Muttiah Muralitharan takes the wicket of Darren Gough

Sixteen and done: Gough b Muralitharan

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The pricking of pomposity

Murali's 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998 were not only match-winning, they were epoch-changing

Simon Barnes |

When it comes to cricket I've always been a secret Sri Lankan. The combination of maverick and underdog is irresistible. Besides, I've always had a wonderful time in Sri Lanka. The place gave me a great friendship with fellow gonzo journalist Nalin Wijesekera and a close encounter with a blue whale.

So I've always resented England cricket's patronising treatment of Sri Lanka. It was all but 20 years before they agreed to play a Test series of more than one match against Sri Lanka. So they had it coming all right. And they got it at The Oval in 1998.

I've also resented the treatment of the great Muttiah Muralitharan. Even after his action was cleared by scientific measurement, there were still plenty of people who knew better. They knew nothing of the science of the thing, of course, but what did that matter? They felt in their water that there was something amiss. And they actually thought that was good enough, and frequently wrote as much, generally in the Australian press.

There are times when a single genius, in the company of a skilful and motivated team, can change the course of a cricket match and cricket history

They were faced with a choice: either this was the most remarkable bowler who had ever taken up the game, or he was a rotten cheat. Too many people went for the second assessment because - well, because it was more their size.

So Sri Lanka came to England in 1998 for their solitary Test match, and someone absent-mindedly prepared a turning wicket at The Oval. Not that England were complaining after Sri Lanka won the toss and put them in to bat and they made 445 runs despite Murali's seven wickets. Sri Lanka went on to score 591, thanks to a brilliant 213 from Sanath Jayasuriya. And then the fun began.

I have three possibilities for my chosen moment. The first is when Mark Butcher was stumped as he looked to hit Murali out of the attack, the first wicket of the innings. The second is the run-out of Alec Stewart by the substitute Upul Chandana, which probably prevented Murali from taking all 10.

In fine voice: the fans at The Oval give it up for Murali and Co

In fine voice: the fans at The Oval give it up for Murali and Co © PA Photos

But I have chosen the last wicket of the innings, in which the defiant Darren Gough was bowled behind his back by a doosra, giving Murali figures of 9 for 65. Jayasuriya knocked off most of the few remaining runs, whacking a couple of derisive sixes as Sri Lanka hammered England by 10 wickets.

England's manager, David Lloyd - the delightful Bumble - was in a sour mood afterwards. "I have my opinions that I have made known to the authorities." There's still a view in England cricket that this was a result that didn't count. That the pitch was a freak and the bowler was a cheat.

And yet the truth is obvious and glorious: that there are times when a single genius, in the company of a skilful and motivated team, can change the course of a cricket match and cricket history.

Murali was a rare kind of cricketer, one who can seize control of an occasion and do so without arrogance or strut or self-consciousness

For Murali was the most wonderful bowler. The bouncing run, the wrist rotated with the fantastic delicacy of a classical dancer, the looping flight well above the batsman's eyeline, and then the guessing game, the three-card trick, what Americans call the Shall Game: Which way will it go? Left or right or straight on?

Murali was a rare kind of cricketer, one who can seize control of an occasion and do so without arrogance or strut or self-consciousness. There were times, very many of them, in which he simply accepted that it was his moment and that he could do nothing other than bowl the opposition out. On occasions he seemed half-embarrassed at having to point out a batsman's obvious flaws, as if it really wasn't his fault that batsmen were so incapable of judging the flight and turn of his deliveries.

And at The Oval, those splendid five days, in which he took 16 wickets for 220 runs, were the most glorious up-yours to all England's snobbery and long-outdated notions of patronising cricketers of the subcontinent.

Not best pleased: David Lloyd on the balcony

Not best pleased: David Lloyd on the balcony © PA Photos

It was England cricket's deathbed conversion to the new realities of international cricket. It was an acceptance, however unwilling, that extraordinary cricketing ability was a more widely distributed thing than they had previously considered. It was the most glorious pricking of pomposity.

