Murali – Hero or Villain?Martin Chandler |
In 1995/96 Mark Taylor’s Australian side played home series against Pakistan and then Sri Lanka. At that time the Sri Lankans had held Test status for little more than a decade. They had enjoyed a measure of success in the series that they had contested in that time, but the Australians were not expected to be troubled by them. Against Pakistan the home side comfortably won the first two Tests of the three match series before, as was to become a trait in their glory years, taking their collective eye off the ball in a dead rubber and losing the final Test. As expected the Sri Lankans did not prove to be a problem to Australia, who duly recorded comfortable victories in each of the three Tests. Despite the series lacking the spark that only competitive cricket can provide, events in the second Test were to make headlines throughout the cricket world.
Perhaps surprisingly in view of the strength of the opposition, the crowd for the first day of that traditional Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, was bigger than for the Ashes match a year previously. After the first Test in Perth a close contest cannot have been expected, and it seems likely that most of the spectators were attracted by the prospect of watching the Australian batsmen take full advantage of what was seen to be a pretty ordinary attack. At this early stage in his career Muttiah Muralitheran was already his country’s leading wicket taker. That said with just 80 wickets at nearly 33 in his 22 Tests he was not yet anything like the bowler he was to become. The legality of his action had already been questioned, as indeed had those of his countrymen Kumar Dharmesena and Jayantha Silva (off breaks and orthodox slow left arm respectively).
The umpires for the game were Australian Darrell Hair and New Zealander Steve Dunne. Mark Taylor won the toss and chose to bat. Before lunch Murali bowled two incident free overs at Dunne’s end. After lunch, this time from Hair’s end, Murali was called into the attack just after 2.30pm. His first three overs passed without incident but he was then no-balled twice in his fourth over, and three times more in his fifth. At that point the Sri Lankan skipper, Arjuna Ranatunga, left the field to seek guidance, leaving Aravinda De Silva in charge. When Ranatunga came back on to the field, after five minutes or so, Murali continued but was no-balled twice more in his sixth over. After that Ranatunga did remove him from the attack, but brought him back on ten minutes later at Dunne’s end where he bowled a long spell without being called.
The wording of Law 24.3 has changed since 1995 to take account of the knowledge gained through a number of biomechanical experiments and surveys that have been conducted in recent years. The intent of the law is, however, unchanged since overarm bowling was first legalised in 1864. It is worth stressing that what is not against the law is to bowl with a bent arm – it is the straightening of the arm that breaks 24.3. Realistically it is impossible to see how a bowler, who can fully straighten his arm, could consistently bowl legitimately with a bent arm but it is a point that needs to be stressed as Murali cannot fully straighten his arm. An examination by a Melbourne based doctor after he was no-balled by Hair confirmed that he had a fixed deformity in his right arm of 32 degrees. This is of huge significance when considering Murali because of the use he makes of his wrist in imparting the turn that he puts on the ball.
There is much footage of Murali’s action on the web and there is no doubt that his action looks highly dubious, and the controversy that has followed his career is not surprising, but does it infringe Law 24.3? More specifically does his arm straighten in the course of his delivery or not? I will look at the opinions of those better qualified than me to make a judgment in due course but, all things considered, it is my belief, despite outward appearances to the contrary to the naked eye, that it does not. For me it is that 32 degree deformity, when coupled with his extravagant wrist movement, that is crucial. In two dimensional imagery it is inevitable that if the elbow is bent, that as the wrist rotates the arm, in film taken from a fixed point, will appear to straighten as the 32 degrees is looked at in the different planes the wrist takes it through.
Another question that needs to be considered is what was the correct protocol in this situation. Just four months previously, in August of 1995, an ICC umpires conference had taken place in Coventry, and discussed precisely this issue. The recommendation, and it is unfortunate it was only a recommendation, was that players with suspect actions should not be no-balled but should be reported to the match referee. The referee was then expected to have the bowler filmed and the film and a report was to be sent to the ICC. The intention then was for all the evidence to be forwarded to the home board of the bowler concerned so that they could help take the necessary remedial action to avoid the risk of the bowler being no-balled.
