Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

Adios, Murali

He walks to the top of his mark and stands there, the ball a whirring blur as he tosses it from his bowling hand to his left.

He surveys his field and with shouted word and eloquent gesture repositions them, moving them around in incremental inches until he gets them just so, with all the precision of a master of the geometry of bowling, one who knows exactly what he is going to bowl and precisely how the batsman will react to that delivery.

A pause, and then his arms swing back, like those of a swimmer launching into a back-stroke; he bounces through his brief run-up and swings into his delivery stride. The images are synonymous with 'effort' -- the blurred swing of bowling arm and impossible rotation of the wrist; the mouth opened wide in a rictus of effort and the impossibly bulging eyes as they follow the trajectory of the ball he has just released; the eyes narrowing as they track the batsman's response; the mouth forming smiles that speak volumes -- a wry smile when the batsman susses him out and plays him with authority; the cheeky grin when the ball slides past the organized defenses of the best in the business but misses edge and stumps alike; the strangely shy smile when he breaks through... Watching Murali bowl is as good as going to the movies.

It is not his triumphs I remember, even though he has played a starring role in 54 of Sri Lanka's 61 Test wins during his tenure [S Rajesh has the breakdown]; it is not even the story of his battle for vindication after being called for chucking way back in 1995. As Murali turns his back on a field he has dignified, enriched with his presence for the better part of two decades, what I most remember is this: Murali is perhaps the only bowler in living memory who has never, in the moment of his triumph, dishonored the batsman he has defeated; he is perhaps the only bowler I've seen who has never given the departing batsman a "send off". When the batsman gets the better of him, he smiles with the relish of a champion savoring a battle; when he triumphs -- as he has done 800 times in Tests alone -- his first reaction is an almost apologetic glance at the batsman, before he turns smiling to his celebrating mates. Murali, more than any other bowler in this over-the-top age, embodied the virtue of treating triumph and disaster alike.

With most sportsmen, it takes little effort to find the logical pigeonhole to slot them into. Not Murali, who has meant so many things to so many different people. Consider a sampling of the best tributes that have flowed in his direction:

Charlie Austin has this to say about Murali the man:

Just as his bowling has dominated on the field, his effervescent personality fills any room he occupies. He's such a chatterbox, in fact, that his exhausted team-mates once challenged him to be completely silent for the duration of a three-hour coach trip to Kandy. He lasted about three minutes.

Mahela Jayawardene summed it up well in the Guardian last week: "He is the sort of guy you want in the dressing room, but sometimes you think: 'Why is he in the dressing room - he won't stop talking!' When he exhausts us, he goes to see the opposition. He is the only player I have ever known who spends more time in the opponents' dressing room than his own. You never sit next to him on an aeroplane because you won't get any sleep. Lal, the masseur, has that job. But ask him to make a speech and you will be lucky to get 10 words."

He's irrepressibly cheeky, too, one of his favourite pastimes being admonishing his top-order batsmen. While others are afraid to voice their opinions after a team-mate loses his wicket, Murali sometimes can't resist. Once, while playing for Lancashire, a towering Andrew Flintoff stormed into the dressing room, ashen-faced, having failed to end a lean trot. Murali sauntered over casually. "What happened - another shit shot?"

Another important, yet largely unnoticed, facet of Murali's human-ness emerges from Dileep Premachandran's valedictory post:

Treasure the 800 wickets, but remember, too, the 1024 houses he built for those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. They say more about the man than his athletic achievements ever will.

Mukul Kesavan, in a wonderful summation of Murali's career, speaks among other things of the legacy the legend leaves behind:

As a bowler, Murali's standing in world cricket is unique for several reasons.

One, not only is he the greatest offspinner the game has seen, he is an original. He's the first wrist-spinning offbreak bowler in the history of cricket. Before Murali, offbreaks were finger-spun; Murali's huge offbreaks are spun from the wrist. Setting aside the controversy about the legality of his action, he has pioneered a new tradition of spin bowling, and his most outstanding disciple is Harbhajan Singh. Two, while he didn't invent thedoosra, the offspinner's googly (the credit for that belongs to Saqlain Mushtaq), he certainly perfected it. A delivery that might have gone down in cricket history as a freak ball that died with its inventor, is now an established part of the offspinner's armoury. Along with reverse swing, the doosra is the most radical extension of the bowler's art in modern cricket, and Murali is its maestro.

