From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.31 :: Aug. 05, 2010

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CRICKET / FEATURE

Forgiven, not forgotten

Muttiah Muralitharan's 800 Test wickets might be scarred because of his controversial action, but his undisturbed focus in single-handedly putting a torn nation on the cricket map deserves to be praised to the skies, bent arm or straight, writes Kunal Diwan.

Every single one of Muttiah Muralitharan's 800 scalps rests shakily on the alleged deformity/capability of his wrist and shoulder joints. Singled out for chucking the ball on three separate instances in international cricket, the Sri Lankan off-spinner spent as much time in kinematic research chambers as he did on the field. And although, on each occasion, he was absolved of possessing a quirk of nature — the unique alignment and articulation of his right arm — Murali's marathon march to a mountain of wickets was routinely despoiled by weird transpirations in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Murali affair originated in the now infamous Boxing Day Test in 1995, when the bowler was called seven times by Darrell Hair across three overs. In hindsight and when viewed through a lens of objectivity, Hair — gravely suspicious that Murali was straightening his arm while bowling — was merely performing his job to the letter.

“I have no angst over him holding the record but the fact that the rules had to be changed to handle bowlers like that vindicated my action and of the other umpires who called him,” Hair said in his defence after Murali's retirement. The fateful Test went on without incident thereafter, but a week later, in the tri-nation World Series Cup, another Aussie moderator, Ross Emerson — described later as a ‘fool of a white coat' by Peter Roebuck — no-balled Muralitharan in Sri Lanka's game against the West Indies.

This compelled Muralitharan, a month before the 1996 World Cup, to undergo his first scrutiny by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which gave him an all-clear, stating the congenital deformity in his right arm conveyed the optical illusion of throwing. But Emerson struck again in 1998, during the Adelaide ODI against England, when his calling of Murali almost led to the abandonment of the match, before Sri Lankan authorities intervened and the match resumed — a fiasco that led to a suspended one match ban for skipper Ranatunga. Inevitably, more analyses of the freakish action followed, and every time the iconic Lankan was given a clean chit for his two preferred deliveries, the off-spinner and the top-spinner, the ‘doosra' having not yet accoutred his arsenal.

In 2004, in the Kandy Test against — who else — Australia, match referee Chris Broad cast frank aspersions on Murali's new weapon, the ‘doosra', packing the bowler off to the University of Western Australia whose advanced three-dimensional kinematic studies were assumed and expected to resolve this crooked debate once and for all. The results were a revelation: while bowling the ‘doosra', Murali's mean elbow extension was 14 degrees, which was reduced to 10 degrees following remedial training. Both figures were clearly in violation of the five degree extension permissible for spinners under ICC laws at the time. But tests conducted later on non-Test playing bowlers indicated that most of them bent their arms to varying proportions and that a cap of five degrees on spinners was not justified.

Additionally, a body of former Test players (comprising Aravinda de Silva, Angus Fraser, Michael Holding, Tony Lewis, Tim May and Dave Richardson) in collaboration with an army of biomechanical experts inferred that 99 percent of all bowlers in the history of cricket straighten their arms when bowling. The series of eye-openers (one of which cast part-timer Ramnaresh Sarwan as the only bowler analysed who did not straighten his arm at all) along with the difficulties encountered in accurately estimating angulations of the arm in real match situations (or even positing lab results to real life) wizened the ICC to increase the upper limit of arm extension for all bowlers to a flat 15 degrees. How the 15 degree figure was arrived at is also open to conjecture. In explanation, Angus Fraser said: “That is the number which biomechanics says that it (straightening) becomes visible. It is difficult for the naked eye to see less than 15 degrees in a bowler's action.”

Though partially vindicated by the change in law, Muralitharan did himself no favours by commenting on a Melbourne radio station that “Jason Gillespie, Glen McGrath and Brett Lee all flexed their arms by 12, 13 and 14-15 degrees respectively,” an act for which he was chastised by the Sri Lankan Board.

But wires, tubes and sensors continued to tail the genial offie, pushing him now to the University of Western Australia where ‘Artificial Intelligence' was one of the phrases thrown around in a jargon-infested mess inhabited by apparently incoherent scientific mumbo-jumbo. Murali also spent time getting videotaped in England with his arm in a kilogramme-heavy brace that prevented all possible illegal curvatures of the arm. The only discernible change in his bowling with the brace, including in the ‘doosra', was an understandable lack of pace, the turn and zip remaining intact.

As things stand now, Murali's surface-independent spin and bite is generally attributed to the extra movement his joints are able to accommodate at the wrist and shoulder. Additionally, the accessory script has provided the perfect canvas for turncoats and traitors. Former greats have compared his less-than-ideal bowling action to a javelin throw or shot put heave. John Howard, former Australia Prime Minister, discarded all pretences to diplomacy in branding Murali a ‘chucker', but assumed a more politically correct stand when the great Sri Lankan went past Shane Warne's record tally. Martin Crowe, while delivering the Cowdrey lecture in 2006, demanded ‘zero tolerance instead of 15 degree tolerance' and wanted a closer monitoring of an action he thought deteriorated as a match progressed.

Murali's counterparts too have doled out mixed fare. Shane Warne has been a study in ambivalence, harping on how Murali performed on doctored pitches and sub-standard opposition (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) and never really committing this way or that on what he really felt about the twisted torsion that reaped 800 victims.

Through it all, Murali himself has been a picture of calm. In the hysteria of racial activists and fence jumpers, egg throwers and poison pens, in all the humiliation and vilification he has faced on the pitch, he has gone about his primary purpose in life — that of wrecking clueless crease-bound batsmen — with undisturbed focus. “The umpires are judging the players with a naked eye. I hold no grudges, I have proved everything through technically and I am happy to be able to do that,” Murali said after his last Test at Galle.

For this alone, and for single-handedly putting a torn nation on the cricket map, the man with the big bold eyes deserves to be praised to the skies, bent arm or straight.



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