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WE AIN’T LEARNED NOTHING YET: 1990s

Throwing had practically disappeared from world cricket for thirty years and the only Australians no-balled involved calls against Victorian leg-spinner Jim Higgs (1975) and Western Australian off-spinner Bruce Yardley (1978), both in matches when playing for Australian touring sides. However, neither bowler was ever regarded as a serious transgressor and because the incidents occurred outside Australia little notice was taken here. The persistent calling of Sri Lankan off-spinner Muthiah Muriladaran by umpire Darrell Hair at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day 1995 thrust the throwing issue back firmly into the international spotlight.

Muthiah Muralidaran – Right-arm off-spin

(b. 17.4.1972)

It must be admitted that Muralidaran fell into the category of a suspect bowler and that pressure was growing for changes to the throwing law. At this point in his career Muralidaran had played 22 Tests and taken 80 wickets at 32.76 to be Sri Lanka’s leading Test bowler but murmurs had become more intense rumbles after a series in New Zealand the previous year when the home team coach John Reid had accused him of throwing. It was also felt that a number of the International Cricket Council (ICC) match referees wanted the power (and perhaps responsibility) shifted from the umpires to television evidence.

At the beginning of December 1995 it was believed that increased scrutiny of Muralidaran’s action would occur when the Test series began because in November he was the subject of an umpires’ report from a tour match against Queensland which recommended a close examination of that action. Unfortunately the law was both flawed and improperly administered. While it demanded that a bowler be called if the umpire was less than ‘entirely satisfied with the absolute fairness’ of the delivery, Muralidaran was seen by some as escaping punishment. He had never been called across four continents but he had been cited as suspicious in three series by three separate ICC match referees.

Debate about Muralidaran’s action slipped from the news during most of the month in which Sri Lanka was engaged in the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup one day internationals with Australia and the West Indies, and also following the First Test against Australia at Perth where he bowled 54 overs without question. This match was far more controversial for the report of umpires Peter Parker and Khizar Hayat against the Sri Lankans under Law 42.5 for ball tampering. It was this issue, and an ICC apology for it on the morning of the Melbourne Test, which created the major cricket headlines. The major subheading surrounded concern about the form of Australian batting stalwart David Boon’s ability to hold his place as the side’s number three batsman.

Sri Lanka v Australia (Second Test), 26 December 1995

The first day of the match was a Tuesday and the drama unfolded midway through the second session of play. Muralidaran had bowled two overs before lunch from umpire Steve Dunne’s or the members’ end of the ground with umpire Hair at square leg and these passed without incident. At 2.34 he took up the attack from umpire Hair’s or the southern end. Muralidaran’s third over was a maiden with all deliveries again passed as legitimate but in his fourth Hair no-balled him twice for throwing on the fourth and sixth balls. The umpire continued to call him three times in his fifth over on the second, fourth and sixth balls. While the bowler stood with his hands on his hips perplexed, the five calls provoked an immediate response by the Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga who left the field at 3.03 in order to take advice from his team management. He returned at 3.08 and continued with Muralidaran who was called two more times in his sixth over on the second and sixth balls. At 3.17 Ranatunga removed the offending bowler from the attack although he reintroduced him at 3.30 at umpire Dunne’s end. Although Hair reports in his book, Decision Maker, that at the end of the tea break he stated that he would call Muralidaran no matter which end he bowled he did not do so. Muralidaran completed another twelve overs without further no-balls and, after bowling Mark Waugh, finished the day with figures of 18-3-58-1. The seven calls were the first ever made against a visiting bowler in Australia and the greatest number in a match since those by umpire Andrew Barlow against Eddie Gilbert in 1931. What were the reactions of outside observers?

One man who felt the pain was Ian Meckiff who watched the game from the Australian Cricket Board’s official enclosure. According to reporter Ron Reed, Meckiff didn’t want to talk about it and found the incident ‘very difficult to comprehend’. A fortnight earlier Meckiff had offered a wish that Muralidaran would not suffer in the way he did. One of the main difficulties Meckiff had in dealing with his dismissal from the game was the nagging doubt that it had been preordained.

