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ROB ELLIOTT—AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Muttiah Muralitharan
Spin Doctor



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Posted Monday, October 4, 2004; 21:00 HKT
The distinguished British cricket writer Peter Roebuck said of the career of Sri Lankan spin king Muttiah Muralitharan: "[It is] a tale of astonishing achievement and unending controversy ... [He] stands at once as a champion and an outcast."

Few writers have better described the paradox that is Murali, as he is known to all in the cricket world. This 32-year-old son of a Tamil biscuit maker from Kandy seems to inspire and appall, in equal measure. In March former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh compared him to Don Bradman—the Babe Ruth of the game. In May Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggested he was a cheat. In 2002 Wisden, the cricketing bible, named him the greatest bowler in over a hundred years of cricket. Last month the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport's governing body, could not find a place for him in its Team of the Year.

So what has Murali done to deserve, as Roebuck writes, such "hysterical support and abject condemnation"? The answer is almost as elusive as the balls he bowls; balls that spin and kick and fairly dance through the air and off the pitch, and, ultimately, make fools out of batsmen judged to be the world's best. He is a "rubber-wristed illusionist," says Waugh, a cricketing great deceived by Murali's bag of tricks more than once. It's Murali's rubber-man action, however, that has opened the pandora's box of controversy. Critics claim he bowls with a bent arm, illegal in cricket. Murali says his contortions are the product of a birth defect, a claim backed by doctors. Either way, the ICC has ruled his action legal for the majority of his 12-year career—a career in which he has taken more wickets, 532, than any other international player in cricket's five-day "test" format of matches.

Few outside of Sri Lanka appear to want to give him credit for his achievement. They should. For Murali, together with Australia's Shane Warne, the one bowler who challenges the Sri Lankan for the title of the greatest bowler of all time, has changed the face of the game and, no less significant, given hope to a nation torn by 21 years of bloody civil war. Before Murali and Warne, the art of spin bowling had been lost to the modern game. Cricket was dominated by speed demons who came in off long runs and delivered the ball like a rocket. But Murali reminded cricket players and fans that a ball delivered off just a few steps, that travels slowly through the air and spins off the pitch, was a lethal weapon too. His total mastery of the art allowed his minnow nation to win the World Cup in 1996. The effect on his countrymen has been profound. Murali is mobbed wherever he travels in Sri Lanka, even in the rebel-held north. With the country now enjoying a rare peace, children have returned to playing cricket beside the road, in between minefields and bomb craters. Murali is the man they all try to imitate. The skeptics should take note. Children don't worship cheats.

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April 28, 2003



April 28, 2003



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FROM THE OCTOBER 11, 2004 ISSUE OF TIME MAGAZINE; POSTED MONDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2004


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