Muttiah Muralitharan's 700th Test wicket was more than a cricketing milestone; it was a rare opportunity for the divided people of the teardrop island to celebrate as one. In a society bitterly divided along ethnic and religious lines and bruised by a two-decade-long separatist war, Muralitharan — the only ethnic Tamil in the Sri Lanka national team — stands out as a unifying factor.
Muralitharan reached the 700 mark on Saturday with the last ball of a lopsided series against Bangladesh — on his homeground at Kandy — to join Shane Warne (708) in an exclusive club.
It appears inevitable that Muralitharan will pass Warne's record when Sri Lanka tour Australia in November, and it will be intriguing to see how he is received at that moment. “I am not worried about what people say,” he said. “People can say whatever they want, but we are going to win there and our focus will be on that. The possibilities of the record falling there is high, but it all depends on how I bowl. But more than personal milestone we'll be focussing on winning the Test series in Australia.”
Born to a confectionary businessman on April 17, 1972, Muralitharan slowly became known among local cricket fans in 1990 as a schoolboy off-spinner who turns the ball sharply. He took more than 100 wickets in 1990 and 1991 in school cricket, and in the process broke the then record for highest number of wickets in a season — probably his first in a long list of records to follow.
Muralitharan's first chance to play Test cricket came in 1992 when Australia toured Sri Lanka and he took his first wicket when he trapped Craig McDermott lbw. His ball that bowled Tom Moody in the second innings of that match brought him into limelight. Muralitharan pitched the ball wide outside the off stump and Moody left it casually on the front foot only to be surprised to see the ball turning a long way and hitting the stumps.
Muralitharan's exceptional ability to turn the ball comes from his unorthodox wristy offspin, and an elbow bent at birth. That bent joint prompted many critics to accuse him of chucking. In 1995 in Australia, umpire Darrell Hair no-balled Muralitharan for ‘chucking’ during a Test in Melbourne. His action was subsequently cleared by an Australian biomechanics expert, but was no-balled again in Australia in 1998 and reported by English match referee Chris Broad in Sri Lanka in 2004. The ICC, after a major investigation, ruled that due to his birth abnormality, his action is legal.
Many critics have been convinced or silenced, but not all. Bishen Bedi and Martin Crowe are among those who still insist Muralitharan has a questionable action, but the off-spinner has shaken off such accusations to become the backbone of Sri Lanka's cricketing success in the past decade.