Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald
Pic by Steve Christo
Muttiah Muralitharan will play his last competitive match in Sydney today. Peter Roebuck talked to the great spinner about his upbringing in war-torn Sri Lanka, the pain of being called for chucking and his long-standing rivalry with Shane Warne.
Peter Roebuck: Murali, this is your last trip to Australia, your last match in Sydney tomorrow. You looked like you enjoyed your last match in Melbourne yesterday! Talk me through your leg glance.
Muttiah Muralitharan: Oh, it was a fabulous occasion. The ball just came along and I flicked it and then we were all happy. [The] coach said he had already written his losing speech!
PR: Let’s talk about your background. Tell me about your ancestors.
MM: They come from India. I still have [the] right to live there. My grandfather came to Sri Lanka to work on a tea plantation. Afterwards he went back but my father and his brothers stayed and they built a biscuit factory in Kandy in the 1950s. All sorts of biscuits. Still we have that.
Pics from Palinda de Silva’s web site
PR: Growing up as a Tamil in Sri Lanka wasn’t easy in your early days?
MM: There were riots but after 1983, it became normal. Remember I was staying at hostel in school for seven years and living with many Sinhalese and Tamils in the same dormitories so it was not that difficult.
PR: But in the early days a lot of harm was done to the Tamils. Do you have any memories of that?
MM: Our factory and our house were burnt down in 1977 and that was painful for a time. We were saved by Sinhalese. They came and stopped the crazy people before they killed us. We never forgot that. We rebuilt them and moved on. That was our family way. We are businessmen, not politicians. My father kept things as simple as possible.
Mob at Borella Junction, 24 July 1983
Pic by Chandragupta Amarasinghe
PR: Do you think that these troubles and growing up in a mixed community helped to give you strength of character? The Tamils had a hard time.
MM: The Sinhalese as well. They had hard times when the Communist party came, they were targeted and a lot of people were killed.
PR: You’ve never spoken up on political issues. You’ve been a unifying figure. Is that how you see yourself?
MM: Our lives in Kandy were mostly fine. I could not talk about problems I had not seen.
PR: Coming to the cricket. Up until 13 your were a medium pacer.
MM: A fast bowler!
PR: How fast was your fast bowling?
MM: I was quick enough. Then after that the coach decided to change me.
PR: Did he see you bowl spin in the nets?
MM: We had these tall boys to bowl fast. He told me I needed a bigger, broader structure. [The] team needed a spinner, he said.
PR: How has your bowling changed over the years?
MM: It has changed a lot. In the first two or three years I improved a lot and when experience came I brought in the doosra in 1999. That changed my bowling as well.
PR: In your early days, you were bowling a yard outside off stump. You made us gasp like Shane Warne. Do you think the doosra had its downside because it made you change your line?
MM: It wasn’t the doosra. You have to change with the situation. If I bowled the same thing now they kick you. So I had to bowl straighter and try to spin the ball both ways. Also I had to learn to go ’round the wickets to get lbws.
PR: So the doosra was a creature of necessity?
MM: Yes. You need to bowl an armball or something, and I did not have one so I worked on the doosra.
PR: How did you develop it?
MM: Saqlain [Mushtaq] was already bowling it, and I saw him and spoke to him. The way he does it is different. I found my own way and practised very hard for two years, and started using it in ’98.
PR: Of your 800 Test wickets, how many do you think you’ve taken with the doosra?
MM: Not many. About 30 or 40 maybe.
PR: Have you spun the ball less over the years. Warne did not really bowl his big leg-break in the second part of his career?
MM: Age brings the revolutions down. It happened to everyone. Then you have to use your wits a bit more. Warne had very good wits.
PR: You had a great time in Melbourne yesterday, but in 1995 it was not so good. On Boxing Day, you were called for throwing from the bowlers’ end. What was your reaction?
MM: I was shocked. Darrell Hair had umpired me so many times before. Before the match I had bowled 10 overs in Sydney in a one-day game. So I was very surprised when he said I was illegal next match.
PR: What was it like to be called in front of 55,000 people on the first day of a series?
MM: I was so upset. The team was behind me, and I was able to change ends but that’s not real cricket. He had made up his mind what he wanted to do. That should not happen to another bowler. It’s very embarrassing. A single umpire cannot decide on the career of a bowler. If you are narrow-minded then you will see it that way.
PR: Don Bradman said it was the worst umpiring decision he had seen, and that you were obviously not throwing. Not every Australian was on your case. How did you feel that night?
MM: It was terrible because I didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen to my career.
PR: Another umpire called you in the one-dayers.
