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By Suresh Menon
It is entirely possible that Muthiah Muralitharan will play the second Test against India, although he has announced his retirement after the first. If he claims just seven wickets in the Galle match he would tally 799. An impressive enough figure, but if the temptation to become the first bowler to claim 800 Test wickets cannot be resisted, that is understandable. Murali is human after all, even if his bowling and his struggles to succeed might suggest something beyond.
Whatever figure Murali finishes with is likely to stand forever given the diminishing interest in Test cricket, and despite his own modest assessment that someone like Harbhajan Singh might go past that figure. International sportsmen are supposed to be beyond statistics, and many claim that they are unaware of records since they do not play for them. But that is a convenient sporting myth. You can wake up most international bowlers in the middle of the night and ask them how many wickets they have taken, and they will give you the correct answer. A couple of generations ago, such self-awareness was looked down upon, but today it is seen as a healthy sign that sportsmen understand the context in which they perform.
Obituaries are not supposed to dwell on a person’s weaknesses, only exaggerate his virtues. But no such consideration has been shown to Murali despite his role in cricket’s first proper attempt to define the legal delivery. Thanks to his action, umpires know there is a difference between what the eye sees and the computer calculates. It was while studying Murali’s action that it was noticed that some of the finest bowlers in the game, known for their smooth actions, did, in fact, send down illegal deliveries. By the earlier system – the naked eye – someone like Glenn McGrath was seen as picture perfect. Then technology showed that he too fell outside the demands of the legal.
That led to a new world order where a kink of 15 degrees was allowed, and Murali’s unique action was seen as legal. Those who criticize him base their observations on the naked eye; those who absolve him go by the letter of the definition. In a few years, when such reliance on technology is taken for granted, fans will wonder what the fuss was all about.
That is why the apologists for Murali do him a disservice by focusing on his hard work, his pleasant demeanour, his philanthropy as if to suggest that his human qualities somehow make up for his apparently illegal action. This is wrong, because a player ought to be judged by his performance on the field, and Murali’s action is legal by the definition of the term. He has suffered more than most great players as a result of this misunderstanding.
Murali brought to the craft a unique touch, a new way of doing things. He remains the symbol of a resurgent Sri Lanka, an always talented side from its pre-Test days but one that needed a touch of iron to perform consistently. He has been the figure behind the team’s successes, both literally, for his performance, as well as for the unquantifiable elements that go into the making of that attribute called ‘inspiration’.
Above all, he expanded the horizons of the game, bringing in elements that make it more complex, and therefore more interesting, and providing challenges in the meeting of which international batsmen made their reputations. Nobody bowls like Murali; sadly not even Murali these days, and the time has probably come. But he will be missed, as any one-of-a-kind performer will be.