Fans and security men on the ramparts of the Galle Fort in front of a giant cutout of Muttiah Muralitharan
Eranga Jayawardena / © Associated Press


Growing up with Murali

Ten years after he retired, a reflection on what Muttiah Muralitharan has meant - and means - to a nation

Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Before I watched an umpire no-ball Muttiah Muralitharan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, I had no idea that cricket mattered.

As I grew up in mid-1990s Sri Lanka, the war bludgeoned its way into almost every childhood memory. I was four when the school van I was in was told to return from the village intersection. A senior government minister had been killed overnight, the policeman told the driver. The president had imposed curfew, didn't he know? A week later, the president himself was assassinated by a suicide bomber.

Days-long curfews, armed checkpoints at intersections, daily death tolls on the evening news, flashes of limbless bodies, glimpses of bodiless limbs, parents hurrying us kids out of the room so they could continue to stare despondently at the screen, the sombre tones, shock, frustration, anger - this seemed like life.

Then one morning late in December, my father was seething at the television, but not for the usual reasons. A large man in a black tie had his right arm outstretched. A slim bowler, almost frantic, shot harried looks at the umpire and his captain. Murali was being strung up in front of what I would later learn was the biggest Test-match crowd Sri Lanka had ever played for, and at home the grown-ups were incensed. "How can this Darrell Hair do that?" cried a favourite aunt - a long-time PE teacher at Ave Maria Convent in Negombo - as my father and she worked themselves up to a state of righteous outrage during a post-Christmas visit we made to my mother's relatives.

It escaped me then that this was a Tamil Catholic woman and a Sinhalese man of Buddhist birth, both with coastal roots, infuriated on behalf of a Hindu from the central hills. It did not register that this was all for a bowler of only middling promise, lugging a Test bowling average of nearly 33. All that seemed to be relevant was that he was a Sri Lankan unfairly besieged.

Walsh is history: fans read about Murali taking the title of world record holder for most Test wickets, in 2004

Walsh is history: fans read about Murali taking the title of world record holder for most Test wickets, in 2004 Sena Vidanagama / © AFP/Getty Images

And so a nation - however loosely that term applied to a place beset by civil war - closed ranks. Like the team, it rallied around a spinner who, for all we knew, was actually chucking, the physical details of his delivery understood by almost nobody at the time.

Murali's shoulder practically popped out of its joint with each delivery. His wrist warped space-time. But it is possible that on his journey from that shaken 23-year-old at the MCG to industrial-scale destroyer of batting orders, no attribute has served him better than the steel in his spine.

Murali was five when, in 1977, his father was assaulted by an anti-Tamil mob and the family's biscuit factory burned to its foundations in a pogrom. The Sinhalese assailants had not cared that the family hailed from arguably the most deprived community on the island - the central hill-country Tamils, who were lured over from South India by British colonists to live and labour in tea estates, in abysmal conditions. The assailants hadn't minded that the rebels then forming a ruthless separatist outfit mostly comprised northern and eastern Tamils, who generally condescended to their hill-country counterparts for their lower caste status, relative poverty, and the recency of their arrival. By the late 1970s, Murali's was one of the few prospering Tamil families in the region and made a ready target whenever the fuse of communal violence was lit. In 1983 another mob attacked the family home in the Black July riots that ignited the 26-year ethnic war.

For Murali's long-time confidante Kushil Gunasekera, it is this turbulence that fit Murali with his unbending will. "He had that toughness, you know. From a young age, having to go through what his family did. He had to have it."

Clearly unnerved though Murali was in those earliest confrontations over his action, the ease with which he began carrying the attack now seems startling. Take that 1998 Test at The Oval. Sri Lanka had never won a Test in England, and were privately appalled that they, the reigning ODI world champions, had been invited for only a single Test. Murali was 26 at the time and only a budding match-winner if you went by the numbers, but this one chance Sri Lanka had to demand respect overseas, they went all-in on him, putting England in to bat on a run-making paradise. The thinking, supposedly, was that Murali would need to bowl England out twice if Sri Lanka were to have any chance of victory. Captain Arjuna Ranatunga wanted to avoid imposing a follow-on - a scenario in which Murali would not be allowed to rest.

