Sport is relatively easy to write: angels and demons, heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, neatly linear narratives in a way the world, shaded in gradations of gray, rarely is. And that perhaps is the secret of sport's enduring appeal -- it satisfies our need to take sides, to hiss the villain and cheer the hero without worrying about nuance.
And then there is Muthaiah Muralitharan -- neither hero nor villain, neither black nor white; a player who resists being slotted neatly into the pigeonhole labeled 'greatest spinner in the world' or equally, the one labeled 'cheat'.
Premier sports writer Rohit Brijnat, in an article dating back to 2004, underlined the enigmatic nature of the Sri Lankan cricketer:
When he bowls, he knows cameras are focused on his arm, commentators on his action, and that words will be said, usually not pretty. Spectators in Australia simply bellowed "Nooo" with every delivery; an opponent has allegedly called him a "f------ cheat" to his face; every press conference is rich with allegation.
It is an unrelenting pressure that demands an erratic response, either in behaviour or performance, but it has not come. This man has more character than we think; he has grace; he has been for some even heroic.
Foster says that "lesser men would have completely broken down", and perhaps that is beyond dispute. Through it all, Murali has stayed the course, remained committed to his craft; and his world record is testimony to a moral strength and self-belief that he is not adequately celebrated for.
But still, for all this, history will not know what to do with Muttiah Muralitharan. He is certainly not a villain, he will never be fully embraced as victim, and he does not stand as a conventional hero. He is truly a man apart.
Rohit is right – the story of Muthaiah Muralitharan, making his final bow on an international stage he has dominated for close on two decades, is too complex to permit of neat summation. And perhaps that is because his story is really two stories: the man himself and all he has achieved is one; the other is the unwittingly detrimental impact he has had on his sport.
Ever since they legalized overarm bowling in 1864, and Australian umpire Jim Phillips first blew the whistle on England quick Ernest Jones for chucking in 1897, cricket has kept the relevant rule simple:
"A ball is fairly delivered in respect of the arm if, once the bowler's arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand."
That is, cricket mandated against any straightening of the elbow during the delivery, basing the proscription on the premise that the ability to flex the joint, to straighten the arm, gave the bowler the ability to extract unfair benefit -- pace and bounce for the quicks, additional torque and hence increased turn and bounce for the spinner, among other thing.
What is key is to note that cricket did not equate ‘chucking’ with ‘cheating’ – the law merely made it an illegal delivery, imposed a penalty run on it, and mandated that the delivery had to be bowled again.
In other words, cricketing law as it was framed ensured that a bowler would not benefit from using unfair means – the exact same principle as applies in say the case of the no ball, where a bowler who slides his foot across the line gains valuable inches in a game where an inch can make a world of difference. In both cases, the point was to ensure that bowlers did not try for such unfair advantages, and to ensure that the batsman did not pay the price for such transgressions.
In the years since 1897, all kinds of bowlers have followed Ernest Jones into the record books for being called for ‘chucking’. Some, like Charlie Griffith and Ian Meckiff, gained notoriety; others like Abid Ali, Bruce Yardley and Henry Olonga and even unlikely names like David Gower [Nottingham, 1986] and Syed Kirmani [Bridgetown, 1986] are at best questions for cricket-trivia quizzes.
There was one commonality: they were all called -- that is, penalized -- on the field of play, and on each occasion the game moved on.
Then came Murali -- and everything changed. The story of Murali’s various brushes with chucking allegations, beginning with Melbourne 1995, is too recent to merit reiteration (here, in case memory needs a refresh, is an extended timeline of his various brushes with bowling law. Also worth a read, in context, is this pro-Lanka account of the various battles fought over the years to allow Murali to bowl).
Where the Murali case differed from earlier instances was in the reaction his calling provoked: while earlier, players and teams accepted the calls and moved on, Sri Lanka went into mortal kombat mode over Hair's calling of Murali, complete with allegations of racism, batteries of lawyers, threats of a pull out, the works. Was Lanka's cricket establishment right in reacting as it did? Probably -- there was malice in the actions of the umpires involved, and their interventions went way beyond what was called for by the rule book.
But this where the story breaks into two related parts. First, consider this video:
Rigorous medical analysis has proved beyond doubt [beyond doubt, that is, for all but some deliberately obtuse, boorish sections of the Australian cricket-watching public] that what we perceive as 'chucking' is, in the case of Murali, largely an optical illusion.
Murali called his action a “gift from god”; Darrel Hair, who set off the firestorm in the first place, in his autobiography called it “diabolical”; John Howard gaffed his mouth with his foot and, inadvertently, killed his future prospects of taking over as ICC chief with an off the cuff remark on the spinner that jarred Lankan sensibilities; and Bishen Singh Bedi speaking from the pedestal of the purist dubbed Murali a ‘javelin thrower’ -- all this while Murali was still practicing his craft.
