Years after retiring as cricket’s most successful bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan captured headlines recently for different reasons, contradicting British Prime Minister David Cameron and the controversial Channel 4 television station and stirring a political storm in the process.
Cameron angered many Sri Lankans during his recent visit to the country for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting by crticising its human rights record and then setting a March 2014 deadline to conduct a ‘credible’ inquiry into alleged war crimes.
Cameron was accused of using the visit for his own political purposes and also of breaching protocol despite the Sri Lankan government allowing him to tour the North of the country and meet civilians and politicians there.
Cameron also spent some time in Colombo playing cricket with spin legend Muralitharan. The pair later exchanged ideas. Muralitharan was to inform Cameron that he may be misled and that an unfair picture of Sri Lanka was being painted.
Muralitharan spoke strongly in support of the post-war reconciliation efforts in the North. “There is no war, no weapons, children are going to school and are not taking up arms again”, Muralitharan was quoted as saying. He also noted that all communities suffered equally during the Eelam war.
Muralitharan’s comments earned wide publicity and cast doubt on Cameron’s claims. Later, responding to questions in British Parliament Cameron was to say of him: “What he wants, as a proud Sri Lankan, is to ensure that a fair picture is painted of his country and he is right to say that”.
Muralitharan also claimed that Channel 4 had quoted him out of context and slammed the television station for using a three-minute edited clip of his interview with them, when actually the interview had been conducted for forty-five minutes. Muralitharan says he was assured that the full interview would be aired.
However, some have been critical of Muralitharan’s comments and accused him of being insensitive. In an unusual move, the Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha passed a resolution condemning Muralitharan’s comments.
Controversy is nothing alien to Muttiah Muralitharan, or ‘Murali’ as he is universally known. In fact, his entire cricketing career was under a cloud of controversy when he was ‘no-balled’ for chucking while playing in Australia in 1995.
Muralitharan, 41, was born in Kandy. His parents owned and operated a confectionary business. Incidentally, he shares his birthday, April 17, with another famous Sri Lankan who put the country firmly on the world map;Sirima Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman Prime Minister.
Muralitharan had his education at St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota where he began his cricketing career as a medium pace bowler. However, on the advice of his school coach, Sunil Fernando, he took up off-spin when he was fourteen years old. In his final two school seasons, he took over a hundred wickets.
After leaving school Muralitharan joined Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club and was selected for the Sri Lanka ‘A’ tour of England in 1991. His initial taste of international cricket was not very palatable: he played in five games but failed to capture a single wicket.
One year later, he impressed against Allan Border’s Australian team in a practice game and then went on to make his Test debut at the R. Premadasa stadium, taking three wickets. Among his victims was Tom Moody, who was to later become coach of the Sri Lankan cricket team.
The Boxing Day test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia in 1995 was a defining moment in Muralitharan’s career. He was no-balled for ‘chucking’ by Umpire Darrel Hair, leading to Captain Arjuna Ranatunga leading his team off the field for several minutes.
The incident triggered a major controversy and soured relations between the two countries with then Australian Prime Minister John Howard wading into the debate calling Muralitharan a ‘chucker’. Muralitharan was again no-balled several years later by another Australian umpire, Ross Emerson.
When Sri Lanka won the cricket World Cup in March 1996 beating Australia in the final in Lahore in Paksitan, many acknowledged that the motivation and inspiration for the success came partly from the humiliation suffered by Muralitharan and the team during their Australian tour a few months earlier.
Muralitharan has generously credited his success to the unwavering support he received from his skipper, Arjuna Ranatunga who stood by the off-spinner during those turbulent days when the controversy over his action threatened to end his promising cricketing career.
After the row over his action erupted, the International Cricket Council (ICC) had Muralitharan tested. Biomechanical analysis at the University of Western Australia and at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology concluded his action created the ‘optical illusion of throwing’.
However, some remained skeptical about this and continued to cast aspersions on the legality of Muralitharan’s action. Ironically, Britain Channel 4 came to his aid in 2004, broadcasting a documentary where he bowled with his arm in a metal cast, where throwing the ball was impossible.
Muralitharan’s career went from strength to strength. He was to play 133 test matches capturing 800 test wickets that included an incredible 67 five wicket hauls and 22 matches where he took ten wickets. Unsurprisingly, his career coincided with Sri Lanka’s most successful period in test cricket.
Muralitharan is the holder of many tests and one day international records, too numerous to mention. He reached the milestone of 800 test wickets with his last ball in test cricket when he dismissed Pragyan Ojha in Galle in July 2010. He o the game.
Muralitharan is married to Madhimalar, an Indian national and is the father of a seven-year-old son. Since retirement, he has been playing for different teams in T20 cricket competitions around the world. He divides his time between Sri Lanka, India and his cricketing commitments.
He is also the livewire in the ‘Foundation of Goodness’ a charity organisation that began engaging in major relief work following the 2004 Tsunami disaster. Muralitharan’s latest controversy though will ensure that he remains in the news-and will be popular as ever in Sri Lanka, despite his detractors.