Media culpability in the branding of Murali

Michael Roberts

Preamble: I was present at Adelaide Oval when Muralitharan was no-balled by Ross Emerson when he was standing with Tony McQuillan as second umpire (hardly a coincidence since both had no-balled Murali earlier in January 1996 two years previously). This was on 23 January 1998. The article presented below was written on 28 January after taking in the Australian media responses to this contretemps. It focuses in particular on the long article presented by Malcolm Conn in the article with a set of three-four photographs with side-views depicting Murali’s arm.  As the Indian sportswriter Rohit Brijnath indicated in 2004, Murali “has endured a scrutiny beyond comparison in modern cricket” and “it is hard to deny that Murali has been persecuted” (see item reprinted below in this web site). My essay is reproduced again as one illustration of this sequential and insidious process of victimization by the Australian umpiring fraternity and the Australian media in particular.


All representations have a measure of partisanship. It is from a partisan position in the opposite camp that I read the lead article by Malcolm Conn entitled “Straighten Murali or law” and the carefully-chosen pictures that accompanied it on page 25 of the Australian of 25 January 1999. I argue here that the slants etched into this set of representations are pedantic, flawed and misleading. Malcolm Conn’s position, moreover, is marked by that form of fundamentalist purism that has been one of the roots of the contretemps from the very beginning (see my essays in Crosscurrents 1998).




Courtesy of

I contend further that a number of Australian media persons developed a climate of opinion that was favourable to the type of action taken by Ross Emerson on that fateful day at Adelaide Oval, though it is quite conceivable that he would have taken such a step irrespective of the voices in the background.

Today, the support on air and in print for Emerson’s decision alleges that “as long as [Law] 24.2 remains then … every umpire [has] the right, in fact a duty, to call a bowler every time they suspect the legitimacy of a delivery” (Conn in Australian 25 Jan). Such reasoning, of course, caters to the emphasis on personal autonomy in a country that is at the leading edge of Western individualism. The several Australian men on Radio 5AN provided continuous reminders during their reportage of the events on the fiield on 23rd January of the depth of this philosophy (though perhaps unaware of this grounding).

    Such reasoning seems remarkably oblivious – is this convenient blindness? –  to the fact that Law 24.2 is poorly drafted and construes suspicion to be proof of guilt. These flaws in the law are manifest. If my affirmative statement on this point is not adequate, however, let me cite Frank Tyson, Peter Roebuck, Allan Border and J. Neville Turner as my authorities.

   Because of the defectiveness of  law 24.2 and a desire to avoid the sort of incident that took place at the MCG on 26th December 1995, the ICC created a process of evaluation by experts. That process cleared Muralitharan in late 1997. Kumar Dharmasena remains under a cloud however. The Sri Lankan authorities recently responded to these ICC concerns by omitting Dharmasena from the team to Australia and from the initial World Cup Squad of thirty selected early in January. That Muralitharan was in the team to Australia, therefore, marked a reliance on the good faith of the ICC and ACB; and the confidence derived from his acceptance by a range of umpires all over the world.

    The ICC process necessarily qualifies the discretion of umpires on this issue, without removing their powers altogether. Once this scheme was in place it was a matter of common sense for umpires to realise that any suspicions should be conveyed to the ICC for evaluation through video evidence. The importance of “common sense” has also been underlined by Kim Hughes (in an article in the Australian 28 January 1999 that nevertheless presents Emerson in favourable ways).

    It is for this reason that Lawry, Botham and Roebuck reacted in such a hostile fashion during the course of the game to Emerson’s action. Botham was explicit: Emerson was being “ludicrous” and taking an ego trip. Peter Roebuck put it in a nutshell. To quote him from memory: “the ICC put a system in place and one man has decided to buck the system.”

In such circumstances it is not only disingenuous but also pedantic for Conn to claim that Emerson was merely applying the law as it stands. It is also erroneous for Conn to claim that the ICC process “takes nothing away from the power of umpires to rule on every delivery as they see fit.” If the ICC holds to such a position it has set up a contradiction and is not holding to the common sense interpretation of the situation essayed by Roebuck, Hughes, Botham et al. What we have here, then, is a major difference of interpretation: an emphasis on equity and modernised form by Roebuck et al on the one hand and the pedantic literalism and rigidity of Conn and associates on the other.

    Conn’s misleading reading of the process of arbitration is compounded by a set of three STILL PICTURES of Muralitharan’s action from side-on under the caption: “a legitimate delivery, or not? You can be the judge.”

    This TYPE OF REPRESENTATION is truly gross – when presented within a context where one has access to video evidence. Such video evidence reveals that the appearance of chucking is “an optical illusion.” It has been video evidence plus a couple of doctors’ reports on Murali’s peculiar arm that led the ICC committee to deem Murali’s action legitimate. That any writer could review the case without reference to these facts is more peculiar than Murali’s arm.

That Malcolm Conn should adopt the position displayed in the article under review is not surprising. He revealed his hand in an article in the Australian of the 4th December 1998 which treated Darrell Hair as a hero. “If more umpires around the world had taken a stronger stand sooner,” he says, “then bowlers throwing may not be the issue it is today.”