Two months prior to Hair calling Murali, in October 1995, the Singer Trophy had been competed for in Sharjah by West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The umpires there were Hair, Dunne and Englishman Nigel Plews. All three had concerns about Murali and informed Match Referee Raman Subba Row. A film was duly taken and sent to the ICC. Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore was consulted as well. In a book published in 1998, Decision Maker, Hair expressed the view that the Sri Lankan authorities “chose to ignore the very clear alarm bells which had been rung discreetly in their direction”, although on what basis he assumed that he would be told what they had done at that point is not explained.
Five days before the Boxing Day Test Hair, together with Daryl Harper, umpired an ODI between Australia and Sri Lanka. Murali bowled all of his ten overs without interference despite Hair seeing him from both ends and concluding “his action was diabolical”. Hair went on to say that the reason he didn’t call Murali then was his hope that the matter would still be sorted out “behind the scenes”. He voiced his concerns to Match Referee Graham Dowling who, Hair says, made it clear to him that he would not be intervening and that the issue needed to be dealt with on the field “according to the laws of the game”. Hair’s book is silent on the question of Harper’s view, or even if he was invited to express one.
An obvious question, given Dunne’s failure to support his colleague, is what discussion took place between he and Hair, before the Boxing Day Test, about the Murali issue given that, in Hair’s mind, there clearly was one. The answer is none at all and both men confirm that. It seems strange that Hair, given what he intended to do, did not at least mention it to his fellow umpire. The explanation Hair gave for that is that he did not wish to force his opinions on Dunne. It is not a convincing reason. Some have suggested that he failed to mention his plan in advance because he knew Dunne would not agree with him, but hoped that Dunne might, through a sense of collective responsibility, support him if he was not given time to think.
The Sri Lankans were quick to make the point that of the 33 umpires who had stood in Murali’s previous Tests Hair was the first to call him for throwing. They also relied on the fact, in those pre-doosra days, that Murali only had two deliveries, his off break and top spinner, and that therefore he either threw everything or nothing, and that accordingly Hair’s actions were perverse. Neither point is a good one. Firstly the fact that 32 umpires had chosen not to openly accuse him of breaking the great taboo did not alter the fact that many had expressed disquiet. The Singer Trophy was the second time that a Match Referee had referred footage and reports to the ICC. Just a few months earlier, in March 1995, Barry Jarman had been so concerned he had done so despite the “Coventry Protocol” not then being in place. On an earlier occasion still, in 1993, Peter Burge had expressed his concerns to Sri Lankan officials despite there being no formal procedure for doing so. As for the “all or nothing” point that seems rather disingenuous. Spin bowlers constantly vary flight and pace and the fact that Murali might only have had two basic types of delivery takes the argument no further.
It would be interesting to know just what Hair was thinking as events unfolded. What does seem fairly clear is that he expected Murali to be withdrawn from the attack after he had no-balled him, and his reaction to his simply changing ends seems to have been one of horror at his authority being undermined in that way. He glosses over the fact that his own actions were, to say the least, unconventional. There have been very few instances in the game’s history of the umpire at the bowler’s end making the call for a breach of Law 24.3. Almost invariably it is the square leg umpire who does so. Square of the wicket is not the best place from which to make a judgment about the legality of a bowler’s action, but without an umpire at mid on or mid off it is certainly better than the bowler’s end. Hair took a different view and expressed the opinion in his book that behind the bowler’s arm was the best place from which to make the decision. He took up a position around five metres behind the stumps. Just how he was then ideally positioned to check Murali’s action, see where his front foot landed, and hear the sounds that are crucial in lbw and caught at the wicket situations is beyond better cricketing brains than mine.
