Island Cricket

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Muthiah Muralidaran throws caution to the wind

BRUCE Yardley encountered an intense young man with a curious bowling action when conducting a spin bowlers' clinic in Sri Lanka 16 years ago.

Yardley watched him bowl a few balls and wondered whether he might be throwing.

He saw that the young man had a deformity in his right arm and suggested he should try to be more side-on in his delivery stride.
He then marvelled at how quickly his advice was adopted.

"I expected him to take six months to get side-on," the former Test off-spinner said.
"It took him three balls. It was just stunning.

"I came back to Australia and I said to people here, 'I have seen a kid who will turn the spin-bowling world upside down'."

The kid was Muthiah Muralidaran, and he did, indeed, turn the spin bowling world upside down.

He arrived in Australia last week for a two-Test series, needing nine wickets to supplant Shane Warne as the greatest wicket-taker in Test history.

From that first encounter with Yardley, who was later to become Sri Lanka's coach, Murali's career has been profoundly influenced by Australians -- not always to his benefit.

Within a year of meeting Yardley, Murali was in the Test side, making his debut in a drawn match against Allan Border's team in Colombo.

The first to fall to his baffling, wrist-snapping action in a Test was Craig McDermott.
His other victims in that game were genuine batsmen -- Mark Waugh and Tom Moody, who later became a trusted guide and confidant as Murali's national coach.

Murali has also been coached by John Dyson and Dav Whatmore, but it is fair to say that no Australian has changed his life more than Darrell Hair.

When Hair extended his arm and called "no-ball" at the MCG on Boxing Day 1995, the lives of both men changed forever.

There had always been whispers about Murali's action.
Hair turned the whispers into a shout -- literally.

Murali's action became the subject of international debate. He undertook biomechanical tests in Perth and Hong Kong, where the boffins cleared his action by saying it created the "optical illusion of throwing".

It served only to heighten the controversy. Then another Australian umpire, Ross Emerson, called him during a one-day game in Australia in 1999. More tests ensued, and Murali was again cleared.

Murali took his 500th Test wicket in a 2004 home series against Australia (who else?) when his action was queried by ICC match referee Chris Broad.

More tests followed. The new generation of super slow-motion cameras showed that virtually all bowlers flex their elbows at some stage during delivery.

There was no doubting Murali's elbow was bent; he couldn't straighten it if he tried.
But what became apparent was that every bowler's elbow was bent.

The ICC was given little option but to change the law to account for elbow flexion of up to 15 degrees.

As Yardley, one of his staunchest supporters, put it: "If they were going to target Murali, they had to target just about everyone else."

Things weren't helped when Prime Minister John Howard, who claimed to have bowled off-breaks in his younger days, labelled Murali a chucker.

It was a reason for Murali pulling out of the 2004 winter tour of Australia, and it took the trauma of the Boxing Day tsunami six months later -- in which Murali narrowly escaped with his life -- to change his thinking.

He came to play in benefit matches, in which Australians heckled him but also dug deep to support his beleaguered country.

Perhaps they had a heart after all.

While all this was happening, Murali was staging a private duel with Warne -- a good mate -- to see who could take the most Test wickets.

Warne finished his career in January this year with 708.

Murali touched down in Adelaide last week with 700.

Australian captain Ricky Ponting says Murali is a truly great bowler, but he is hell-bent on making sure Warne is still the record-holder when the Sri Lankans leave town.

"He is a world-class act, but it would be nice if he left Australia not getting those nine wickets in two Test matches," Ponting said. "If that's the case, we'll have done a pretty good job.

"He's also made it pretty clear over the years that he feels that Australian batsmen play him better than any other team in the world. Hopefully, we can keep him under wraps."

Murali's record against Australia is comparatively moderate -- 55 wickets in 11 Tests at an average of 31 (against an overall average of 21).

He's dismissed Ponting only once, caught and bowled for 96, and in two Tests for his country against Australia in this country his analysis reads 3-348.

Playing for the ICC World XI in the Super Test in Sydney in 2005 he did a little better, with 2-102 and 3-55.

Murali is prepared for the heckling he is bound to receive this summer, including the cries of "no-ball" when he starts his spells.

According to Moody, who coached him until earlier this year, he is coming to terms with how Australians react to him.

"He's hugely disappointed with the reaction of the Australian public," Moody said.
"That's a lot to do with the fact that Shane Warne's an Australian, because everywhere else in the world he doesn't get anything like the reaction he gets in Australia.

"It's quite sad really, but it is that way. I've tried to explain to Murali . . . that Australian cricket followers react that way because they fear and respect what (he's) bringing to the table.

"It's not a hatred by any means. It's more a sign of respect."



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