And for everyone with cricket in the blood, it was an occasion of pure joy. Sporting excellence is a rare thing, the rarest thing of all, and in the end it matters far more than the joys of partisanship or the pleasures of great drama. Here was a genius in his pomp.

Poor Goughie. All that admirable resistance undone in a moment of perfection. It was time for a lot of things to be reassessed. Here was a ball-playing genius on par with Roger Federer and Lionel Messi - players who redefine their own game and go beyond the limits set down by previous generations. Those who fail to cheer such things don't really understand what sport is for. And don't deserve to have sport in their lives.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books





  • POSTED BY Dileep on | April 26, 2016, 11:06 GMT

    Commendable and sincere sentiments being expressed by an English Journalist about a great Sri Lankan cricketer. I also believe that true cricket fans will support great cricket regardless of the nationality of the player but unfortunately most people are not like that. Statistically Murali is the greatest bowler in the history of the game. His strike rate/bowling average/every conceivable statistic is significantly superior even to the great Shane Warne, yet forever Shane Warne is touted 'The king of Spin'. It shows how subjective/prejudicial the world is, demonstrating that while the bubble of pomposity can be pricked, it cannot be burst. Some people would just be more comfortable believing that the top dog ought to be an Australian rather than a Sri Lankan.

  • POSTED BY sri on | February 16, 2016, 23:53 GMT

    Cricketers and cricket lovers from western countries cannot and will not understand the magic of ' King Murali' and what his achievements meant to a poor downtrodden war ravaged country like Sri Lanka. It was like a soothing salve to listen to Murali's and Sanath and Co's doings in the sphere of cricket as an alternative to body counts and devastations. Murali was dissected alive in laboratories in order to prove that he was a chucker and when all that flopped it was left to the ragged press and other media to still haunt him albeit tounge in cheek. Accept that he was and will be the greatest spinner the world has seen. It's that simple !!!!!

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | February 12, 2016, 9:48 GMT

    I agree that this match was a great occasion. It also was not a one man show. The Sri Lankans batted magnificently too, especially Jayasuriya & Aravinda de Silva, a glorious partnership for the third wicket. The pomposity referred to, quickly re-inflated itself and continues to this day as evidenced by the decision to cut the 2019 World Cup to ten sides, going in completely the opposite direction to all other serious sports. Emerging sides such as the Nepal youngsters who played so well at the Under 19 World Cup will have the door slammed in their face. We know who the guilty parties and individuals are, so I won't bother to name them again.

  • POSTED BY Sudharsan Kondaskumar on | February 11, 2016, 19:52 GMT

    Y'all, it is entirely legal to bowl with a bent elbow. There's nothing in the law that says you can't bowl with a bent elbow. It fits in the definition of a legal delivery. What is illegal is *flexing* your elbow more than 15 degrees during the course of a delivery. Big difference!

  • POSTED BY jasprit on | February 11, 2016, 7:35 GMT

    One aspect of spin bowling where the bent elbow could be unfairly advantageous is at bowling the faster one. That is one ball where if you bend your elbow, you could deceive the batsman with the speed without much change in your arm speed. Because it allows you to jerk the ball without changing the arm speed. Lots of bowlers like afridi, harbhajan, ajmal etc used this to actually get wickets or restrict batsmen. But Murali never bowled the faster one. He always relied on flight and spin to beat the batsman, even when the batsmen gave him the charge. But anyways, its a debate, and a valid one. Because within the laws of the game, it 'is' illegal to bend your elbow. I enjoyed watching Murali bowl, because I never thought he was gaining any unfair advantage. But if one day, icc decides to erase his record because of his action, that be fine too. Afterall, it does lie outside the rules. Please publish.

  • POSTED BY jasprit on | February 11, 2016, 0:11 GMT

    Half the times, batsmen did'nt know if the ball went past the outside of the bat or the inside. The way he fooled batsmen, and they were left awestruck, was something very rare. It was spin bowling at its best.

  • POSTED BY jasprit on | February 11, 2016, 0:07 GMT

    Murali bowled with a bent elbow. No doubt. No questions about it. But its all bygones now. Whats happened is happened and cannot be erased. Cricket world accepts him, history accepts him. Destiny accepts him as the highest wicket taker in the game until cricket lives, who am I to oppose? Thats one reason. The second reason I like Murali is that the thing that makes Murali Murali is the amount of revs he was able to put on the ball. It was this revs on the ball that made the ball turn and jump and bounce so visciously after pitching. And these revs, I truly believe, they all came from the wrist of Murali. I dont believe his elbow had anything to do with this. There have been so many bowler like saqlain, ajmal, harbhajan, botha, hafeez and so many more that have all bowled with bent elbows since Murali. But no one was able to turn and bounce the ball like Murali. Because no one had wrists like Murali. All said and done, once the ball left Murali's hand, it was just mesmerizing.

  • POSTED BY GV on | February 8, 2016, 3:09 GMT

    Murali had a bent elbow at the time of bowling - any ordinary street cricketer will tell you how much extra snap comes from bending the elbow - try it out for yourself. Try bowling a simple off-spinner with a bent elbow - the turn can be devastating. Anyone who has played club cricket and above in India will know that at least 30% of the spinners bowl with bent elbows. Without that, the exceptional turn Murali got is impossible. I understand everyone loves Sri Lanka and I cheered for them when they beat Australia in 1996 to win the World Cup, and this famous victory. But the fact remains - Murali bowled with a bent elbow. What is the need for any further scientific measurement when the naked eye can see the obvious?

  • POSTED BY Ian on | February 7, 2016, 21:51 GMT

    Brilliant article Simon. I have always thought upon similar lines. Coming from New Zealand it is disappointing that some well known ex-test cricketers even know still dribble on about his action . Maybe they don't know what science is , or still believe the earth is flat. Similar to some Lancastrian dribbler who still seems to be flavour of the month on various cricket broadcasts around the place .

  • POSTED BY Aaron on | February 6, 2016, 21:32 GMT

    As a kiwi, familiar with the history of New Zealand cricket, I can totally empathise with this article!

  • POSTED BY jasprit on | February 6, 2016, 21:31 GMT

    Beautiful article. Very well written, precise and fair. Great to see Murali being given the credit and appreciation He deserves. Whether Murali was a better bowler than Warne or Gupte or Benaud or O'reilley, who knows? But I loved watching Murali bowl. He was a rare gem and once of a kind. His flight, dip, spin and accuracy were Beautiful. The game is richer and classier because Murali's spin is a part of its glamour, its crowning jewel. Great Bowler, the kind of which we will probably never see again. And a brilliant fielder, great attitude with a very cheerful presence on the field as well.

  • POSTED BY Ramana on | February 6, 2016, 12:32 GMT

    Wonderful article !! I am afraid, if I may say so, that the pomposity never stays pricked. it just seems to inflate itself right back ! and not just in England either. Australia are a wonderful bubble land as well. Its as though the game is the exclusive preserve of the British Empire and those outside this cozy club do not really count. And even if they perform miracles, by jove, they probably are just cheats....or freaks who belong in a circus or carnival.

  • POSTED BY Sahan on | February 6, 2016, 11:00 GMT

    Wouldn't call that a doosra to Gough. A top spinner at best. Murali's doosra only became effective during the 2004 England tour to SL.

  • POSTED BY Ashok on | February 4, 2016, 5:04 GMT

    Brilliant article. I still remember that game. As a neutral fan relatively new to the game, I never realised the significance of what I was seeing back then. Murali's 16-220 is, to my mind at least, one of the greatest bowling efforts of all time. He single-handedly won Sri Lanka that test match. With the staggering number of overs he bowled, its a miracle that Murali's shoulders didn't gave way. I've never seen any bowler before or since who carried so much load for so long.

  • POSTED BY Apoorva on | February 3, 2016, 8:12 GMT

    Fantastic, Simon. Loved this brief but well written article. I share your love for cricket and Sri Lanka and if you haven't already, you need to get your hands on Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew. I am sure you will love it.