So why didn’t Hair simply call Murali from square leg when he was bowling from Dunne’s end? In his book he says that initially he thought there may still be an opportunity at tea for him to speak to Dowling and for their to be a chance of “resolving the matter off the field”. Why then on getting no support from Dowling did he inform Ranatunga that if Murali bowled again after tea he would not hesitate to no ball him again from either end? My guess would be he said that to the Sri Lankan skipper, without giving the matter too much thought, because he was absolutely furious at Dowling. Having made that threat why did he not then carry it out? That sounds like a relatively easy one to answer because, of course, according to Hair square leg was not the best place to view suspect actions, and Murali only bowled at Dunne’s end during that final session – the truth is surely that by now he had realised he had gone out on a limb and, finding he had no support, he followed the traditional advice that, having found himself in a hole of his own making, he should stop digging.
According to Mark Taylor in his autobiography, Time to Declare, Hair asked Dunne to do as he had done and stand well back to view Murali when he was bowling at his end, which Dunne would not do. Hair does not mention that request and while Dunne does not, in his account of the incident in his autobiography, Alone in the Middle, do so either, he is at pains to explain why he feels an umpire should stand as close to the stumps as possible, so Taylor may well be correct. What Dunne clearly says is “If you call a guy for throwing, you’re virtually saying to him that he cannot play the game. That’s too much of a God-like act, I didn’t want to play God. It was not for me to determine who was allowed to play the game of cricket and who was not.”
Following discussions after the second day of the Test, and again following its conclusion, the Sri Lankans requested an opportunity to meet with Hair and Dowling to discuss the issue. Despite the ICC making, from London, a statement that effectively supported Hair, the ACB declined to allow a meeting on the basis it would set an undesirable precedent. The Sri Lankans, who have always stood firmly by Murali, did the only thing they could do and picked him for the ODIs that followed the second Test. In the first Steve Davis and Terry Prue allowed Murali to bowl his ten overs uninterrupted. In the second Ross Emerson no-balled him seven times. Some of Murali’s deliveries were called after he had switched to bowling leg breaks. Most commentators agree that it is simply not possible to throw a leg break, although Mark Taylor has written that such an illegal delivery was something Shane Warne had demonstrated in practice could be done. In any event this second episode was enough to convince Sri Lanka and Murali that his tour was over.
Anyone picking up Darrell Hair’s book in 1998 might be forgiven for then thinking that Sri Lanka would have done nothing. In fact Murali underwent extensive testing both at the University of Western Australia and the University of Hong Kong. Both institutions agreed that his action was fair. They confirmed the 32 degree deformity highlighted in Melbourne (and described by Hair as “laughable”) and thus it was concluded that the appearance of throwing was, as had been maintained by the Sri Lankans all along, an optical illusion. Murali was back in the game in a matter of weeks to help his country to their famous World Cup triumph in 1996.
After the World Cup Murali continued to ply his trade without incident until the 1998/99 season when Sri Lanka visited Australia again. There were no Tests this time but Sri Lanka were there to play in the Carlton and United ODI series with England and Australia that followed the home side’s comfortable victory in that season’s Ashes contest. Trouble had been brewing since the publication in late 1998 of Hair’s book. The Sri Lankans, not unnaturally, objected to the prospect of his umpiring in the forthcoming tournament. The objection was, it should be stressed, based on what was said in the book and not because of the events at the MCG in 1995. Hair, presumably deciding to jump before he was pushed, requested that he not be considered for the series.
Once the series started all was well for the first four matches the Sri Lankans played but for the fifth, against England in Adelaide, they encountered Emerson for the first time since January 1996. From square leg Emerson no-balled Murali. Ranatunga took his men from the field while he sought guidance from his board and for a while it seemed as though the game might be forfeited, although in the end it was not. A dramatic and ill-tempered game of cricket (later described by England Captain Alec Stewart as “the worst I ever played in”) finished up with Sri Lanka brilliantly chasing down England’s seemingly impregnable total of 302 with just two deliveries left, and their last pair at the wicket. It turned out that the 44 year old Emerson was, at the time of the match, off sick from his day job owing to stress. He was immediately stood down from the tournament and in fact, two state matches later in the year apart, his umpiring career in senior cricket was over. This time Murali played on despite Emerson.