The Oval, 1998: 16 wickets, 114 overs, all in five days' work

The Oval, 1998: 16 wickets, 114 overs, all in five days' work © PA Photos/Getty Images

If this kind of belief in a young bowler is staggering, what followed from Murali surpassed these ludicrous expectations. He bowled 59.3 overs in the first innings, taking 7 for 155 - a performance that years later he would unsarcastically label "not that successful". In the second innings he famously claimed 9 for 65, but although that sounds like England went down in an inferno, Murali's was actually a slow-burn - he toiled for 54.2 overs. Such was his life that through the course of a game in which he produced a performance beyond the reach of all but the greatest handful of cricketers ever to play, he also had to endure snark about his action from the England coach.

But then this, roughly, became Murali's next ten years: an almost cruel workload, a monumental pile of wickets, outrageous demands from his team, which he dauntlessly met and frequently exceeded. And always, always, always, this constant sniping, particularly when Sri Lanka toured. "I don't think there was a single bloke in that England side that thought Murali's action was okay [at the time]," Mark Butcher said of that Oval match. In boardrooms, cricket's grudging Western powers began to see the official legitimacy awarded to Murali as a worrying symptom of the Asian bloc's sharp rise in influence.

For Murali, who heard and read more about his elbow than he did about his craft, the swipes had to have seemed personal. Not only did his hauls against some of the more modest oppositions Sri Lanka had to play become a spear hurled at his record, he was accused of being a straight-up cheat. Some barbs, like Bishan Bedi's many, he learned to ignore. At other times, such as with Australian prime minister John Howard's comments in 2004, he was caught off guard, and vowed in a fit of emotion to never play in Australia again.

I was seven when I found my father fuming at Darrell Hair. From that moment, Murali became my door to a new world; the flowerbed stake along which the shoots of my cricket fandom would advance.

He was, I would discover, no ordinary favourite player. Most kids in my neighbourhood just south of Colombo gushed over Sanath Jayasuriya's ballistics. Some aped Aravinda de Silva. Not all of them understood why my affections ran so emphatically in this unusual direction; why I would happily bowl when I won the toss in street games.

Fans make their affection known during an exhibition match in Jaffna in 2002

Fans make their affection known during an exhibition match in Jaffna in 2002 Gemunu Amarasinghe / © Associated Press

I was besotted by that killer turn, of course, but there was something more profound. I was becoming conscious. Of what, I was not sure exactly, but I knew I began to have this question asked of me: "Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?" At the time, this was the question, and in many ways it still is. Some inquirers were startled to learn I was half of each. Even more tellingly, others offered a thin smile and an "Ah, eka kamak na" [That's not a problem] upon learning of my mother's ethnicity. I began to realise one half of me did not carry the same value as the other. Subconsciously Murali became the buttress for this flagging 50%. He may not have been their favourite player, but none of the other kids could deny he was the best bowler in the team.

It is possible that in more besieged parts of the country, Murali carried the same flag for those who felt their Tamilhood much more keenly. There is a photograph, for instance, rarely seen overseas, but widely circulated within Sri Lanka, in which Murali is beaming. Not that knowing grin that descends when a ball has fizzed and the batsman stands blinking at clattered stumps. Here, on Murali's back, in the middle of a cricket field, is a supporter who has raided the pitch, leapt up and wrapped himself around the bowler to plant a gleeful kiss near his right eye. Another pitch invader in touching distance is lit up likewise with elation. Beyond the boundary in the background, more grins: from boys sat on the ground, some in caps, one or two in topi; from women with covered heads; from dozens of men, some stood under the shade of umbrellas.

They are at an exhibition match in Jaffna, the commercial and intellectual heart of the Tamil north, nestled into the edge of the peninsula that reaches out at Tamil Nadu. And though it is tempting to go tumbling into the wholesale happiness of this image, it is disquieting also to wonder where each subject is now. The tsunami hit two years after the picture was taken, and the war whipped up to its furious conclusion five years after that. Colombo might have been frequently brought to its knees by explosions - in buses, train stations, banks, political rallies - but in this part of the island things were far worse.