Three, Murali is the most important cricketer in the game today, because his career and its attendant controversies have changed the laws of cricket and subverted a century and more of cricketing common sense.

In a post earlier this week, I had looked at Murali's unintended impact on the laws governing bowling. Mukul Kesavan, in the piece cited above, and Rohit Brijnath, in a 2004 essay celebrating Murali, have examined this aspect in great detail. From Rohit:

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.

Peter Roebuck compares Murali's craft with that of the two other great spinners of the time:

Inevitably Murali has been compared to his distinguished peers, Warne and Kumble. Between them they have done so much to revive spin after it had been rendered apparently redundant by the great West Indies sides of the seventies and eighties. But it is not quite right to compare him to orthodox spinners. Warne was the master of disguise, a bowler of supreme accuracy and wit, but he did not produce anything new or strange; rather he turned a craft into an art, showed it was possible to be both Arthur Mailey and Clarrie Grimmett, the millionaire and the miser, to execute the skill with such precision and strength that a legspin attack could be launched and sustained without the high risks previously associated with the practice. Kumble was faster through the air and off the pitch than was common in the genre. Simply, he had the intelligence to identify his best speed and to turn it into strength. Although awkward and unusual, he too was essentially mainstream.

Murali was another case, belonged in a category of his own, or at any rate in the loose confederation of freakish spinners that over the decades have astonished batsmen and amazed spectators. In so many ways he belongs alongside Jack Iverson, Sonny Ramadhin, John Gleeson, Ajantha Mendis and other originals who resisted pigeonholing and dared to follow their own path come hell or high water. Significantly he has lasted longer than any of them, much longer. Once the others were rumbled, they did not last that long. Ramadhin was undone by alarmed and cynical English batsmen from private schools prepared to exploit absurdly unfair lbw rules in order to stop him. Despite the fuss over his action, Murali has been luckier. At times he has been bent but never broken.

Writing for Yahoo! Cricket, Venkat Ananth -- who will fairly soon debut as a columnist on that forum -- examines another aspect of his legacy:

His story has another, perhaps subliminal yet relevant sociological narrative, not primarily because of his Tamil identity but because of when Murali arrived on the scene, in context of post-independent Sri Lanka. He came into the game at a time when the Civil War was at its peak,  and through his cricketing and off-the-field career, became not just a modern day Tamil hero, but also one of Sri Lanka's finest ambassadors ever. At a time when a generation of Sri Lankan Tamils looked up to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the then chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the only genuine Tamil hero, Murali in his unostentatious fashion used his cricket to become the authentic Tamil icon, one who endeared himself to even the most die-hard Tamil nationalist at home and across the diaspora.

You could talk of Mahadevan Sathasivam who is still regarded as one of Sri Lanka's finest batsmen ever, but even in Kandy or Hatton or for that matter Ratnapura or Matale, you'd hardly find people who've heard of Satha. During the Civil War, Sinhalese society tended to view the Tamils with a degree of contempt and intolerance - attitudes that would have been blanket had it not been for the presence of Murali in their midst. With cricketing skills that were unparalleled and with a smile as wide as all outdoors, Murali won the nation over, and came to symbolize a unified, collective Sri Lanka, one in which Sinhalese and Tamils could coexist, even thrive.

The magic of Murali is exemplified by, but not contained exclusively in, the pieces linked to above. He is kaleidoscopic -- with every flick of your wrist, you are presented with a new image; every fresh image is equally compelling, yet none of them is definitive in and of itself.

I have my own image, my own definition of what Murali means to a sport I love, and have made a career out of following:

In an increasingly cynical age where psycho-babble of the 'mental disintegration' sort has been used to mask, even excuse, gratuitous bad behavior; where surliness is the preferred 'hallmark' of the 'champion'; where downright boorishness and unconscionable bad behavior is sought to be excused as a manifestation of 'competitiveness' and the 'will to win'; where "champion bowlers" sulk when the batsman is on top, then celebrate the most gratuitous dismissal with macho fist-pumping and wash-your-mouth-out abuse, Murali over a two-decade long career has been the perfect antidote; the ever-present, always-smiling, badly-needed reminder that you can play with grace and still achieve beyond human imagining.

Murali is the proof we all need that nice guys can -- and do -- finish first.

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