It says much about Murali that you’ll never hear a bad word spoken about him. Forget for a moment his prolific on-field record, Murali the man is deeply loved and enormously respected by team-mates and opponents alike. Kumar Sangakkara, his captain and close friend, summed it up most eloquently a few years ago: “The greatest tribute I can pay him is that I have met no finer man. He’s great as a cricketer and even better as a human being.” Yet, somehow, Murali is still a little misunderstood. An Indian journalist asked me last week if it was true that Murali was a loner in the dressing room? I laughed out loud.
Image on left is taken by Charlie Austin, during Tsunami relief, early 2005
I guess I understand the question because his shyness can sometimes make him come across as reserved. But the real Murali, the relaxed Murali, relishes a group environment, is hyperactive, talkative, opinionated and fun-loving.
One thing is for sure: the Sri Lanka dressing room will be a far quieter place without him. Just as his bowling has dominated on the field, his effervescent personality fills any room he occupies. He’s such a chatterbox, in fact, that his exhausted team-mates once challenged him to be completely silent for the duration of a three-hour coach trip to Kandy. He lasted about three minutes.
Mahela Jayawardene summed it up well in the Guardian last week: “He is the sort of guy you want in the dressing room, but sometimes you think: ‘Why is he in the dressing room – he won’t stop talking!’ When he exhausts us, he goes to see the opposition. He is the only player I have ever known who spends more time in the opponents’ dressing room than his own. You never sit next to him on an aeroplane because you won’t get any sleep. Lal, the masseur, has that job. But ask him to make a speech and you will be lucky to get 10 words.”
He’s irrepressibly cheeky, too, one of his favourite pastimes being admonishing his top-order batsmen. While others are afraid to voice their opinions after a team-mate loses his wicket, Murali sometimes can’t resist. Once, while playing for Lancashire, a towering Andrew Flintoff stormed into the dressing room, ashen-faced, having failed to end a lean trot. Murali sauntered over casually. “What happened – another shit shot?”
The wonderful thing, though, is that despite his huge success he remains so humble and down to earth. Sport is full of inflated egos. Sometimes arrogance even seems a necessary evil when competing at the highest level, but somehow Murali has managed to stay normal. The only time he can be accused of immodesty is after one of his cameo performances with the bat.
His polite and humble persona has much to do with his father, Muttiah, a man of few words and the polar opposite to Murali’s effervescent and emotional mother, Lakshmi. Despite being significantly wealthy, having run a company called Luckyland Biscuits tirelessly since 1956, he carries himself with a Gandhi-like air of simplicity. He’s easy to spot at Murali felicitations: the quiet, unassuming gentleman dressed in a simple, traditional white sarong, surrounded by flashy suits.
Murali, a naughty child, rarely spoke to his father during his childhood, but they enjoyed a relationship of great respect. Muttiah, a man with the strictest of working routines, taught his son the virtues of hard work and provided the never-say-die backbone that has epitomised Murali all these years. When the biscuit factory burned down during the terrible island-wide riots in 1977, Muttiah might easily have fled the country to join his family in India. Instead, refusing to turn his back on Sri Lanka, he went to the pawn shop the week after and negotiated a loan to rebuild the uninsured factory from scratch. That unbreakable spirit has always been evident in Murali.
Chandika Hathurasinghe, Murali’s team-mate during the early years at Tamil Union and the current Sri Lanka assistant coach, recounted a story. He and Murali had stopped for a snack at a small café close to the Parliament grounds in Colombo. A young boy working in the shop asked for a signed photograph. Murali promised him one and left. The boy would probably not have not expected him to remember, but Murali did. After cricket practice the following day, he got Chandika to take a detour to the shop and duly handed over the signed photograph. The kid was gobsmacked. It was typical of a man who truly cares.
Murali’s caring personality is reflected, too, in how committed he has been over the years in ensuring young players are looked after. On his first international tour, fresh out of school, when Sri Lanka toured England in 1991, he was among those entrusted with going to the launderette each evening. In those days the team was hierarchical and clique-y, and the senior players ruled like boarding-school prefects, but thankfully, since then Murali has been at the forefront of a transformation in team culture – it is now one in which everyone is treated equally. He invariably takes younger players under his wing when they come into the squad, taking them out for dinner and making sure they feel welcome.
I saw first-hand how down-to-earth he was in 2005, when I travelled with him to the tsunami-hit town of Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast. Murali had single-handedly organised about 10 lorries of emergency supplies for distribution in the relief camps. In the evening we stopped at the Polonnaruwa Rest House to catch some sleep. They only had three bedrooms available for about 10 of us. Murali not only insisted on paying, he steadfastly refused to take a bed, spread a sheet on the floor, grabbed a pillow and slept happily.
Murali, like his father, who is famously charitable, is one of the most generous people I know. He can’t say no to people – sadly a trait that has been exploited at times – and, always quietly, he has financially helped an enormous number of cricketers over the years. He has also contributed greatly to his charity, the Foundation of Goodness, founded by his like-minded manager, Kushil Gunasekera, often donating the entire proceeds of his endorsement contracts.
“When Murali takes on something, he does it properly,” says Gunasekera. “When the tsunami struck, he told me we were going to build 1000 houses. I said that 1000 Test wickets would be easier. However, while he didn’t get the 1000 wickets, he built the houses – 1024 of them, spread over 24 villages so far.” The duo’s next project has already begun, a Learning and Empowerment Institute in northern Sri Lanka based on their holistic rural development model in Seenigama in southern Sri Lanka.
Murali’s charity work will undoubtedly now dominate his future life – after the World Cup, which he is committed to playing if selected – but it is hard to see him leaving cricket completely. He loves the game too deeply. He was obsessed from an early age, playing with his cousins for hours. They played softball cricket in the factory car park, “veranda” cricket in the house when his father was at work and even “book” cricket in the library at St Anthony’s, when he was supposed to be studying.
Cricket left little time for studies. Murali spent hours and hours practising. School friends recount how he regularly skipped study time and dragged them to the nets, forcing them to keep wicket while he bowled endlessly at a single stump. For him cricket was the big priority then, and getting into the team was his No. 1 goal. When he was trying to break into the Under-17 team, he actually decided to take up bowling legbreaks for an entire season because there were two senior boys to bowl offbreaks already.
It is not a great surprise that he has decided to call time on his Test career. Being determined to leave at the right time and not stand in the way of young talent, he had been talking about it for some time. In fact, he considered quitting Test cricket in 2009 before being persuaded to stay on. He now feels, aged 38, that the unique physical challenge of Test cricket is too much for his body. As we have seen in this Test, he could easily play on with continued success, although probably not with the same potency and consistency for much longer. And if he did risk playing Test cricket too long, it would jeopardise his desire to continue playing the less-demanding Twenty20 and ODI formats. For Murali, a true pragmatist, the decision was simple in the end.
Unfortunately it won’t be so easy for his team-mates and all his fans. Today will be the most emotional of days. Saying a final farewell to a legend will undoubtedly leave many teary-eyed. Hundreds of friends and colleagues are coming from all corners of Sri Lanka – and indeed some from different parts of the world. If you judge the calibre of the man by the love and loyalty of his friends, Murali is a very special person indeed. He will be sorely missed.