Still, in 2002, while a tenuous and ultimately doomed ceasefire held between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Jaffna had the most famous Tamil cricketer in the world to itself for a day, and there is no question it adored him. Murali met reportedly star-struck LTTE cadres, attended a celebratory dinner, and captained the sponsor team in a match that 15,000 came to watch. "It's so sad to see the area like this," he said, taking in the bullet-riddled walls and mortar-blasted homes in the surrounds. "My only hope is that there'll be lasting peace and an improvement in the living standard of the innocent people living here."

In the south, too, admiration for Murali had shot up, shadowing his wicket tally, and because he spoke Sinhala with such ease he had become an emblem of unity. Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, Burgher - whoever you were, here was a Sri Lankan for all to rally around. While battles still raged over his action, the rallying was almost a national imperative, the Sri Lankan public's initial blindly jingoistic stance proved increasingly right by biomechanical revelations.

Come ye, come ye: posters advertise special supplements in the lead up to Murali's final Test, in 2010

Come ye, come ye: posters advertise special supplements in the lead up to Murali's final Test, in 2010 Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images

But nothing could ever be that perfect. Before long, Murali began to get co-opted into the defence of a deeply flawed Sri Lankan state. How could it be possible that Sri Lanka discriminated against Tamils when a Tamil was the star player in the nation's beloved cricket team? And wasn't Ranatunga's defence of Murali proof of Sinhalese benevolence?

As for the mobs in 1977 and 1983, lost again was the distinction between the hill-country Tamil community and the Tamils in the north and east. Murali's identity was amorphous, a wind to fill whichever political sail you were hoisting. Perhaps it's worth noting here that at no point was Murali the south's favourite cricketer; he never quite achieved the rampant popularity of Jayasuriya, nor ever scaled the summit of public opinion that Kumar Sangakkara later would, though he was a greater cricketer than both.

In the second half of that decade, the northern Tamil response to Murali became ever more fraught. When the war resumed in 2005, some in the north and east did stand by Murali, contending, for instance, that although Murali had spent decades in Sinhala-speaking dressing rooms, Tamil still came easily to him. And yet, for the more exclusivist, it mattered that Murali's was the Tamil of the hill-country commoner, and not the classical Tamil on which Jaffna almost boastfully prides itself. It is no small thing that although much of the south has thrown off the more inhibiting shackles of the caste system, such strictures persist in Jaffna.

As the conflict twisted on viciously upon its resumption, Murali's mere presence in the Sri Lanka team began to grate, a view coalescing among northerners that he was too happy a partaker in the Sinhalese dominion. When conniving southern politicians, including outright Sinhalese nationalists, came to Murali's matches to gain credence by proximity, the point rankled further. Anthropologist Michael Roberts recounts once being confronted in an SLC hospitality box by a Tamil doctor, who told him straight up: "Murali is not a Tamil. We do not consider him a Tamil." This was during a World Cup match in 2011, after the war's end had rent an even more profound divide.

I don't recall coming across views quite so strident when I visited Jaffna in 2013, but many in the city were nevertheless furious. Murali had told the UK's Channel 4 that the England prime minister then, David Cameron, had been "misled" about northern grievances by women who had demonstrated during Cameron's official visit a few weeks earlier. The women were demanding answers from the government over war-disappeared family members.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"Murali was obviously fed this line, no?" I remember telling my Jaffna friends. "This journalist keeps asking him: 'Was he misled? Was he misled? Was he misled?' The reporter even has to literally say, 'I think that's what you felt' to Murali before Murali finally gives in. At one point he doesn't understand the question, and when he says it, it's in broken English also… his third language." As I spoke, these seemed even to me like poor excuses.

"What are you talking about?" came the response. "How many English interviews has Murali given now in his life? He has never lived here in the north. He didn't know what to say? Then why didn't he keep his bloody mouth shut?"

