by Peter Roebuck – SMH 10th May, 2004

Muttiah Muralitharan’s career has been a tale of astonishing achievement and unending controversy. No one has watched him with a cold heart. Spectators have enjoyed his prodigious deliveries. Captains have protected their match-winner or complained about the architect of their downfall. Supporters have sung his praises and critics have gnashed their teeth. Everyone has seen something different.

Now Murali stands at once as a champion and an outcast. His record-breaking performance will provoke a mixture of congratulation and resentment. Even in triumph, Murali cannot command the respect sought by every man and craved by every performer. His head must be spinning as much as his sharpest off break. He has deserved better than a mixture of hysterical support and abject condemnation.

Cricket has not known what to do with him. Batsmen have prodded and padded, swept and swiped. Umpires have been inconsistent. Crowds have cheered and catcalled. Commentators have raged. Officialdom has searched in vain for a satisfactory resolution. Everything and nothing has happened. Murali has kept bowling. The laws of the game have been changed to accommodate him. His career has been a confusion. Years have passed and he remains in limbo. But it has not all been bad. The game has bent over backwards to save him. After all, he is still playing.

Murali has been an extreme instance of a long-standing trauma. Cricket has never been at ease with the problem of bent-armed bowling. Over the years the issue has been a test the game has failed. Not that Murali has been an easy case. No one had considered the possibility of sending the ball down with a back rather than a forward jerk. All the regulations had been produced to eliminate the sort of actions seen in coconut-shies. Now and then bad habits crept in whereupon governing bodies were obliged to intervene. Mostly the situation was under control. Then came Murali.

At first little attention was paid to him. After all, the charming Tamil from a Catholic school had inspired a nation. Sri Lanka were a new force and few had the stomach to deny them their main weapon. Officials hoped it might pass. Paul Adams’s mystique had not lasted long. Once batsmen became accustomed to his contortions they realised that he did not turn or bounce the ball enough to trouble the trained.

But Murali did not fade away. Cricket realised that there was more to him than met the eye. Batsmen were mesmerised by his action but the element of surprise was merely part of the effect. Murali turned the ball more than anyone else, past or present. His deliveries seemed to spin at right angles. His control was unerring and he could bowl long spells. In other words, he was a handful. And he was not going to go away.

Not that the Sri Lankan has been alone in his unorthodoxy. Harbhajan Singh, Saqlain Mushtaq and others have also explored the outer limits of their craft. Spin was on its knees until these fellows came along. It is odd that these operators have provoked such debate. Fast bowlers have thrown their quicker balls, raised the seam, rubbed in creams, applied bottle tops and much else without attracting undue interest. Inevitably spinners also search for an edge as a means of survival. They have tried to add to their repertoire by experimenting with their arm, wrist and finger actions.

Murali was blessed with features that allowed him to perform feats with a cricket ball previously considered impossible. His flexibility of limb allows him to twist his bowling arm and flick his wrist at a pace and to a degree that stretches the concept of bowling. Beyond effective imitation, he was not so much leading the charge of the spinners as heading in the same direction.

Now he holds the world record for wickets taken in Test cricket. It is a well-deserved honour. Murali has been examined, tested, exposed, taunted and demeaned for long enough. In criminal matters a man cannot be tried twice for the same offence. Murali was exonerated years ago and that should have been the end of it. Unfortunately the verdict was not universally accepted and the controversy rages on.

It is time for a little respect. Murali has been through enough. He has taken his place in the record books alongside some extraordinary characters whose weak points have been forgotten and whose stirring performances will be remembered until the last ball has been bowled.