Muttiah Muralitharan has been dancing his jigs again. On the fourth morning of a Test match played under the gaze of the ancient fortress in Galle, this son of a sweet shop owner became the seventh man to take 400 wickets in Test cricket.

The Sri Lankan reached this landmark in 72 matches, eight fewer than Richard Hadlee, his nearest rival, and at a younger age than any predecessor. Murali has only 29 years on his clock and lots of work left in him.

Apart from its significance, Murali’s 400th wicket was not his most memorable. Zimbabwe’s Henry Olonga can hold a tune and occasionally land a fast ball, but his batting is built on sand.

Certainly, the dreadlocked paceman did not keep his opponent or his supporters fretting. One ball was enough for him, a dipping off-break that burst through a scantily constructed defence.

And then the celebrations began as a large crowd roared its approval and Murali lifted the ball as if it was an opponent’s head.

By the end of the day, Murali had completed his rout as the Zimbabweans slumped in their second innings to be all out for 79, with Muralitharan taking four more wickets.

Murali has taken his last 100 wickets in 14 Tests, a speed helped by the feebleness of some batting line-ups.

Among the West Indians, recent visitors to Sri Lanka, only Brian Lara played him competently and the Trinidadian scored 688 runs in six innings. Southpaws have always found him easier to play.

Murali’s deliveries do not so much change course as continue further in one direction than anyone else’s, in which regard they resemble Pauline Hanson. Left-handers have been able to turn his prodigious powers of spin to their advantage.

Murali is a remarkable practitioner, a frail, grinning, busy figure, more a mosquito than a wasp, tossing the ball from hand to hand, darting in to bowl with a mischievous look, dispatching a salvo that hums through the air and upon landing snarls like an enraged spaniel.

And then, regardless of the outcome, he laughs again, for the menace is in the message and not the man.

Reservations about his action distract attention from his skill. Murali is accurate, crafty and game, willing to bowl all day to any opponent. He has wit, stamina and a strength surprising in a man so skinnily framed.

He cleverly constructs his overs and spells, landing the ball on a saucer, persuading it to perform contortions calculated to mislead the most cautious batsman.

Above all, he is a fine competitor who has for years carried the hopes of a country and the burden of an attack.

Happily, Murali has been popular wherever he has played. In his early days, he smiled sheepishly, for he could not understand a word of English and was accordingly inclined to agree with all interlocutors.

Even in his own community, he felt like an outsider for he was humbly raised off the beaten track and did not attend an appropriate school. Moreover, he was a Tamil appearing in a time of conflict, with thousands killed as demagogues fuelled the fires of resentment. Tamils could be told from their tinge or tone. Murali’s deeds have been cheered in all corners of his country. He does not pretend to be as sophisticated as Arthur Ashe or Tiger Woods, but he has forced a nation to confront its demons.

Murali is recognised as the greatest cricketer his country has produced. His performances are celebrated the length and breadth of his land, and his reputation is fiercely protected. Soon he will become cricket’s leading wicket-taker because spinners last longer, besides which he does not seem to need servicing, let alone surgery.

Inevitably, his right to a place in the rankings will be disputed as long as the game is played. Murali is a mild man at the centre of several storms. Some critics are convinced that his action is illegal and his defenders are talking humbug.

As was the case in the 1890s and 1950s, the campaign against curious actions has been concentrated in Australia. Murali has been called for throwing on Boxing Day in Melbourne and during 50-over matches in Adelaide and Brisbane, the latter while bowling harmless leg-breaks.

No one suggests Murali intends to break any rules; he has not taken steroids and is simply putting to use a body capable of improbable gyrations. Supporters point out his action has survived scientific scrutiny.

He has not been called for throwing anywhere else and has been defended by former Australian captains. Perhaps it does not matter. Certainly it is too late. To describe him as a chucker is unfair, for there is beauty in his bowling. Much better to respect Murali’s courage and appreciate his performances.

Not long ago, he took 17 wickets in a Test in England, bowling long spells in sultry weather, inspiring his colleagues, bewildering batsmen with his flight and delighting spectators with his variations.

Emerging from a sweet shop in Kandy, he made himself into a top-class cricketer and remained a humble sportsman. He has taken his hammerings and has always been ready to try again. He’s been booed, attacked in the newspapers and described as an imposter, and it has not brought him down.

He has also helped to win a World Cup, and travelled around the world spinning the ball sharply and taking wickets wherever he goes. Tamils and Sinhalese salute him, and the game must follow suit.

Source : The Age Australia