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Sri Lanka v England (ODI), 23 January 1999

There was a prophetic feel about Mike Coward’s article, ‘Muralidaran deserves an apology, not idiot’s jeers’ published in the Australian of the morning of the match. He argued that Sri Lanka’s ‘most famous and infamous bowler’ needed to understand that the taunts, barbs and cheap shots directed at him came from an unknowing element in the cricket community. In a harshly worded statement about the twin cultures of cricket Coward wrote, ‘Limited over cricket may be a necessary evil but that doesn’t mean we have to cop it or its crass culture without comment’. He also quoted Sri Lankan captain Ranatunga as having observed that whereas there was sympathy for Muralidaran in 1995-96, now he noted ‘overt hostility’. Coward added, ‘Cricket has a lamentable record in a time of crisis. Such is its conservatism it cannot stand confrontation.’ Confrontation was only a few hours away.

In some respects the pairing of umpires Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan hinted at confrontation because it was the same pairing that had presided over the match in Brisbane three years before when Emerson had followed Darrell Hair in calling Muralidaran for throwing. Now after weeks of heated discussion and debate about the legitimacy of Muralidaran’s action, controversy erupted in the eighteenth over of the England innings in the match at Adelaide Oval. Emerson revived the chucking problem by calling Muralidaran from square leg for throwing the third ball of his second over of the match.

Confontation was epitomised by Ranatunga, Emerson and McQuillan becoming involved in a heated exchange which lasted for several minutes. Ranatunga then led his team to the boundary, called his team’s management on to the ground and looked as though he was prepared to concede the match. Match referee (and former South African captain) Peter van der Merwe also entered the field as the English batsmen observed the scenes in amazement. While the arguments continued for ten minutes Muralidaran was consoled by team-mates. When England resumed at 1-96 the spinner reverted to bowling leg spin.

Subsequently, the Sri Lankans showed they would not go quietly and Ranatunga challenged Emerson by switching Muralidaran to the other end. Further confrontation followed when the umpire refused to let the bowler run between him and the stumps in operating round the wicket. One of the most dramatic limited over international games ever was won by Sri Lanka when it reached an improbable victory target of 303 runs.

The main difficulty for the ICC was now how to deal with Ranatunga for breaching at least three code of conduct regulations.

1.1 The captains are responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the spirit of the game as well as within the laws.

1.3 Players and team officials must at all times accept the umpire’s decision. Players must not show dissent at the umpire’s decision.

1.4 Players and team officials shall not intimidate or assault an umpire, another player or spectator.

The Australian’s journalist Malcolm Conn noted in an article on 25 January that, Emerson might be a ‘cowboy’ and a ‘grandstander’ but he was the umpire, his decision was final and must be accepted without question. The trouble was (as Alan McGilvray might have said) the game was no longer the same.

A Sri Lankan bowler with a doutbtful action was making his second visit to Australia after being called here on the previous occasion. He was again called and his captain contested the umpire’s call. Ranatunga had been told by the Sri Lankan Board of Control to seek its advice if the bowler was no-balled. The contesting was part of a plan of action. Although an Australian editorial thought Ranatunga’s action amounted to ‘thuggery’ and the facts were simple, they were not. They were part of an historical continuum and involved a lot of leftover questions from the previous tour.

After the 1995-96 tour Muralidaran’s career was in jeopardy and this led to an analysis of his bowling action by the University of Western Australia and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Both reports concluded that his action was legal. The University of WA photographed his action from six angles at 1000 frames per second and found little problem from some angles, thus concluding that his ‘throwing’ was an optical illusion. In Hong Kong Muralidaran spent three and a half days under a highly technical examination which revealed that he was unable to fully extend his bowling arm and therefore incapable of straightening it. The outcome was that the ICC exonerated him before the 1996 World Cup and did not re-examine him for two years during which time he enjoyed consistent success around the world, including a phenomenal performance of taking 16 wickets in a Test match at The Oval against England in August 1998. In that time umpires had plenty of opportunities to complain but had not done so. Quite reasonably the Sri Lankans and Muralidaran must have taken that silence for support. Yet after 200 Test wickets he was again being queried. While the manner of the protest might have been ugly, it was a legitimate question to ask how many times he could be tried.

Since then, of course, Muralidaran has gone on to astonishing success without further queries by umpires: at the World Cup in England in 1999; in six games for Lancashire that season when he captured 66 wickets in six games, and in 2001 when he took 50 wickets in seven matches; but above all in Test cricket where, despite the blip of being accused by the great Indian spinner Bishen Bedi of having the action of a javelin thrower, he, at the age of 29, reached 400 wickets in just 72 games. If he has had more than usual difficulties in Australia he might take some solace from the judgement of Sir Donald Bradman in notes from conversations with Tom Thompson between 1995 and 1998 and relayed via his website at www.bradmancopyrightmaterials.com.au:

Murali, for me, shows perhaps the highest discipline of any spin bowler since the war. He holds all the guile of the trade, but something else too. His slight stature masked a prodigious talent, and what a boon he has been for cricket’s development on the subcontinent.

It is with this in mind, and with the game’s need to engage as a world sport, that I found umpire Darrell Hair’s calling of Murali so distasteful. It was technically impossible of Umpire Hair to call Murali from the bowler’s end, even once! Why was his eye not on the foot-fall and crease?

I believe Hair’s action – in one over – took the development of world cricket back by ten years. For me, this was the worst example of umpiring that I have witnessed, and against everything the game stands for.

Clearly Murali does not throw the ball. No effort in that direction is made or implied by him. His every effort is to direct the ball unto the batsman! Murali wants to bamboozle, to trick through flight and change of pace.

That through this ordeal he has remained both composed and modest rings further truth in his favour.

His is the stuff of our greatest slow bowlers, and for me is one, like O’Reilly, Warne or Trumble; who are game breakers. They detect and then imagine the batsman’s weakness, perhaps in an over or two. What a weapon for any captain. To have the discipline to contain, and then bamboozle!

Reproduced with permission from the author from his book – Chuckers: A History of Throwing in Australian cricket (Kent Town, Australia 2002)

Bernard Whimpress is curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum. He has written nine books on sport and contributed to several others, as well as writing for a wide variety of sports and historical magazines and journals in Australia and overseas. A current research project is writing the last ten years of Australian cricket history for a revised edition of Chris Harte’s 1993 book, ‘A History of Australian Cricket’. Bernard is the publisher/editor of the Australian cricket history journal, ‘Baggy Green’. Formerly a sports magazine journalist and photographer, he holds a doctorate in history from Flinders University.