Predictably journalists offered a range of views. Two who criticised the process rather than the outcome were Peter Roebuck and Greg Baum in the Melbourne Age. Writing under a headline ‘No subtlety in MCG’s day of shame’ Roebuck deplored the ‘public humiliation’ and echoed some of Keith Miller’s language of thirty-two years before about an ‘execution’-only far more eloquently. It was not a performance he cared to witness again, there was no sport in it. It was a day of ‘empty triumph and personal sorrow’. Roebuck saw Muralidaran’s career ‘in jeopardy’ and his mind ‘in turmoil’. What he objected to was that ‘it was not done quietly, in some hallowed corner of cricket officialdom, with the senior men of the International Cricket Council studying film and gravely reaching their verdict. It was done, instead, in front of a crowd of 55,239 on the first day of a match scheduled to last five’.

Rare among journalists who have discussed the throwing issue throughout cricket history, who either conclude that the no-balling umpires are brave or mistaken, Roebuck also queried the nature of umpire Hair’s bravery. And he almost accused Australia of bullying.

Throwing cannot be tolerated. History also tells of brave men who’ve stood up and condemned a practice that is accidental in almost every case. Perhaps Hair has been brave. But his action was also public and certain to catch the headlines. Some men like to wear their courage on their sleeves. It would be nice to think that hostile tourists from powerful teams would be treated with similar fortitude.

For his part Baum’s major concerns were with cricket’s equivocation, dithering and procrastination. His claim was that the ICC and the various national cricket boards had had ample time to act against Muralidaran. Like Roebuck he queried why the toughest decision had to be played out on a showcase occasion.

Other reporters were less critical of the way the calls were made. Robert Craddock for the News Limited group used the most emotive language, labelling Muralidaran a ‘convicted “chucker”‘ in the lead to his front page story, ‘Furore over Test “chucking” call’ in the Adelaide Advertiser on 27 December. And neither he nor stablemate Ron Reed queried Hair’s unusual practice of standing back several metres from his normal position to give himself a view of the bowler’s action. Reed did agree, however, that Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore (the former Australian Test batsman) was within his rights to ask why the bowler could deliver 50 overs in the Perth Test without question, and pass another examination in front of Hair in a limited over international in Sydney the previous Thursday night. Both Craddock and Reed noted that no calls were made from square leg by either umpire but Reed drew a different implication from Dunne’s lack of action than Roebuck had made from Hair’s call. ‘The assumption can only be that the umpires differ in their opinions – or perhaps, in their preparedness to make the hard call.’ At this point 32 other umpires had stood in Muralidaran’s 23 Tests and passed him. Why should the view of the odd man out be accepted?

At the end of the day the ICC moved swiftly, requesting Sri Lanka to take ‘corrective action’ to save Muralidaran’s career. The game’s ruling body issued a statement from London which seemed to support Hair. The Sri Lankans found the calls a shock and the bowler had been dealt a huge psychological blow although he had responded well by bowling purposefully in the final session. ICC chairman Sir Clyde Walcott outlined two years of official concerns. These revealed that in 1993 ICC referee Peter Burge had spoken to Sri Lankan cricket officials after expressing his suspicions about Muralidaran’s delivery in a series against India; that ICC referee Barry Jarman had been so concerned by Muralidaran’s action during the Sri Lankan tour of New Zealand in March 1995 that he had arranged for a slow motion video to be taken of the bowler’s action and had this forwarded to the ICC; and that at an ICC meeting in July 1995, a new policy had been adopted whereby an umpire having doubts about the legitimacy of a bowler’s action should raise the matter with the ICC referee handling the series. In such a case video evidence should be obtained for the ICC to pass on to the player’s Board for consideration. When Sri Lanka had played in a one-day series in Sharjah in early October umpires Hair, Dunne and Nigel Plews advised the ICC referee Raman Subba Row of their concerns. As a result further footage of Muralidaran was taken and passed on to the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL). The ball was now in the Sri Lankans’ court.