As Rohit pointed out, we will never know what it took for Murali to continue in the face of constant opprobrium, to stay dedicated to his craft, to continue working towards perfection. "This man has more character than we think", Rohit said, and for once the writer was guilty of understatement.
So far, so good – the problem is not really with Murali, but with how the ICC, in keeping with its habit of buckling when asked to merely bend, reacted: It constituted an “expert committee” [chaired by Sunny Gavaskar, no less] that, in time, amended the law to stipulate that straightening of up to 15 degrees was permissible. The consequence has been two-fold:
(1) The lesson the umpires learnt from the Murali fiasco was that it was unwise to call an erring bowler on the field of play. Even if their interpretation of the chucking law was rigorous, the offending player and his home board, they realized, would escalate it from minor transgression to major issue, and the ICC would not back them for doing their job. Besides, the dilution of the chucking law, from a straight proscription of arm straightening to the ‘permissible degree’, meant umpires could no longer call a bowler with any sense of surety: what official can guarantee to be accurate about whether the arm straightened 15 degrees, or 16, in the heat of play?
(2) Boards became increasingly combative in defense of players with less than kosher bowling actions, thus further inhibiting the on-field umpires and resulting in the current clunky process that involves the filing of post-facto reports which will then be examined by a match referee, then referred to an expert committee which may or may not call for biomechanical analysis – a classic case of horse, stable door.
In a recent tribute to Murali, Peter Roebuck had this to say about the controversy:
Unsurprisingly, and despite hoots from the old guard, cricket went in search of a better way of dealing with throwing, long its thorniest issue, and emerged with a process as opposed to devastating rejection, only for that thoughtful recourse to be condemned as a feeble pandering to a powerful and unprincipled lobby. Part of Murali's achievement has been to force cricket to try to deal sensibly with the issue of confronting actions. A few offspinners continue to raise eyebrows, but blatant chuckers capable of breaking skulls have been identified at an early enough age to allow improvements to be made.
Very eloquent, as Peter always is -- but this once, I am unable to agree. The law governing chucking was in fact sensible: if you bowled an illegal delivery, you were called, and you had to go back and do it all over again while being docked a penalty run. How is that "devastating rejection"?
It is in fact the same principle as applies to all illegal deliveries. For instance, take the no-ball law: the idea is to prevent bowlers from gaining an extra yard or so by sliding their front foot across the line. If he does that, he derives an unfair advantage; therefore, when the umpire spots it, he calls the bowler, docks the team one run, and has the bowler re-bowl the ball.
A bowler who no-balls is not called a cheat though, to be strictly technical about it, slipping your foot across the line is cheating. A similar treatment could – should – have been enforced in the case of chucking.
Consider this: a bowler produces what commentators, unwilling to use the word ‘chuck’, now euphemistically call an “effort ball”. It gets a wicket – and potentially, changes the course and even outcome of the match. Had the ball been called, the batting side would have had an extra run, and an extra ball to face. As it now stands, the ball will not be called; the batting side could lose a wicket – that is, be penalized for no fault of its own.
In other words, the ICC has made deliberate cheating a viable option – a bowler can take the chance, knowing the rewards are immediate, and the punishment, if any, will only come in the future, too late to turn the clock back.
None of this would have happened had the ICC acted differently in Murali’s case. All it really needed to do, when the excreta hit the ceiling fan in Melbourne circa 1995, was (1) Rap the on-field umpires, not for calling the bowler but for making a crusade out of it, to the point of calling him even when he bowled leg breaks and (2) To get a proper analysis done to determine if Murali was transgressing the law, and if the result indicated that his action was kosher, to then inform its panel of umpires accordingly.
Instead, it changed the law, it changed the way the law was enforced, and in doing that it opened the door for every cheat in town.
None of this is Murali’s fault – but the original doubt about his action, and the ICC’s reaction to that furor, is a classic instance of the law of unintended consequences at work.
A caveat: Ross Emerson, the umpire who alongside Darrell Hair had first called Murali, has said subsequently that Murali did not deserve the records that stand in his name.
My disagreement with that is considerably more vehement than the mild objection I take to Peter's piece cited above -- Murali, throughout his career, bowled within parameters established and monitored by the ICC and accepted by the umpires and match referees. And as long as he did that, he deserved all his records and more. It is criminal for an umpire to overrule the law he is tasked to enforce -- and the law suggests that Murali's action is kosher, so Emerson is way off base with his comments.
That leads to a wider point: while I personally disagree with the ICC's revision of its own laws, I'd like to underline that none of what I said above constitutes an attempt to blame Murali, to label him a cheat. The blame for this situation vests entirely with the ICC -- a governing body whose spine flexes more than Murali’s shoulder and elbow.
PostScript: We’ll do a more wide-angle view of Murali the cricketer as he bowls his last ball in international cricket. In the interim, tell us where you stand on the question of the fairness, or lack thereof, of Murali’s bowling action.