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A Murali Sceptic

A dangerous confession on the Sri Lankan legend.

I have a dangerous confession. I've been a Murali sceptic for some time. This is not something that should ever be admitted, in public or otherwise. Especially if you are Sri Lankan and have a phobia of being lynched.

Make no mistake, I am no Murali denier. Who can possibly deny the man's genius, his artistry, and his quiet dignity? Certainly not me. But when first I saw him in '95, bamboozling the Kiwis in Sri Lanka's first test series win abroad, my reaction was that there was dodginess at work. Dodginess concentrated around the elbow region. And sadly, I wasn't the only one.

At the time I hadn't read the rules on what constituted a chuck, but as far as I knew, it was all about elbows, whether they straightened or whether they bent. Like most, my view of chucking mirrored conventional views on pornography. I couldn't define it, but I would know it when I saw it.

But for those who saw Murali, who truly saw the man's wizardry, there is far more to him than meets the elbow. The eyes that glare like an All-Black in mid-haka, the wrist that flaps at improbable angles, and unbeknownst to most, the shoulder that all but dislocates at delivery point.

And then there was the glorious loop, the exquisite drift, the subtle drop and the not-so-subtle turn. The off-beat rhythms, the never-ending spells, the untouchable records and the whispering parade of naysayers.

It may be statistical fact that Murali is the greatest player to hold a cricket ball, but chat to the umpires whose careers he tainted, to the ex-players offended by his supple action or to those who post on the walls of a Facebook page titled muralisachucker and they'll describe a charlatan whose ill-gotten wickets should be expunged from records.

But for the Sri Lankan fan, for even the sceptic like myself, he was something beyond spectacular. The first bowler from our fair isle to strike terror into the hearts of international batting line-ups. The one reliable constant in a country overrun with unreliable inconsequentials. A famous Tamil who could sidestep racial politics. A wronged man who threw no tantrums. A genius who quite literally rewrote the rules.

Had he played in another era, the backroom sniggers would've snuffed out his career. And while his detractors may blame modern cricket's geopolitics and its misplaced political correctness for allowing his career to flourish, he was saved by something far less insidious. Science.

The Murali saga unveiled a somewhat unsavoury fact, which many have been unwilling to digest. Under the biomechanical microscope, everybody chucks. The perfectly straight elbow is as much a myth as is the arcane idea that cricket is a sport played by gentlemen.

Because of Murali, bowlers can now flex their elbows beyond the previously decreed 5 degrees. Without this extension, paragons of orthodoxy like Sean Pollock and Glenn McGrath would've had to revise their actions. Overzealous Murali defenders even suggest that McGrath's 563 test wickets could be declared illegal, and that the World Cups and Test victories he delivered with an elbow that at times slanted at 12 degrees could be declared null and void.

Over the past two decades, excitable Sri Lankans hurled these arguments across chat rooms and bar rooms at anyone who dared use the c-word to describe our Murali. But not me. Of course I was delighted to see science and rationalism, Western imperialism's hammer and sickle, being used by the East to clear a bowler's name. Tickled to see those who live by the sword, being put to it. And yet the sceptic in me still lingered.

Could a lab experiment replicate the conditions of a live match? Could scientific tests upon which a legend's career and a nation's hopes hinged, ever be free of politics and emotion? And was the world really going to swallow this optical illusion excuse?

But here are some indisputables. Even those who bray 'no-ball' from the stands of Australian cricket cannot claim Murali to be a cheat. He did not manufacture his action to gain an unfair advantage over the world. It evolved like many great things in Sri Lanka do, haphazardly and without design. We'd like to believe that our tiny nation nurtures innovation and unorthodoxy, but truth be told, we hardly notice when things are off-kilter and rarely do we attempt to fix anything, broken or otherwise.

