Island Cricket

Friday, October 26, 2007

Armed and dangerous

Muttiah Muralitharan should put his bowling action to the test in front of his chief critics, writes Peter Roebuck.

Far from smoking the peace pipe with Australian crowds, Muttiah Muralitharan ought to go on the offensive. Already he has taken one positive step by ignoring the warnings of Arjuna Ranatunga, one of the most provocative voices in the game. Ranatunga advised Murali to stay at home as locals were bound to be make his life a misery. Thankfully, the spinner has not listened to this gloomy prediction. Evidently, he is made of sterner stuff. Happily, he has shown faith in antipodean hospitality by accepting the invitation to join his comrades on their expedition Down Under. Now it is up to Australian crowds to respond to his act of faith by putting out the welcome mat.

But Murali can go further in advancing his cause. Sometimes it is not enough to be polite. After all, he is visiting the country where he has suffered his worst experiences, the country where his action has been condemned on the field, the land where his most outspoken critics can be found. Moreover, he has not played Test cricket hereabouts for 12 years and is a few wickets shy of replacing the local champion at the top of the rankings. He is entitled to feel as relaxed as a lobster at lunchtime.

Murali ought to try to convince his audience of the legitimacy of his case. Most particularly he should repeat the test he took a few years ago in England, a test designed to force sceptics to review their opinion. Apart from anything else, many Australians are unaware that his action has ever been subjected to dispassionate and public scrutiny. They do not know that he voluntarily subjected himself to the cricketing equivalent of a lie detector test.

Murali took his test in England. Convinced of the legitimacy of his action but aware that it looked dubious to the naked eye, he said he was willing to undertake any relevant and objective experiment that might help to prove he bowled within the laws of the game. Specifically, he was prepared to put his elbow in a brace so that it could not straighten unduly at delivery. He knew it was not enough to satisfy scientists behind closed doors. He realised he needed to convince punters in the stands and the game, in whose record books his name took a prominent position.
From the outset, it was a remarkable gesture from a man with everything to lose and nothing much to gain. It was also an astonishing risk taken by a bowler with hundreds of Test wickets to his name. And it was an almost unprecedented challenge from a sportsman who had been on the defensive throughout a long and productive career. Above all, it was an act of supreme self-confidence.

Doubtless it helped that Murali knew and trusted those presiding over his trial. Coverage of Test cricket in England had fallen into the hands of a bunch of open-minded and capable young men working for Channel 4, among them Mark Nicholas and Michael Slater. As it happened, Nicholas and Slater were asked to take charge of a test conducted live and shown during the lunch interval. As far as Australians are concerned, it was a fortunate choice because both have subsequently joined the local commentary team.
Murali's test was simple. First his right arm was put into a cast that prevented movement. Afterwards Nicholas tried the cast himself and was struck by its rigidity. Next, Murali was required to send down his full range of deliveries. A pitch had been prepared and Slater had put on his pads. Meanwhile, the cameras rolled and the smooth Englishman stood at the bowler's end. First, Murali sent down his off-break. Then he aired his top-spinner. Finally, he delivered his doosra, the ball that has created the most consternation, though at worst it is a back chuck and therefore not to be taken seriously by any boy armed with a pebble. In between, Murali described the different techniques used to unleash these spinners.

Probably the most significant point about the test was the reaction of the examiners. Both Nicholas and Slater appeared impressed that Murali could bowl these balls with a brace on his arm. Opinions seemed to be swayed especially by the sight of the doosra turning towards slip.
At the time, Nicholas wrote in London's Daily Telegraph: "He bowled three balls - the off-spinner, the top-spinner and the doosra - as he would in a match and was filmed by four cameras at varying amounts of frames per second and from various angles. On each occasion, a kink, jerk or quirk was evident in his action that seemed to come from the straightening of a bent elbow. Then he bowled the same three balls with a brace that is made from steel bars, which are set into strong resin. This brace has been moulded to his right arm, is approximately 46 centimetres long and weighs just under one kilogram.

"There is no way an arm can be bent, or flexed, when it is in this brace. I am sure of this because I tried. All three balls reacted in the same way as when bowled without the brace. They were not bowled quite so fast because the weight of the brace restricts the speed of Murali's shoulder rotation, but the spin was still there. Murali has a quick arm, as quick as most fast bowlers. This, along with his strong wrist, imparts dramatic energy on the ball.

"With the brace on, there still appeared to be a jerk in his action. When studying the film at varying speeds, it still appeared as if he straightened his arm, even though the brace makes it impossible to do so. His unique shoulder rotation and amazing wrist action seem to create the illusion that he straightens his arm."
Of course, the test was far from perfect. Critics pointed out that Murali bowled slower than usual and did not turn the ball as sharply. They added that the issue was not whether he could bowl fairly but whether he did in matches.

Supporters pointed out that he had just returned from injury and had a cast on his arm that was bound to slow him down. They added that the Tamil's willingness to undertake such a public examination was also significant.

Whatever view is taken of the test, it was an eye-opener and needs to be aired or else repeated in Australia. Plenty of people remain unconvinced that the Sri Lankan has ever bowled a ball. Some Australians resent his place in the books. No less certainly, Nicholas and Slater must convey their recollections and reflections.

But Murali can also take the initiative by inviting other bowlers to try their luck in the same circumstances. In most cases, a sportsman is innocent until proven otherwise but for some reason it's different with throwing. Accordingly, it is Murali's fate to be constantly challenged. He has met the challenge once and can do so again. And then, finally, he might be given the respect he yearns and in so many ways deserves.


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