The Sri Lankan wizard, who has ended his career with 800 Test wickets, has shifted the horizons of what is possible. Muttiah Muralitharan has revolutionised cricket with his bowling. His doosra deliveries, which he first bowled in Tests in 1997, have become part of the game’s make-up, along with reverse swing and switch hitting. Though he was not the first to bowl the doosra – that was Saqlain Mushtaq of Pakistan two years earlier – Murali, in his freakish way, has made new things possible with the cricket ball. Along with Shane Warne (708 Test wickets) and Anil Kumble (619), he also revived spin bowling after decades of dominance by pace bowling.
In his 18-year Test career, Murali took 40% of the wickets captured by his Sri Lanka team. It was neat that he not only set himself that percentage as a final target – he needed eight of India’s 20 for the extraordinary record of 800 Test wickets in his retirement Test – but got them, albeit at the last possible moment.
Murali is also a remarkable human being. He talks a mile a minute, happy to offer advice to spinners from all over the world; and he works tirelessly with his charities. In the dressing room his humility and straightforwardness have been a shining example to the rest of the team. He dealt with his immense success with equanimity. He is, captain Kumar Sangakkara tells me, “grounded and simple, with no pretence. He has done more to unite the country in troubled times than any politician.” Murali is a Trustee of the Foundation of Goodness, which rebuilt Seenigama, a village in the south east of Sri Lanka that had been destroyed by the tsunami, centring it around a wonderful facility with medical, dental, educational and training elements. Murali and the Foundation are now embarking on a similar project in the shattered north of the country.
In assessing Murali one cannot avoid the issue of his action. Australian umpires called him for throwing in 1995 and 1998, and he has been defended by some who have seen this as a racist prejudice. At the same time, Bishen Bedi, the great Indian slow left arm spinner, has described him as a “shot putter” (he also described Shoaib Akhtar as a “javelin thrower”). My own response is more accepting. One thing I am convinced of: Murali’s bowling has enhanced cricket. The range of his skills made him a fascinating bowler to watch and, I imagine, to bat against.
Cricket’s administrators have been right to veer towards wanting to make him honest in order to encourage this richness. Once upon a time round-arm bowling was forbidden, and cricket is a better game for its arrival nearly 200 years ago. But Murali is a more complicated case than the round-arm innovators of the 1820s.
Technology has shown that he can spin the ball both ways with his arm in a splint. In other words, although he starts with a bent arm he does not need to straighten it at the elbow in order to bowl. His wrist has a congenital “turn” to it, and much of his spin comes from this unusual anatomy and physiology.
Most of us cannot turn a leg-break that is delivered with the back of the hand facing the batsman without throwing the ball (try it in the street). But Murali can. His wrist does most of the straightening. Technology also shows that at least part of what looks to the naked eye like a straightening of the elbow is in fact a rotation of the elbow, the result of hyperextension.
None of this proves, of course, that he doesn’t occasionally throw the ball, intentionally or otherwise, when he is frustrated or puts in extra effort. Some people believe this of him.
Cricket has made use of technology in two ways in order to try to come to a view of what constitutes a fair action. One aim is to underpin commonsense. It turns out that experienced watchers cannot in fact discriminate between no straightening of the elbow and roughly 15 degrees of straightening. Thus, though the law has not been changed, ICC have brought in a modified regulation in the light of what technology shows us; what looks smooth, without jerking or straightening, to the naked eye (with bowlers like Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie or Harbhajan Singh) often is not. However, commonsense may also mislead, in that it can confuse straightening with hyperextension. Thus some actions that look dubious are not.
I remember batting in successive matches in 1965 against Harold Rhodes of Derbyshire, who had recently been no-balled by Sid Buller in a match against the South African touring team, and Brian Statham of Lancashire. It was impossible for me either as batsman or spectator to differentiate between their actions or to know if either or both threw. Today’s technology along with today’s guidelines would have helped.
Murali began his Test career at the age of 20 in 1992. To start with, he was primarily an off-spinner who turned the ball prodigiously, on pitches where others couldn’t do so, and with zip and bounce. He operated rather like Lance Gibbs of West Indies; both bowled with high actions, without drift from leg, and from wide on the crease, relying on bounce and spin beyond the normal. Both had a stock ball that was pitched wide of the off stump. It was always hard to predict how much the ball would turn. Gradually Murali perfected the doosra, the leg-break that looks like an off-break. He did for off-spin bowling what the English cricketer Bernard Bosanquet did for leg-spin bowling in the early 1900s with the introduction of the googly.
Being able to do something remarkable is, of course, only the beginning. Such an art has to be practised and developed. Murali is one of the great workers at his skill. Hard work has, however, been the basis of his success.
Murali would often carry the Sri Lanka bowling attack. In the famous Test match at The Oval in 1998, when Sri Lanka stunningly beat England after the latter had lost the toss and scored 445 in their first innings, he bowled 111 overs in the match, taking 16 wickets for 220 runs – apart from anything else, a prodigious effort of stamina and concentration.
Can one criticise Murali? I would suggest tentatively that he would sometimes go defensive too quickly. Left-handed England batsman Graham Thorpe took a calculated risk, hitting him against the spin over mid-wicket. The bowler responded by putting three fielders on the leg-side boundary, thus enabling Thorpe to score ones and twos with freedom. The other is that he was often too reluctant to bowl round the wicket.
My conclusion is that we should regard Murali as a genius who has shifted the horizons of what is possible. Though he has transformed spin bowling, we shall not look upon his like again.