Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: That 'but' spoils 800 benchmark


It is impossible to begrudge Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan that utterly gobsmacking record of 800 test cricket wickets. As the great Shane Warne says, it will probably never be broken.

Muralitharan is also well-liked in cricket circles as a man. A cheery personality with a cheeky grin, he is revered for the way he donated and organised aid to his countrymen and others following the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004.

While you can't deny Murali his record - it is enshrined in cricket's official statistics - you similarly can't deny that it comes with an extra word ... 'but'.

Murali will never escape the stain of those no-ball calls and the still adamant contention of many that he got to 800 wickets while throwing the ball; cricket's horror crime of 'chucking'. It's a shame because he has enormous talent and manages to turn the ball prodigious distances with the aid of his freakily supple wrist and fingers.

He can drift the ball, he can make it dip or hang, he can beautifully vary pace and spin - much of which has nothing to do with the fact that he delivers the ball with a crooked arm; the sign of the chucker.

Or does it? The argument goes that bending the arm as much as Murali does enables the bowler to impart more work on the ball.

His most trenchant critics, including the former Indian left-arm spinner Bishen Bedi, say Murali's infamous doosra (an off-spin delivery which spins the opposite way and has confounded many a batsman with Murali's ability to disguise it) is impossible to bowl without 'chucking'.

His defenders say Murali is doing nothing wrong. They say his bowling arm, deformed at birth, cannot be straightened. All that proves is that he bowls with a crooked arm.

His advocates say his action has been cleared by ICC technology which has given him a clean bill of health. A cover up, more likely.

Even in the act of writing this, it is inevitable that a storm of abusive protest from the subcontinent will follow; as surely as night does day.

His champions refuse to acknowledge the deeper meaning of what has happened; preferring to content themselves with face value and to lambast those who see past that.

The villain of the piece is not Murali himself. It's the International Cricket Council. The ICC stand alone in sport as a body who rewrote the laws of their game to suit one man.

They pulled together a big-name technical committee, including test bowlers Michael Holding, Angus Fraser and Sunil Gavaskar. They undertook electronic research which purported to show that most bowlers, including some greats of the game, bent their arms further than the permitted angle of five to 10 degrees (five degrees for spinners; 10 degrees for quicks).

Using this platform, the ICC then decreed that all bowlers were permitted to bend their arms up to 15 degrees in match conditions. The joke? Murali usually bowls with a 14-degree flex. Is this sounding like a strategy yet?

Faced with having to rewrite the record books to contain a runaway Murali, the ICC took the easy way out - they rewrote the law book instead. It's a dubious accomplishment.

To accommodate an individual - admittedly a singular individual - the ICC stuck one of the previously hallowed commandments of the sport in a blender.

It's like deliberately allowing record rugby test try-scorer David Campese to include tries scored after forward passes.

Since then, Murali has been said by many critics to bend his arm more than 15 degrees - but he never gets called these days after the ICC intervention. Leading critics include Bedi, Mushtaq Mohammed, Geoff Boycott, Ashley Mallett and many more.

New Zealand's own Daniel Vettori and Martin Crowe are among those who do not believe the doosra, for example, can be bowled legally or within the spirit of cricket's laws.

Murali is now retired. The debate will rattle on for years whether he or Warne was the better bowler. Murali never performed at his best in Australia; the same is true of Warne in India.

Warne can argue that his 708 test wickets included many fewer tests and thus just 17 wickets against the test minnows of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Murali had 166 against those two. You do the maths.

However, it is undeniably true that Murali did what few in sport do - he changed the game, even acknowledging the doosra and chucking business. The game will never go back now, no matter what we might think of that.

It's just a shame that the ICC chose to accommodate Murali in a way that adds that 'but'. His record, like that of Sir Don Bradman in batting, will probably stand for all time.

But it is unlikely ever to be viewed, not even in the mists of time, as quite such a pure achievement.

- Herald on Sunday

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