Muttiah Muralitharan is a magician whose prestige will never fade

Mike Selvey, in The Guardian, 1 April 2011

Muttiah Muralitharan will retire from international cricket after Saturday’s World Cup final in Mumbai.

Pic by Philip Brown/Reuters

The Sri Lankan team are in Mumbai, staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, so beautifully restored after the horrendous attack two and a half years ago. It is a fortress now, an exclusion zone surrounding it, so that the old Moghul-style Gateway to India and its concourse, normally thronged and past which the terrorists stormed from their boats, stands alone with its flocks of pigeons. Inside, Muttiah Muralitharan sits, nursing his injuries and hoping that his body can stand one more hurrah in the Wankhede Stadiumon Saturday.Of course Murali will be fit – even if it is only “ish”. He would not miss this for the world and no cricket lover would begrudge him a last appearance on a grand stage. No cricketer, and few sportsmen indeed, can have divided opinion as much as Murali but he is one of an indefatigable kind. He is adored and applauded as one of the two greatest spin bowlers of his generation or derided as a cheat, if an inadvertent one, for the accommodation of whom the laws of the game have been amended. There is no middle ground.

Over almost two decades, since he was no-balled in Australia in what looked like a cruelly premeditated act, the scrutiny has been unrelenting. Even the spelling of his name comes into dispute (we have no letter that translates from his native tongue the sound – somewhere between a “d” and a “th” – in the middle of his surname. He simply says “as you wish”: he signed with a “th” for me.

I sit in the former camp, regarding him as a genius, a freak of nature whose unique physical attributes, to be found in his shoulder and wrist, make him capable of doing things with a cricket ball that others without his abilities should not even contemplate. It is, to sidetrack a second, an unfortunate consequence that one aspect of his legacy has been to sow the seeds for a generation of bowlers who, seeking to emulate his doosra, really do throw it. We have seen more than one of those in this World Cup. So, for me, it is fitting that he should be able to bow out from international cricket as a World Cup finalist and, perhaps, as a winner.

Were he not to play, then Scott Styris of New Zealand, lbw to his final delivery in Colombo on Tuesday night, would be the last of a truly staggering 1,331 international wickets for Sri Lanka. It was in the aftermath of that match, midnight long gone, that a group of us sat in our hotel and, over a bottle of wine, debated Murali’s contribution. There were a few naysayers, as ever, but there was plenty of support. The argument ping-ponged back and forth.

Tom Moody was listening, quietly. Then he spoke, and the reason I mention it now is because we all have heard a hundred times how Murali has been tested repeatedly and cleared; how the parameters for flexion of the arm were altered not to accommodate Murali but because 99% of bowlers were shown by the most modern equipment to transgress the previous standards; how he has bowled his full range of deliveries with his arm in a brace; and how people still wish to believe the evidence of their own eyes rather than see him as a prestidigitator.

But this was different – to me, anyway. Moody was Sri Lanka’s coach from 2005 until after the last World Cup final and he explained once more the way that Murali’s shoulder can rotate abnormally; how he can touch his inner forearm with his fingertips (try it and see how near you get); how he is a wrist spinner who is almost a mirror image of a leg-break bowler; and, of course, how his arm is permanently bent.

So much we know. Moody continued. One day, he said, when Sri Lanka were in Perth, Murali went missing. When he turned up, it was discovered that on his day off he had taken himself to the University of Western Australia, where many of the tests on his action had been conducted. He told neither his colleagues nor the team management where he was going but he came back with a dossier. Apparently, he had heard that for all the previous investigations, there were still some voices suggesting that the tests had counted for little, because he had not been tested while bowling at different speeds.

So, Moody said, under lab conditions, he bowled the lot. Off-breaks, topspin, doosra, from all angles and at a whole range of speeds. Not one delivery came close to, never mind exceeded, the 15-degree limit. Moody still has the report, detailing every ball bowled.

The most striking thing, though, was Murali’s motive. He did not go to the lab to prove yet again that he was clear. He went because he was starting to wonder whether there might not be some truth in what his more informed critics were saying. There was no way he wished to play a game in which he might genuinely be cheating. So he went to dispel that in his own mind and he came away content. If he had not been vindicated, the chances are that he would have abandoned cricket.

I think such genuine altruism by one of the truly great sportsmen needs recognition.

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