Early in 2005, soon after Murali had personally organised and delivered ten lorryloads of relief goods to northerners struck down by the tsunami, he called his friend Kushil Gunasekera. In regular sporting parlance, Gunasekera is Murali's manager. But this is a misnomer. Gunasekera had never managed a player before Murali and has never really managed one since. He is instead the director of the Foundation of Goodness - one of Sri Lanka's most prominent charities. Agents, generally, are supposed to help make a player money. Murali chose someone who tended to give it away.

"Kushil aiya, let's build 1000 houses for people who have lost homes in the tsunami," he said on the call.

"You must be joking. It'll be easier for you to get 1000 Test wickets."

"I'm serious."

"Murali, the absolute maximum we can possibly build is 250. That's it. Do you have any idea what the cost would be?"

Murali at a refugee camp for tsunami survivors in Kinniya in the north-east, the year after the disaster

Murali at a refugee camp for tsunami survivors in Kinniya in the north-east, the year after the disaster Giuseppe Cacace / © Getty Images

Three years later, the foundation had built 1024 houses across 24 villages. Murali helped fund the endeavour not just by throwing his own cash in but by appearing in ads for a cement company - at the very height of his cricketing prowess - in exchange for building materials. This was not the first time he had used his brand image for charity, and it would not be the last. Murali himself grew up in relative affluence, of course, though his father and uncle sold biscuits out of the back of a car to build the family business from the ground up in the 1960s. But plantation workers from the ethnic community Murali hails from remain so desperately poor they are still fighting what seems a losing battle to be paid as little as 1000 rupees (US$5.50) a day. Even if these are not his roots exactly, they remain unforgotten all the same. There are countless stories. Of his sleeping on a rest-house floor while travelling up to the north for that tsunami aid. Of his personally writing cheques to patients in need of expensive medical procedures. Of his melting at seeing children who don't have nearly as much as his own kids. And in the face of need, of his being pretty much incapable of saying no.

Within the team, Murali never officially held a leadership position, captaining zero of his 495 internationals. He has not been, never pretended to be, nor perhaps ever been possessed of the necessary subtlety or calculation to be, a general. What came naturally was to throw himself fully into the kind of bottom-up work the generals needed him to do, without them knowing it needed to be done. In the early and mid-aughts, when a string of captains were intent on breaking down the Ranatunga brand of hierarchy within the dressing room, opening up team meetings to younger players and hectoring the board for more equitable models of payment, it was Murali, the superstar, who was first to rush up to new entrants into the side. "He had no ego," Sangakkara recalled in a lockdown chat with R Ashwin in May. "He always spent his time with the youngsters in the team." He'd crack jokes in the back of the bus with younger players, ask them out to dinner, or order for the group and host them in his hotel room. He would "build the confidence up of the youngsters, much more than Mahela and I ever did".

The flip side to this was that Murali is remembered by almost every batsman he ever played with, from Sri Lanka to Lancashire to Tamil Union, as the most exasperating presence ever known in a dressing room. "We had a rule that if you were going to bat next, you never sat next to Murali," Sangakkara said. "He'd come and tell you how good the opposition is and how bad you are." After you've had your bat, he was even worse, Jayasuriya told ThePapare. "You're generally not in a good mood when you've got out. Murali doesn't care who you are, or what you're like. He'll come up and immediately tell you what you should or shouldn't have done." Then he'd totter out for his own innings, back away and swing like a maniac, get out for 7 off four, and proceed to complain to anyone in shouting distance how he was now having to go out and defend this useless total.

If this is naivety, then a strain of it was evident during his famous demonstration at Lord's with the steel-and-plaster arm brace. Murali had long been utterly convinced of the legitimacy of his action, though not often able to effectively convey in English the scientific facts of the argument. Watching the video now, you sense a quiet desperation to make the sceptics see what he knew. No wide smiles that day. Mark Nicholas, presenting the segment, said the exercise "might help unravel some of the mystery", and so perhaps it turned out - the most feared mystery spinner in history running through his grip and variations while slow-motion cameras rolled nearby. Here is how the offbreak comes out when the seam is scrambled, and here's one where it's not. Here's how the doosra goes, with the seam straight up, and the arm comes over the shoulder in this fashion. Oh, and here's each iteration of the topspinner for good measure. Did you get enough close-ups? Opposition video analysts: take the week off.

