By Rohan Wijesinghe
Remember- Bedlam erupting that December day in Melbourne, the year being 1995 as Darrel Hair with his far from spotless record, no balled Mutthiah Muralidharan for the apparent sin of bending his bowling elbow. Following that landmark call, an ugly vocal sneer was orchestrated by the ear ringed, beer bellied Aussie fans, sadly citizens all, of an emerging super power and a powerhouse in cricket rankings, from time immerial.
Captain not so cool
Enter the heavy footed, barrel chested, ham fisted Arjuna Ranatunga to the proceedings, spitting pellets at the hapless Hair; and even having the audacity to wag his tongue and even his thumb at the disoriented Ump,
for good measure, as he thundered up the gangplank in defence of his ace spinner-mercilessly grinding the boisterous Aussie fans into submission.
Swathed in electrodes
All the while, At the butt end of the crowds attack, Mutthiah Muralidharan remained characteristically dignified and unruffled, against a sea of vicious vitriol; as the drama unfolded; surely one of the sorriest spectacles in the history of the game. The faultline lay somewhere between the precious cricketing cities of Melbourne and London; Was the plot hatched there as well? Knives were surely out and they were inches away from our precious spinners chest. Soon his torso was a sorry mess of bandages and electrodes as the hounds bound him up for scrutiny, with our lad displaying extraordinary grace and dignity under fire. Success breeds resentment; and Murali was never short of success. Mercifully unplugged and relieved of all live wires, a beaming Murali emerged, triumphantly holding aloft his ‘All Clear Report’ to the utter glee of his beloved devotees. The ‘B Report’ brought still more glee. Ninety nine percent of the bowlers tested, bent their ruddy elbows, above and beyond the 15 degrees permissible. Following that despicable diversion, it was rich spin history, all the way, as the bouncy right armer weaved his way to those 800 Test wickets in 133 Test Matches at 22.74. And if that was not enough sweat, the off spinner built 1024 houses for the tsunami affected, spread across the Lankan coastline covering 24 districts. That’s in betwixt bringing England-that ancient cricket empire- to her knees with a return of 17 for 118 at the London Oval in the year 1998.
A star is born
A star like no other descended upon the humble household of Sinnathamby and Lakshmi Mutthiah on the 15th of April 1972; The devout Hindu couple lost no time in enrolling their little bundle of energy at that hallowed seat of learning, St Anthony’s College Katugastota, located half a hillock below the Historic Kandyan Kingdom; where only Eagles dare. Up there upon the salubrious hilltop, the chubby little ‘pacie’ turned ‘spinner’ twirled and twisted his little arm this way and that, mimicking the Majestic River Mahaweli, that cascaded past his little classroom; the river sweeping all before it to the ‘sea’ whilst Murali had them all at ‘sea’- those toddlers who dared pad up to him, that is. Even at that tender age, Murali guaranteed early showers for everyone with his baby float and flight. The bouncy Anthonian’s beloved guru, Sunil Fernando- from the first time Sunil saw he knew; that he had a major force on his hands. In addition to pointing Murali towards the finer points of spin, he took it upon himself to ensure that the kid remained unspoilt, level headed and focused.
As fate would have it the clean limbed young Anthonian, at the heed and behest of that redoubtable, top seeded ‘Officer And A Gentleman’ S Skandakumar, followed the trail of success down to the Valleys of Wanathamulla and its hallowed cricket club, the Tamil Union C and FC. Murali climbed into first class cricket like a cat climbing into an armchair; whence he reshaped the history of the spinning ball, with his grand concoction of doosra’s flippers and what not. The glint of battle seemed to send sparks through his- oh so- expressive eyes. Which takes us down to his fielding. For the Anthonian under 12’s, he would field like a puppy, fresh off a leash, oozing intent, anticipation and dash; galloping around the ropes like a gazelle. His thousand megawatt smile would be- snapped of its tungsten- if a ever a toddler spilt a catch or gifted a run.
Hack of a hook
Which brings us to his Batting. The tailenders arrival at the wicket was a moment of delectable anticipation as he marched to the wicket in a helmet seemingly larger than its contents. Having vigorously ‘tatooed’ out his guard-outside leg stump- he would settle down to his nervy two eyed stance. Thence; an exaggerated back and across step to square leg followed by fidgety flicks all over the shop to get his ‘eye’ in as it were. Anything short would be dragged through the meadow, with his ‘hack of a hook’ stacked with a wood chopper’s elegance. With the passage of time he had learned to place the pitched up one’s up on the roofs and rafters; he certainly knew where his stumps were and so did the whole world; as he left all three of them , so wide open. His then was the ‘art of carting’ it around as he bludgened, swatted , snicked and ‘smiled’ his way to 1256 entertaining Test runs with 67 not out against the Aussies as his pride and joy. Loads of deplorable footwork, pots of pluck and curious run getting shots, made up the recipe’..
Such a sense of humour
Murali was not all grit and gristle. His ceaseless advise to top order batsmen on technique was a matter of much mirth in the dressing room. The legend would natter away all day in the dugout, up until the post match ‘Medal Hanging Shindig; whence the mere sighting of Greigy’s rather lengthy shadow would shut him up for the evening. There was then the occasion; whence playing for Lancashire he had the audacity to tell Flintof- returning to the dugout after a sixth successive low score- ruddy cock shot Flintoff! What? Andrew’s reply is not printable, Sorry.
It is said that once at Lancashire; Henry the Horse would put his head between the shafts of the roller as Murali walked into bat at number 11; at the ready to roll the grass for the opposition innings. Tongue in the tonsils that! No offense meant, Kid and besides Manchester does have a motor roller now.
Calling it quits
On the 1st of July this year the Charismatic ‘King of Spin’ from the Kandyan Kingdom summoned the press to call it quits. Twas crying time and the tears were for real. Historic Galle was surely worthy of the historic occasion; with the platforms and Dutch Fort plastered with enormous cutouts of the Ace from Kandy; the Galle Esplanade itself Pavilioned and Bedecked in such glorious splendour as Lanka took a deep and grateful bow to the ‘Jewel’ in her crown. A tiny tilt of the hat here to Warnay’, our mercurial, maverick curator Jayananda Warnaweera. Thanks for the sweat chum; as you take ‘your’ esplanade to bed with you.
Cricket apart you were a cut apart Murali, besides being one of the nicest human beings to have ever spun a cricket ball. No amount of barbs or brickbats from wooly thinking, bespectacled yet cross eyed, turbaned ‘has beens’, can dent your stature; they can only raise racial hackles and hatred at best. A sweeping bow to our Board as well for conjuring up that magical send off for our Magician. Truly epic stuff that.
Thanks for the memories
As for us of the cricketing fraternity; we’ll be waiting…….waiting and waiting for someone like you….. in vain though, we know.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian