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Murali defies critics to recapture record

At first glance Muttiah Muralitharan contradicts a fundamental rule of bowling, namely the requirement to deliver the ball with a straight arm.

cricket Updated: Dec 03, 2007 13:50 IST
John Mehaffey

At first glance Muttiah Muralitharan contradicts a fundamental rule of bowling, namely the requirement to deliver the ball with a straight arm.

From a relaxed front-on action the Sri Lankan, who recaptured the world test wickets record on Monday with his 61st five-wicket innings haul, flicks the ball with a prodigious twist of strong fingers from an elastic wrist.

The results are often devastating. Equally so has been the rumbling unrest in sections of the cricketing world since the Tamil from Kandy made his test debut against Australia in Colombo 15 years ago.

Critics, notably the great Indian left-arm spinner Bishen Bedi, have accused him of throwing and his relationship with the Australians has been particularly fraught.

They were openly unhappy with his action after their first encounter and in the 1995 Boxing Day test in Melbourne he was no-balled by umpire Darrell Hair.

He was called again on the 1998-99 tour to Australia and in a home series in 2004, again against Australia, he was reported by the match referee.

Muralitharan's career was rescued by the International Cricket Council (ICC).

After extensive tests, photographs and analysis the ICC concluded that Muralitharan did not bend and straighten his arm illegally at the point of delivery. Instead, the ICC ruled, his action created "the optical illusion of throwing".

Off-spin revolution

Muralitharan has been at the forefront of a revolution in off-spin bowling, traditionally easier to bowl than wrist-spin but also easier to combat.

His stock delivery whips into the batsman's body and can leap venomously from the pitch in helpful conditions.

He became significantly more dangerous after refining his doosra, the delivery which either spins away or hurries on to the batsman without a discernible change in action.

The upshot is a record haul of 710 test wickets, completed in the first test against England in his native Kandy, which could conceivably swell to 1,000-plus if his 35-year-old body holds together and the appetite for wickets remains unsated.

Muralitharan has been a wonderful servant for his country in both test and one-day cricket. He regularly bowls marathon spells as successive captains have tossed the ball to him early in the opposition's innings knowing that even if he is not taking wickets he will rarely yield more than trickle of runs.

In one-day cricket, Muralitharan has sometimes been successfully targeted by batsmen conscious that he often holds the key to victory or defeat.

But his variations from over or around the wicket and his fierce competitive spirit have made him equally effective in the shorter version of the game and he took 23 wickets in this year's World Cup, where Sri Lanka lost in the final to Australia.

He then played a home series against Bangladesh, becoming the second player after Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne to reach 700 wickets.

Whatever reservations remain about Muralitharan's action, and ICC research suggests that only a small minority of bowlers have ever delivered with a completely straight arm, there is no denying that he has added entertainment, variety and excitement to a game enjoying something of a golden age.

Spectators over the past decade have been doubly privileged to watch both Muralitharan and Warne, rated the best of his type ever before retiring from test cricket this year with 708 wickets.