Spin wizard closes in on historic haul

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For all its recent $A2.2m ($2m) facelift, Hobart’s Bellerive Oval remains the most intimate, least assuming Test cricket venue in Australia, a humble slice of Tasmania’s eastern coast compared to the vast metropolitan caverns of Melbourne and Sydney.

Some time on Saturday or during the next two days, none the less, it may be the stage for one of the most memorable pieces of record-breaking on a field of play as Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka seeks the six victims he needs to surpass Australian Shane Warne’s mark of 708 Test wickets.

On the first day of the second Test on Friday, the spin bowler was confined to the lone but priceless wicket of Australia captain Ricky Ponting as the hosts amassed 329 for three, with opener Phil Jacques scoring 150.

Yet the setting is more appropriate than it might seem. The prospect of the 35-year-old Sri Lankan usurping Australia’s legendary leg-spinner, in the land most hostile to the Tamil, has been a delicious one for many since Warne’s retirement from internationals 10 months ago. Hobart, moreover, is an optimistic symbol of the underdog, its rise as an international venue proof that being an outsider need thwart neither talent nor ambition.

As the lone Tamil in the visitors’ dressing-room, let alone the focus of more accusations and unwanted attention than any other contemporary sportsman, Muralitharan personifies the outsider. As a symbol of all-round sporting excellence, annexing this particular record ought to defy parallel or dispute. Skill, consistency, endurance and perseverance, that quartet of prize assets, are all imperative. In his case, one can add forbearance.

No great cricketer, and perhaps no great sportsman, has divided writers, officials and public quite like “Murali”, as he is known. The cause is his action, based as it is on an alliance between the game’s most flexible wrist and a deformed elbow that has convinced thousands that he is not bowling his rich variety of spinning deliveries, but illegally throwing them.

This is what aggrieves so many Australians. Indeed, the country has been the scene of Muralitharan’s most public humiliations: he was no-balled for throwing there on successive tours.

Since then he has undergone scientific trials and emerged with a clean bill of health. He even prompted a law change belatedly granting spinners greater latitude, though not before every bowler who was examined, fast and slow, past and present, had been shown to straighten their arm to some extent. Nor was Murali by any means the worst offender.

Not that this halted the carping. Warne himself recently proposed that the only solution was to use another new device to assess his rival’s action in a Test, insisting it would give Muralitharan, and the cricketing world, “peace of mind”. The Sri Lankan’s public reaction, typically, was brief and controlled: “I don’t know about that. I have done a lot of testing.”

He subsequently called Warne “a miserable man”, but attributed this to a “miscommunication” when the pair, who are friends, patched things up on Thursday upon meeting in Hobart to launch the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, the prize for the winner of a Test series that Australia lead after last week’s innings victory in Brisbane in the first of this two-match series.

That controversy should precede and dog this tour was as inevitable as pride prefacing a fall. Arjuna Ranatunga, the former national captain who is now a politician, urged Muralitharan not to go, convinced he would again be confronted by the verbal abuse and “no-ball” calls from crowds that had besieged him on previous visits, leading him to opt out of Sri Lanka’s last visit to Australia.

Undaunted, Muralitharan boarded the aircraft, emboldened perhaps by a statement from James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, vowing there would be no repeat.

Such is the strength of feeling Muralitharan arouses that, when I wrote a blog for the Cricinfo website in August, in the wake of some characteristic bile about his action from the former India spinner Bishan Bedi, responses had to be blocked after 378 additions to the debate that were always colourful, often nationalist or racist in tone, and sometimes downright abusive. Many were deleted for legal reasons.

“He spun the ball like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says the veteran Sri Lanka opener Sanath Jayasuriya in the latest issue of The Wisden Cricketer, recalling the day he first encountered the wiry teenage Muralitharan at the nets in Colombo. “I asked him how he did it and he just pulled a face as if to say, ‘did what?’”

Had Jayasuriya ever questioned his action? “Never. From the way he walked you could see he was a different shape. His arm was not flat by his side because his elbow was bent, it was always obvious to me.”

The protectiveness of colleagues – exemplified at Adelaide in 1999 when Ranatunga led his players off after Muralitharan had been no-balled by umpire Ross Emerson – was a matter of policy. “Everywhere we go there is pressure on Murali from other teams,” says Jayasuriya. “We decided very early on to always give him full support.”

Jayasuriya fielded in awe at London’s Oval in August 1998, when Muralitharan achieved the first of his two foremost feats – match figures of 16 for 220. Only twice in Test history has such a match haul been exceeded.

In his hometown of Kandy four years later, facing a Zimbabwe line-up boasting Andy Flower, then the world’s leading batsman and a superlative player of spin, he took the first nine wickets and came within a dropped catch of the best Test return of all before team-mate Chaminda Vaas dismissed the last man.

Behind the numbers, behind the remarkable stoicism, behind those flashing, almost demonic eyes, behind the tireless work for victims of the 2004 tsunami, lies the essence of the man. Muralitharan bowled on the second morning in Kandy despite having torn ligaments in the ring finger of his bowling hand, the same crucial digit he had dislocated the previous evening, diving full-length in a forlorn attempt to take a boundary catch off the day’s final ball. It would have ended the innings.

Sporting landmarks and awards do not always go to the fairest or fittest of performers, or even the best.

Here, though, is a shining example of justice. If Muralitharan does not pass Warne’s mark against Australia, he surely will in Sri Lanka’s home series against England next month. For those, at least, who accept his bowling action as beyond reproach, Muralitharan will be the worthiest of record-breakers.

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