Now, on the 25th January 1999, he reiterates his position of moral righteousness. The cricketing world has to be cleansed of all chuckers. Suspicions and visual evidence resting on the power of the human eye are adequate grounds for action in the light of Law 24.2.

    I have little doubt that Conn thinks that his position will serve the interests of cricket – as, indeed, Hair and Emerson surely believe. My opposing position is that the pedantic and fundamentalist stance that they have assumed has sullied the field of cricket. Nay, more: it has been extremely damaging. The ACB and the ICC have had to bear the consequences.

    The ICC has been everyone’s carpet to beat on. In this instance, I claim, the main culprits have been Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson. But they are not alone. From the safety of their offices several Australian media personnel have encouraged firm action in the ‘trenches’. This was illustrated in the ‘campaign’ from circa January 15th 1999 which claimed that several Australian umpires officiating at the limited-over games had presented concerns over Muralitharan’s action to the ICC referee, Pieter Van der Meuwe. This was explicitly denied by the ICC in a statement issued around the 17th January 1999.

    So, who started this set of stories? And which mediamen disseminated this rubbish? It is presumably this background that led Mike Coward, ironically in the same issue of the Australian (but page 24) as that with Conn’s essay, to suggest that “there was a sense of Emerson’s action being premeditated.”

    I remain wary of conspiracy theories. But Coward is better located than I am to make calls of this sort. What such a claim reinforces in my mind is the degree to which a number of Australian journalists have actively promoted an ideological and purist line that has endorsed the cleansing line of action taken by Hair and Emerson. The latter have power with responsibility – so that they face consequences. The pressmen seem to have power without responsibility.


A few years down the track in 2002 a light crack in jest by James Brayshaw, a former cricketer, as he anchored the Sports segment on Channel Nine 6.00 o’clock news, led me to protest to Channel Nine in the following letter. This action was taken after considrable thought and after email consultations with two Indian friends in Melbourne and another friend in Adelaide. The content of the letter is self-explanatory. Channel Nine’s reply, howevr, did not think the remark warranted censure.

 14 November 2002

Mr Neil Lower, News Director, Channel Nine

 Dear Mr Lower

I hereby lodge a complaint against the comments made by James Brayshaw at the end of the Sports segment of the 6 o’clock NEWs on November 13th. Referring to the fact that  Jayasuriya and Muralitharan may not be touring Australia this summer and noting that Murali’s ailment was the likelihood of a hernia operation, he ended with the quip: “I wonder if the hernia was on his wrist” or some such words.  The comment was light-hearted banter perhaps and may not have been  malicious in intent. But the case is rather more serious than that. Let me present reasons for my protest in point form.

  1. Even if one allows that it was banter, it was a comment that was insensitive, snide and malicious (and somehow more so when presented by one so well-spoken as Brayshaw).
  2. It is the first principle in media analysis, or the evaluation of any rhetoric for that matter, that the implications do not rest purely on the intention of the speaker or even the immediate context of a speech act.
  3. Muralitharan has been subsumed by controversy on two occasions in Australia prior to this. Any remarks must attend to that deep history, a context in which he has been deemed a chucker and vilified as one. But his peculiar anatomy has been recorded in tests and his action has been cleared after exhaustive bio-mechnanical tests in both Perth and Hong Kong. Any aspersions on his action at this stage therefore, amount to an act of victimisation. Brayshaw’s remarks, then, amount to such an act, a verbal blow that is as snide as vicious.
  4. I say “vicious” because whatever the intent it is vicious in its effects among the listening public and thus in its ramifications. It is for this reason that I have taken up cudgels.
  5. Furthermore, because of his specialist background it would be within Brayshaw’s knowledge that Murali has a plasticine wrist. In some senses this could be treated as a physical deformity though it may well be an asset for a spin bowler. To harp on hernia in his arm or wrist, therefore, is to focus on a peculiar aspect of his anatomy. In effect, I suggest that the remark is discriminatory within the framework of the anti-discriminatory laws. Consider the following hypothetical analogy: an American sports commentator focuses on Ian Thorpe’s enormous web feet and proceeds to insert animal metaphors in teasing style. Would that not be descending to gutter level besides skirting the lines of discriminatory speech?

 Finally let me underline a fact that most of you in Channel Nine will be familiar with but which, maybe, you lose sight of: the fact that you wield tremendous power. I am attempting here to remind you of this truth and to ask you to temper it with responsibility. Indeed, your power is so great that I hesitated to draft this letter.

 Why? For one, it is difficult to intervene in this manner without pontificating and thus opening oneself to ridicule. For another, and more critically, editors and TV personnel have the power of the last word. Words are both cheap and highly labile. It is feasible for a clever reporter — and Brayshaw is a smart lad – to apologise in ways that reiterate the original message as meta-message. The last word yes. Calling the shots yes. What power. Mine, therefore, is a still small voice, a weak one. As for Murali, he remains victim.

 Yours Sincerely


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