Even those who dispute his 1320 international wickets cannot deny his exemplary conduct in the face of ugly provocation. A few petulant swipes at ex-cricketers late in his career notwithstanding, there have been no bitter diatribes, no drunken binges, no punch-ups in bars. Had the great Shane Warne been subjected to this much vitriol, would he have responded with a smile and a shrug?

Speaking to Charlie Austin, Murali's biographer and friend, I catch a glimpse of an unseen Murali, of the man behind the bulging eyes and the assassin's grin. I hear about the obsessive preparation, the hours spent spot bowling in nets, conjuring up tricks and perfecting the unplayable. Months spent pouring over cricket footage, ball in hand, flexing and tweaking until the leather became part of his skin.

I also hear about the intense stage fright that formed a prelude to every game, even in the twilight of his career. One can only imagine the pressure of being expected to take a wicket every time the ball was tossed to him, the expectancy that he would take a five-for in every game regardless of the opposition or the surface.

Sri Lankan bowling didn't just rely on Murali, we made him carry us. In a short test history only 3 Lankans have ever taken over 100 wickets. Malinga's got 107. Vaas has 355. And Murali has 800. And that's it. Not so much a gulf as a chasm.

The man was never interested in being a racial icon, in playing power games or in claiming the captaincy. One doesn't become the greatest bowler of all time by being distracted. It was almost like race was incidental to his monumental talent.

He had lived through his father's factory being burned by bigots in the 70s, but steered clear of pressure groups who wished he would voice their causes. His cause was making a cricket ball change direction. And in a nation filled with division, he was the one cause we could all get behind. And boy do we miss him.

I am told about his influence in the dressing room, taking younger players under his wing and keeping the politicians at bay. That he has built almost as many houses for tsunami victims as he has taken international wickets. And that he intended on reinventing himself as a leg-spinner, had science and a burly captain failed to rescue him from the wolves.

But it wasn't any of these factors that finally swayed me. It was a cricket show presented by Mark Nicholas, a man who appeared as much of a sceptic as myself. Again it wasn't the arguments that won me over. It was seeing them dressed up in an arm brace and presented in super slow motion. Suddenly, what had at first appeared dodgy, now revealed itself to be miraculous.

The rules speak of elbows, but they say nothing of wrists and shoulders. Perhaps because no one has been this gifted, this supple or this capable of performing this level of contortion. I finally got what the optical illusion thing was all about. From certain angles, it did appear that the elbow was straightening, even when it was locked in place by steel and plaster. The action was unorthodox, unusual and unbelievable. But could it truly be called illegal?

What courage does it take to allow yourself to be tested on camera before the eyes of all your detractors? To reduce his wrist action and shoulder technique to a genetic anomaly would be to deny Murali's discipline and craftsmanship. Nature may have given him the advantage, but it is he who harnessed it, nurtured it and transformed it into magic.

History has shown that mystery spinners rarely endure. Iverson, Gleeson and our very own Mendis. Once the mystery gets solved, not much is left. Even after 20 years, the world never fully figured out Murali, even with all the technology at hand. And despite all the hostility, they weren't able to take him down.

Only time will tell how his legacy endures. Unborn generations will pour over old footage and marvel at how one era produced the two greatest spinners of all time. While convincing arguments are mounted today proclaiming Shane Warne's superiority, I have a suspicion that the future may lie with the dark Tamil of supple wrist.

Warne took the existing armoury of leg spin and turned it into something flawless. Murali took the dull weaponry of off-spin and reinvented it as something lethal and mesmerising. Making him perhaps the game's first and only wrist-spinning offie, though I suspect, not its last. It is one thing to perfect an art, but another to invent an art form.

For Sri Lankans, he will be the enduring proof that greatness is not beyond us. Proof that brilliance can transcend race and overcome adversity. And evidence that if we focus our vision and build on our gifts that it is indeed possible to move worlds. And to do it quietly, with dignity and with a grin.

Shehan Karunatilaka's novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Award for South Asian Literature.

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