There used to be a time when anyone could take just one look at a bowler and say whether he chucked or not. From the maidans, where a coach did the job when a kid flexed his elbow, to a first-class match where a senior pro evaluated an upcoming youngster, to an international game where millions watched with as many opinions in tow.
When that one look came from the umpire — it was all that was needed to strike at the very heart of someone's skill, the basis of his existence as a cricketer. One sideways glance was all it took to destroy a career. And Muttiah Muralitharan was subjected to much closer and more invasive scrutiny, because he did not merely bowl off-spin better than others, he did it differently.
Generating significant turn from any surface, Murali's magic lay in a rubber wrist that allowed him to impart more revolutions on the ball than any conventional finger spinner. We did not understand him, and instantly feared him, pointed a finger and branded him a chucker. When it reached a point where the debate over his action was no longer healthy, he was put through the most scientific testing process available to man, at biomechanical laboratories around the world. Every time, the result came back the same — he did straighten his elbow, but not significantly more than anyone else in the world — and was below the 15-degrees prescribed in the laws as they stand. That should have been the end of the matter, but it wasn't, because all it takes is one sourpuss expert to make a snarky comment and the headlines were back.
When I once asked Murali about the humiliation of being called for chucking, he shrugged, the trademark beady eyes lighting up with indignation and sympathy. "I was no-balled, but I'm still alive," said the man who owned every bowling record worth possessing.
And to understand how sincerely he meant that you have to go back to Kandy in 1983, when our legend was a young man of 11. His father Muttiah's successful biscuit factory was torn down by rioting mobs, and Muttiah, the last man out of the burning building was viciously hacked by men wielding machetes. Murali and his family were hidden in the cellar of the house of a Muslim family as the angry Sinhalese mob waited outside.
If that was a near brush with death in the time of civil violence, Murali was served constant reminders of the frailty of life. Walking back from school he would often see corpses floating in the river, no doubt dumped there by activists of the People's Liberation Front, the violent struggle wing of the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna).
In cricket, Murali found not only purpose but a telling way to make a difference. As if near singlehandedly leading the bowling attack of the tiny island nation was not achievement enough, Murali always found ways to reach out. When the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 ravaged the country, there were Tamil-dominated areas that no-one could enter. Murali not only organised the convoy of lorries that would take the aid to people who needed it, he sat in the first lorry, ensuring safe passage. When cement was needed for reconstruction, Murali struck a deal with international giant Lafarge, by which the offie would star in advertisements and promotional activity in exchange for cement. Murali canvassed his friends around the cricket world for contributions, and the cheque books always opened for him because he led by example.
There's a village called Seenigama on the outskirts of Galle, which was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Today, it's an example of what Murali, and his charity, the Foundation of Goodness, have achieved. Houses, schools, hospitals and even a cricket ground have been rebuilt, all through Murali's foundation.
Murali's decision to retire from Test cricket, with one final hurrah against the Indians, is a chance for us all to watch a one-of-a-kind sportsman in action. He will continue to play T20 cricket and might pop up at the 50-over World Cup next year, but as someone who has been so keenly aware of the context of any event, it will never be the same again.