It was to be 2004 before Murali’s action was subjected to close scrutiny again. By now he was bowling his doosra and there was suspicion that this delivery, invaluable because it turned away from the right hander, brought Murali into conflict with Law 24.3. Since the realisation had dawned that most bowlers’ elbows straightened to a degree spinners had been allowed up to 5 degrees of movement, medium pacers 7.5, and quick bowlers 10. The case of the double jointed Shoaib Akhtar, whose elbow hyperextended, was instrumental in this development. When Murali’s doosra was examined it clearly exceeded the 5 degree limit with a straightening of up to 14 degrees recorded. Murali was told to stop bowling his doosra. At the same time as issuing him that instruction the ICC decided to carry out tests on every bowler playing at the Champions Trophy in England in September of that year. It was then that it was realised that the existing tolerances were woefully inaccurate – the most striking example was that of Glenn McGrath who, despite the fact that his action has always been considered as much a text book example as any, was shown to flex his elbow by 12 degrees.
The subsequent refixing of the limit at 15 degrees was condemned by some as simply being an arbitrary figure fixed upon with a view to allowing one of the world’s leading bowlers to continue to bowl unhindered. It is not an unreasonable point to raise but one in which there is no merit. Michael Holding, a long standing member of the ICC’s Bowling Action Review Committee (BARC), is not a man to mince his words and, as one of those who made the decision, his words on the subject should be the final ones. Holding is quite clear that 15 degrees was the figure suggested by the biomechanical experts, who showed him and his fellow committee members extensive video evidence. That evidence clearly demonstrated that it was only if the degree of flexion was greater than that figure that it started to become visible to the naked eye. Holding is also very clear that when BARC originally saw Murali in 1999, that they had no doubt that his action was entirely fair. Having used Holding’s words to say that I should, in fairness, add that it is apparent from his recent autobiography that he does still have misgivings regarding the question of the doosra and the difficulties of anyone, not specifically Murali, consistently bowling it within the laws.
Despite being one of the most controversial cricketers of the 1990s and 2000s it is difficult to find too much in print by way of direct comment on the issue of Murali’s action from those who condemn him. The major reason for this is, inevitably given the number of times the ICC have given him the green light to carry on bowling, the law of defamation. Some are doubtless also held back, to a greater or lesser extent, by the fact that Murali is one of the most affable and popular players in the game. It would be interesting to see the drafts of many recently retired cricketer’s books before the publisher’s libel readers went through them, but anyone researching the subject will quickly work out that there are a few frequently observed techniques for making the point without fear of the courts. The first is simply to highlight the incidents involving Hair and Emerson and give them prominence without comment – that much is unarguably factually correct and therefore legally unobjectionable. Another ploy is to overuse or unnecessarily stress words like “unorthodox”, “unconventional”, and “dubious” when writing of Murali. It is remarkable too how often the word “mysterious” or the expression “air of mystery” crop up in sentences where they are not really appropriate. The easiest way to take a swipe at Murali however is simply to make the observation, immediately following or prior to any bland reference to him, that the ICC have, by allowing all bowlers their 15 degrees of flexion, by definition legalised bowling actions that historically, were always considered illegal.
Former England captain Nasser Hussain is one who has criticised Murali’s action, at least in relation to his doosra. In the winter of 2003/04 England played a three Test series in Sri Lanka. Murali, career average of below 12, averaged over 30 with the bat over the series and during the second Test in Kandy Hussain said to his teammates, as Murali came to the wicket, “Let’s get this f****** chucker out” – Murali’s subsequent report of the incident to the umpires and a disciplinary hearing before Match Referee Clive Lloyd, which saw no punishment imposed on Hussain other than a warning, further soured his feelings towards Murali.
