By Faisal Caesar
In one section of the Mumbai’s Wankede Stadium there was joy and emotions, and on the other hand there were gloomy faces. And one especially felt bad to see the sad face of Muttiah Murailtharan – one of the greatest spinners cricket has ever seen, leaving international cricket in this manner.
Deep down, as his ardent fan and follower, my heart was crying for the Sri Lankans. I just wanted whole heartedly Murali to lift the World Cup. But the Indians were too good and certainly among the two well-matched side. The best side won and scripted history. Sadly, Murali had to end up as the runner-ups.
Perhaps no cricketer since Douglas Jardine has polarised opinion quite like Murali. For the believers, he's among the greatest to ever spin a ball. For the doubters, he's a charlatan, undeserving of the game's greatest records, responsible for changes in the laws that they think have legitimized throwing.
What was undeniable was his ability to turn the ball sharply on just about any surface, and bowl the sort of marathon spells that would have seen a lesser man retire after five seasons rather than 18. Whether Sri Lanka played at home, on pitches where he was often unplayable, or overseas, Murali was the go-to man for half a dozen captains. He seldom disappointed.
Coming from a family that had confectionery interests in Kandy, he arrived on the cricketing scene during a tour game against Australia in 1992-93, when no less a batsman than Allan Border failed to pick his bowling. From the outset, his action was an object of wonder. A deformed elbow was only part of the story. Murali had exceptionally supple wrists and a shoulder that rotated as rapidly as a fast bowler's at the time of delivery. A combination of all these factors combined to enable him to turn the ball far more than most orthodox finger-spinners, but it was only with his mastering the doosra, the one that went the other way or held its line, that he became Shane Warne's rival in the wicket-taking and greatness stakes.
The controversies always kept him company, yet Murali seldom lost his wide-eyed smile, or the ability to run through batting sides. Darrell Hair called him for throwing on Boxing Day in 1995, and Ross Emerson followed suit three years later. In 2004, he was asked to refrain from bowling his doosra, after it was found to exceed the 15-degree tolerance limit that had been agreed on after extensive analysis of his and other actions. While the skeptics continued to denigrate his achievements, Murali even bowled on television in a special cast, going through his entire repertoire to try and convince the doubters.
Part of the World Cup-winning side in 1996, he was instrumental in the run to the final 11 years later, and he played his part in some of the country's greatest sporting moments. It was his 16 wickets that helped rout England at The Oval in 1998, back in the days when Sri Lanka were deemed worthy of only one Test. He averaged less than 30 with the ball in every country except India and Australia, and he finished a remarkable Test career with more than 100 wickets against India, England and South Africa.
Being backed by Arjuna Ranatunga, he blossomed in the late 1990s, and there was a period when the opposition routinely budgeted for 20 Murali wickets or more in a three-Test series. As the years passed, his shyness gave way to a quiet confidence and wry sense of humour, and he won admirers around the world for the energy, time and money that he invested in reconstruction after a tsunami had devastated the Sri Lankan coast in 2004. Often the only Tamil in the side in a time of ethnic conflict, he became as powerful a unifying force as any in the country. That he was such a hero with ball in hand was only part of the story.
Not winning the World Cup this year at Mumbai will remain as a disappointment in his long illustrious career. He certainly wanted to end his career on the winning note, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co upset his plans. In the final, he defied pain and bowled his heart out, but certainly there wasn’t that bite, the guile and the killer punch in his deliveries.
His records will inspire generation to come. He will remain as an icon to off-spinners of future generation. His modesty is praise worthy, his wisdom is a lesson worthy of imitation and his ability to handle the heaviest of troubles with a big smile will remain as an example of how to handle pressures. Bishan Singh Bedi will not stop calling him a chucker, umpire Hair will deny him to be the legend of off-spinners, but in the era of high quality technology, it has been proven again and again his bowling is legal.
Sri Lankan cricket, indeed international cricket, will be poorer without this wondrous off-spinner. Adieu, Murali!
(Faisal Caesar is a doctor by profession whose dream of becoming a cricketer remained a dream. But his passion is very much alive and he translates that passion in writing about the game)