over his doosra aside, twice he has been cleared by the University of Western Australia.
Murali may stoke debate, some of it cruel, but here he does not belong. This is a better man, a decent human being, a cleaner practitioner, a man whose tarnish is different. His asterisk is unique; it is his alone.
Some might prefer to see him as heroic victim, presuming that the future will give us clarity, that time and distance will allow us to recognise he that was wronged, as if in a way he was some Jim Thorpe-like figure. The Native-American decathlete was stripped of his 1912 Olympic gold and publicly vilified after it was revealed he had earned $25 a week playing minor league baseball in 1909-10, thus negating his amateur status. Eventually, after his death, public outcry led to a reinstatement of medal and reputation.
But Murali does not fit here either; he is not seen as having committed one minor indiscretion, or as an uneducated man unaware of the rules. He is not seen as manipulated but as manipulative, at least by his critics. Thorpe was possibly ignorant; Murali is viewed in parts of the world as audacious. Thorpe’s legend has been universally embraced; with Murali geography determines the response: the East believes him, much of the West does not.
But as much as some are loath to see him as victim, it is hard to deny that Murali has been persecuted. For nine years since he was first called in Australia in 1995-96, he has endured a scrutiny beyond comparison in modern cricket. If one considers the span of his hounding – nine years – then one might go further and argue that he has few rivals in sport itself. As Daryl Foster, of the University of Western Australia, who knows him well, says, “He is one of the most harassed human beings in sport.”
Athletes are constantly facing adversity, in varying forms. For some the challenge is physical, like golfer Ben Hogan who won the US Open 16 months after breaking hiscollarbone, rib, ankle and pelvis in an accident. Others face a sterner examination, confronted not merely by the derision of crowds and media, but contempt by society itself. Nothing in history can rival the struggle for acceptance by African-American athletes, the scorn they met with dignity, their hurdling of obstacles.
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ESSAYING CRICKET features
- Articles on World Cricket, Sri Lankan Cricket politics, sledging and chucking
- Comments on partisan TV coverage and cricket team reactions to bomb blasts
- 35 Articles by Guest Authors including Harsha Bhogle, Peter Roebuck, Mike Coward, Mike Marqusee & Sambit Bal and a range of Lankan authors, names familiar as well as surprising
- A breathtaking collection of 157 photographs
Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo www.vijithayapa.com
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