One man who can always be relied upon to say what he thinks about Murali is former Indian captain Bishen Bedi “….. if Murali doesn’t chuck then show me how to bowl …. I have a picture of him bowling somewhere: he looks like a good javelin thrower” being one of his more widely quoted remarks. Another man who unequivocally accused Murali of throwing was former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. In May 2004, when asked during a radio interview if Murali threw, replied “Yes…..they proved it in Perth too, with that thing” making what was said to be a representation of a screen with his hands. Murali was, understandably, furious at this and refused to tour Australia on the next occasion Sri Lanka visited. I am not aware that Howard has ever apologised to Murali, or actually admitted he was wrong, but after Murali’s retirement from Test cricket earlier this year he was quoted as saying “I believe that Muralitharan is a very good bowler”. Bedi, on the other hand, has never revised his opinions.
The then England coach David Lloyd got himself in difficulty in 1998 when, after the Oval groundstaff prepared a perfect wicket for Murali to take 16 wickets on to lead his country to victory, he expressed doubts about the validity of his action. Lloyd is always a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, and while he, like Howard, has not sought to resile from his remarks, by the time his autobiography was written in 2000 he was full of praise for Murali and pleased that the laws of the game accomodated his unorthodox action. Adam Gilchrist takes a similar line. He was taken to task over adverse comments made at a private function in 2002. In similar fashion to Lloyd he has since maintained his views about the nature of Murali’s action, but has also stated that he is content that it is for the good of the game that Murali should be able to bowl within the laws.
The complete thoughts of Murali’s great rival, Shane Warne, would be interesting to know. Warne has never, to my knowledge, openly criticised Murali’s action, and indeed has been unstinting in his praise of him, but comments such as that he made when asked about Murali’s achievement in taking his 800th Test wicket, “…..the way he’s gone about it has been amazing. There’s been a lot of controversy about his action but at the end of the day the ICC cleared him, he’s allowed to play, and what he did with the ball was amazing” are not quite the same as declaring unequivocally that he believed his action to be fair.
For every critic however there is a supporter. The likes of Garry Sobers, Dennis Lillee and Ian Chappell have all spoken out in favour of the Sri Lankan. Sobers former teammate Lance Gibbs, prior to Murali the most prolific off spinner in Test history, is another.
As noted Hair and Emerson were by no means the only umpires who had concerns over Murali’s action, but those concerns were by no means universal. In 2001 English elite panel umpire David Shepherd said of Murali in his autobiography, “He is different, but I’ve never formed the impression that he throws the ball or has an illegal action.”
The most significant admirer of all was, in many ways, Sir Donald Bradman. Admittedly “The Don” died in 2002 before the doosra became part of Murali’s armoury but the great man’s opinion cannot be ignored – “Murali, for me, shows perhaps the highest discipline of any spin bowler since the war. He holds all the guile of the trade but something else, too. His slight stature masks a prodigious talent and what a boon he has been for cricket’s development on the subcontinent. It is with this in mind, and with the game’s need to engage as a world sport, that I found umpire Darrel Hair’s calling of Murali so distasteful. It was technically impossible of umpire Hair to call Murali from the bowler’s end, even once ………… clearly Murali does not throw the ball.”
There has been too much said and done, or not said and not done, and opinion has been polarised too often for Murali’s reputation to shine with quite the lustre of some of the game’s other luminaries. That said I hope that history treats him kindly and in a hundred years time he will be remembered for what I believe he is, one of the great bowlers. I do not always agree with the views of former Somerset captain turned writer Peter Roebuck, but on the question of Muttiah Muralitharan, the words with which he articulated his opinion in 2004 remain as eloquent as any I have read, and I shall therefore leave the final comment to him “…. the game has failed Murali. He has not been an easy case because his freakish features allow him to perform unimagined contortions. Cricket had not considered the possibility of sending the ball down with a back rather than a forward jerk. The game owed it to the Sri Lankan to make up its mind. Instead he has been repeatedly examined, taunted and demeaned and still the controversy rages. He was exonerated years ago and that should have been the end of it. He has deserved better than a mixture of hysterical support and abject abuse. Cricket owes him an apology”