The ball remained in the hand of the spinner on the Wednesday as Australia amassed a huge first innings total of 6-500 declared with David Boon occupying the crease for just under seven hours for 110 runs and Steve Waugh making an undefeated hundred. Muralidaran (unlike Meckiff) bowled on as if nothing had happened the day before. In all, he bowled 20 overs in the first two sessions to finish with figures of 38-7-124-1 for the innings while umpire Hair stood silent at square leg.

The second day ended in as much confusion as the first. An hour-long meeting after play in a locked dressing room involved the BCCSL secretary Anura Tennekoon, team manager Duleep Mendis, coach Whatmore, captain Ranatunga and vice-captain Aravinda de Silva failed to reach any conclusions but there were fears that Muralidaran’s tour, if not his career, would be ended. Tennekoon conceded that if the no-balling situation arose again it put the team in a quandary as it left them a player short. After the meeting the Sri Lankans called for a summit with Hair and referee Graham Dowling before the end of the Test. Whatmore stated that an issue for the summit was the question of why just seven balls out of 38 overs had been called. In his view Muralidaran needed no ‘corrective action’ because his action was legal. Whatmore went on to say that the ICC film sent from New Zealand was inconclusive because it had been shot from long on. The Sharjah film had not reached Sri Lanka by the time the team had departed for Australia.

Among reactions from former players those of Australian off-spinners Bruce Yardley and Ashley Mallett provided the sharpest contrast. Yardley was disgusted by the allegations against the bowler whom he had coached in Sri Lanka four years before. Referring to Hair he said: ‘Some umpire goes back five metres to call him for chucking when he should be watching his feet instead of his arm. Who does this bloke think he is?’ Regarding Muralidaran he added: ‘The laws of cricket state a bowler is not allowed to straighten his arm once it is bent in the delivery stride. We should be celebrating his action, not trying to run him out of the game.’ Mallett, on the other hand, felt the bowler was ‘very suspect’ because he straightened his arm. He thought the action could be modified successfully and offered his assistance.

Muralidaran did not bowl again in the Test as Australia went on to dismiss the Sri Lankans twice on the way to a 10 wicket win. By the end of the match there was a wider reaction to the action.

West Indian captain Richie Richardson, in Australia, said: ‘He’s just unorthodox. When I look at the slow motion picture I don’t really think he chucks. He comes over with a slightly bent arm and when he releases the ball his wrist straightens. But if you look really carefully the arm remains bent.’ Thilanga Sumathipala, vice president of the BCCSL, was confident Muralidaran would pass any test and considered it was only umpire Hair who had a problem with him. Former Australian captain Allan Border thought the bowler might have been set up. He added: ‘I’m not convinced he straightens his arm all the time. I think occasionally he might-which constitutes a throw-but if I was an umpire I wouldn’t be prepared to call him. Australian captain Mark Taylor stated that he had an opinion but wouldn’t divulge it because he felt the only opinion that mattered was the umpire making the call at the time. Len King, the Victorian director of umpiring (and former Test umpire), thought the action ‘very, very suspect’.

Muralidaran’s own view of himself at the end of the game was that he did not throw. He spoke for the first time after a medical examination by a Melbourne-based surgeon, and former Ceylonese captain, Barclay Reid certified that he was a victim of a ‘fixed deformity’ of 32 degrees at the right elbow on his bowling arm and 26 degrees on his left. The report continued ‘as the shoulder rotates the arm, and the arm continues forwards and downwards, the forearm then comes into a straight line with the arm, giving an impression of a straightening of the elbow, although no actual straightening of the elbow occurred’. Muralidaran even hinted at litigation to prove he had done nothing wrong. ‘My arm is born like that. I can’t change my action. If you cannot straighten your arm, how can you bowl with a different action.’ He went on to say: ‘Darrell Hair had done my matches in Sharjah, about four matches, then in Sydney. Why shouldn’t he call me then? Because I am not changing my action. The same as I did in those matches was the same as I did in this.’ Plainly the bowler and the Sri Lankans did not appear to be accepting the situation meekly. What did Hair have to say about this?