Cricket: Final doosra for Sri Lanka

By Andrew Alderson

With 12 precise paces towards the popping crease and an almighty rotation of the right shoulder, right wrist and both eyes, Muttiah Muralitharan has left an indelible image in cricket history.

Eight hundred times in tests and 534 times in one-dayers (up until last night) that image was followed by a beaming smile and a swarm of whooping team-mates as he took the wickets that propelled him to world record hauls in both forms of the game.

The 38-year-old retired from international cricket last night after the one-day final against India. He was the sole playing link from their original 1996 world champion side.

Regardless of the result and whether Muralitharan actually played after nursing hamstring, knee, groin and side strains during the tournament, he remains a national hero. It is no surprise the new stadium at Pallekele in his home region bears his name.

Playing there during your last World Cup is the equivalent of Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat in front of his own stand at Wankhede Stadium last night or Sir Richard Hadlee striding onto Lord's after a knighthood was conferred on him before his second to last test in 1990.

What makes Muralitharan's career honourable is that he leaves more than just a playing legacy.

He has always kept his dignity in the face of questions over his bowling. Whether he chucks the ball is a topic that has been discussed ad nauseum, yet he has been cleared by every authority in the game.

He will never make it onto umpire Darrell Hair's list of bowling favourites (Hair originally no-balled him for throwing in the Boxing Day test of 1995) but he has done whatever was required to prove his legitimacy.

It also helped that the International Cricket Council extended its arm angle leniency law to 15 degrees, meaning Muralitharan's action fell safely within its bounds.

The controversial action saw him in some bizarre situations. He headed to various biomechanical laboratories in Australia, England and Hong Kong like some form of human guinea pig. In 2004 he appeared on a That's Incredible-type, television special hosted by commentator Mark Nicholas.

Muralitharan was filmed bowling his off-spinner, top-spinner and doosra deliveries before doing the same after having a brace fitted to his right arm consisting of steel bars set into resin.

The bowling results were the same for both in terms of action and spin. The conclusion was that the straightening of his arm at the point of delivery was an optical illusion.

Muralitharan's ebullient and gracious personality has probably saved him further angst. Even his most strident sceptics would struggle not to be disarmed by his charm. A once shy schoolboy has emerged into an eccentric character who maintains constant bonhomie.

His inclusive nature is summed up by former Sri Lankan captain, now vice-captain, Mahela Jayawardene. As a player he says Muralitharan's deeds speak for themselves - but it's not what he remembers best.

"The off-field Murali is the one I admire. When I joined the team [as a 20-year-old in 1997] he was the first one to take me out for a meal. Up until that point I didn't know him and had never played with him. He has also done that for recent guys who joined the team.

"That's Murali for you. He's the friendliest guy to opponents as well. He's the first to chat to them. For us, sometimes it's, annoying ... but that's who he is. In the dressing room he can also be a bit of a pain in the rear," Jayawardene laughs.

"He tends to think he is a better batsman than Sachin sometimes; he thinks he knows exactly what to do. We will miss him when he says goodbye. You love having him around, keeping everyone laughing."

For New Zealand fast bowler Shane Bond, who played Muralitharan in four tests, 11 ODIs and two T20 matches, the standout factor was his influence on the next generation.

"His action is the one people love to replicate, it is so unique yet when you come to this part of the world you would get youngsters lining up in nets bowling exactly like him. We were always worried when he was on the team. He was the hardest bowler to face; always capable of turning the ball.

"He was also hard case. You'd give him stick and he would give it back to you in spades."

Bond's point about his influence is also spot on in a wider sense. Muralitharan has been an important social touchstone as one of Sri Lanka's few sporting elite.

Regardless of people's stance on his action, there can be little doubt he has been a selfless servant for his country beyond cricket. His dedication of time and money in the rebuild after the 2004 tsunami is one example.

It is also notable that as a Tamil, albeit from a family that owns a successful biscuit-making business, his achievements and easygoing demeanour eased the unification process after years of civil war.

Sri Lanka's Australian coach Trevor Bayliss says as an outsider coming in as mentor in 2007, Muralitharan exuded warmth.

"He's a down-to-earth character. He takes on your ideas; whether he uses them or not, well that's another thing - but he always listens.

"Around the dressing room he can be a pain - but in a fun way. He's an important cog in a successful team environment. He gives everyone a laugh and a lot of the time it's at his expense. To be like that, having done what he has, speaks volumes."

- Herald on Sunday

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