MM: [Ross] Emerson. He wanted to support [Hair]. He got it totally wrong. He called me when I bowled leg-spin in Brisbane. But now the rules are better, and the suspect bowler is reported and then technology looks at it, not one man’s naked eye. It’s a better system.
PR: Alone among modern bowlers, you put your arm in a splint, went live on television and bowled all your variations. You went to England with Michael Slater and Mark Nicholas in charge, both sceptics at the time, and bowled with your arm in the splint. Both changed their minds. What made you do that?
MM: Because I always thought I was not doing anything wrong – it’s an illusion caused by my wrist and the way my joints and arm are built. To the naked eye it looks like throwing, but when you use technology it shows I don’t throw. I have gone through more tests than any other bowler since 1995, and passed them all. But I wanted to prove it. But still I was being booed in Australia, so a reporter gave me the idea, and I though it might end the talk.
PR: What material was used?
MM: Doctors said plaster of Paris can bend so we put in steel rods. They weighed two pounds (900 grams), which made it harder to bowl. But I bowled same pace.
PR: Nicholas said there was no way a bowler could straighten his arm in that splint. It’s a pity more Australians have not seen the footage. They say it’s too expensive to buy. These things seem to crop up only in Australia. Why is that?
MM: Hard to say. Maybe the two umpires [were] premeditated. Maybe someone [was] behind it. I don’t know.
PR: Although you had Chaminda Vaas, unlike Warne you never really had a strong fast bowler to work behind. So often you started against the openers. Do you think that was a disadvantage?
MM: In a way it’s a handicap. On [the] other hand, I got more bowling and more chances to take wickets. [The] disadvantage was that they could milk the other bowlers. But still we won a lot of matches. Our cricket has gone up a long way.
PR: When you and Warne emerged everyone thought there’d be a hundred imitators. Australia cannot find another leg-spinner. Sri Lanka has not found another Murali. Are you both one-offs?
MM: Bowlers like this come once every three or four generations. You won’t find another Warne. It’s hard for someone to play 20 years of Test cricket. You will get good bowlers but not that high.
PR: What were the qualities you shared, and what were the differences?
MM: We both loved bowling. If a person does not like bowling with hot sun and batsmen scoring then he won’t make it. We were always happy to bowl. Same with [Anil] Kumble. Don’t forget about him. That was our greatest quality. Warne is a bit ahead of me because he has a better knowledge than any other bowler. He showed it as a captain as well. Unfortunately, he could not captain Australia.
PR: Did you ever want to captain?
MM: No! I thought it was a burden.
PR:Have you been surprised by the return of orthodox finger spin? Once they said if you have not got a doosra or cannot spin the ball a yard, you can’t make the grade. Now finger spinners are running around all over the place.
MM: Well, if you cannot [find another] Warne or Kumble then you have to find someone who can do the job. These guys are very good bowlers but time will tell how long they are going to last. Can they go for 10 years? Once everyone’s eyes are on you it gets harder to take wickets.
PR: What do these bowlers need?
MM: Variation is important. If you don’t have that you will struggle.
PR: I have to ask about the Ashes.
MM: At the moment, Australia is a bit down because of lack of talent. You need to take 20 wickets, so you need a spinner to get two or three wickets and also one or two strike bowlers. [Mitchell] Johnson is a good bowler on song, but then he goes off form. That does not help them. [Glenn] McGrath was always tight, and he had [Jason] Gillespie and [Brett] Lee as well. So they are struggling in the bowling. The batting is not bad.
PR: Ashes prediction?
MM: It’s difficult to say. England is in high mood, but luck can change quickly. Things can go wrong in one match, and suddenly the pressure is on you. Whoever wins the first Test is going to win the series. The team that has its nose in front does well here.
PR: You have done a lot of work for the disadvantaged in Sri Lanka with [your manager] Kushil Gunasekera. Can you tell us about that?
MM: After the  tsunami we did something because the infrastructure was down. We provided free medicine and nurses, empowered women and built a village with 1000 houses and facilities like cricket fields, schools. I want to build the same in the Tamil area in the north next. [The] President has given us 50 acres of land to build 300 houses and nurseries and the rest. We expect 15,000 people to benefit for this project.
PR: Your grandparents lived to 104 and 97. How do you see your life after cricket?
MM: Difficult to say. I would love to continue with charity. I might play Twenty20 cricket all over the world.
PR: Lastly, Murali, your time in Australia. Any happy memories?
MM: It’s all positive. What happened in ’95 made me a harder person. I learnt to tackle obstacles. My view is to forget and forgive; they are human. I did not miss the 2006 tour because of the Australian public, I love the public, it’s a sporting country and does so well … It was only the leader [John Howard]. But everyone makes mistakes, and you move on.