"If I touch you, will my wrists turn rubbery as well?" Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / © AFP/Getty Images

What did the exercise prove, really? Murali's offbreak and topspinner had been cleared in labs by scientists operating high-tech sensors and high-speed cameras. His doosra was banned at the time, but would be greenlit the moment the results from a controlled experiment - which most year-ten science students know you must conduct - came through. Science was busy proving he was no different from most other bowlers on the matter of elbow extension, and yet here Murali was, voluntarily putting himself through more scrutiny than perhaps any bowler in history. At the end of the main segment, the broadcaster's analyst concluded from side-on footage that Murali's doosra required more flex than the offbreak, wasting everybody's time with yet another two-dimensional breakdown of a three-dimensional movement.

And in a column in the UK's Telegraph, a predictable verdict: "Me thinks he doth protest too much."

If loving Murali was a lonely existence in my neighbourhood, I would soon come into a more aggravating reality. I was ten when my family moved to New Zealand. There, I encountered Murali sceptics on a grand scale, the prevailing Kiwi view more or less indistinguishable from the Australian one, if a little less raucous.

The constant battles in my cricket-obsessed youth were with all sorts - friends, schoolteachers, cricket coaches - usually people I liked, but who I felt insisted on abandoning sense on this. Too often I found myself spiralling into an appalling version of myself, pleading with the haters to read the damn research, reminding them that probably Daniel Vettori, and maybe even bloody Richard Hadlee, flexed his elbow, snorting derisively at suggestions that the Sri Lankan cricket board was flexing its muscle, cackling even more derisively when Murali won Sri Lanka a Test in Wellington, facepalming when someone applied a protractor to images on a school computer one time, inwardly resentful and hurting. Once, aged 17, I worked myself up into such a fury following a school match, I told the team-mate I was arguing with to f**k off and find his own ride home.

As I entered adulthood and returned to Sri Lanka, my adulation was tempered, if only slightly. I was disappointed that in Murali's sporadic entries into political conversation after retirement, he fell so readily into that unflattering accusation - the hill-country Tamil who'd sided with the south. I understood that among Murali's most prized personal virtues was forgiveness. (In 2017, when news broke that a struggling Hair was caught stealing from a liquor-shop till, reporters called Murali non-stop for comment, but he flat out refused to gloat. "What happened with me and Darrell Hair is in the past. Whatever has happened now - that's his own life.") But I wished he would acknowledge that for those who had lost loved ones, had homes and businesses shelled into oblivion, who'd endured stinking refugee camps, and all the other hellish brutalities the war wrought, forgiveness could not come so easily.

Murali's career was haunted by his desire to convince the doubters about the legitimacy of his action - though science had already done the job

Murali's career was haunted by his desire to convince the doubters about the legitimacy of his action - though science had already done the job Tim Clayton / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

And still I found myself defending him on practically all fronts. I told northern friends who had come to deride him how no other living cricketer had improved so many lives through his charitable endeavours (this was perhaps no exaggeration). I asked a colleague why Murali's action must be considered even mildly controversial when the evidence stacked up so staggeringly on one side. I became incensed all over again when foreign journalists who interviewed Murali dwelt obsessively on that elbow, sometimes going as far as trying to physically straighten it, despite medical evidence of its permanent 38-degree angle spanning at least 15 years. Did they not realise they had before them the protagonist of one of the most glorious cricketing lives?

That Murali often invited this line of questioning has also been curious. Maybe some part of him is still that 23-year-old throwing those nervous glances, craving acceptance. There are those who might draw an uncharitable parallel here, between the approval he seeks in the south and that he clearly does in the West. In the last few weeks, as Sri Lanka geared up for elections, he helmed a meeting alongside one of the most virulent Sinhalese nationalist politicians in the land. This was done, supposedly, with a view to procuring funds for village empowerment centres and a sports academy Murali was intent on building in the hills. Still, the guy he shared a dais with is notorious for his screeching speeches against minorities

As I scrambled a response, half of me knew getting into it that even I was going to find him impossible to defend this time. The other half of me still had to try.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf