Thursday, July 22, 2010
Muttiah Muralitharan - best cricketer in the world?
In his last Test Match Muttiah Muralitharan has taken his 800th Test wicket. Playing for Sri Lanka against India he needed two more wickets when I woke up this morning but since then he has managed to pick up the last two batsmen in the Indian innings. When I was young the record number of Test dismissals stood to Alec Bedser with 237 wickets, so 800 is astonishing, although they do play more Test Matches now.
Muttiah Muralitharan was born in the village of Nattarampotha in Kundasale (near Kandy), the eldest of the four sons. He is the first and only Tamil of Indian origin to represent Sri Lanka in international cricket. When he was nine years old he was sent to St. Anthony’s College, Kandy, a private school run by Benedictine monks. He began his cricketing career as a medium pace bowler but on the advice of his school coach he took up off-spin when he was fourteen years old. He soon impressed and went on to play for four years in the school First XI.
After leaving school he joined Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club and was selected for the Sri Lanka A tour of England in 1991. He played in five games but failed to capture a single wicket. On his return to Sri Lanka he impressed against Allan Border's Australian team in a practice game and then went on to make his Test debut at R. Premadasa Stadium in the Second Test Match of the series.
Muralitharan is the first wrist-spinning off-spinner in the history of the game. He bowls marathon spells, yet he is usually on the attack. His unique bowling action begins with an open-chested short run-up, and culminates with an extremely wristy release which had him mistaken for a leg-spinner early in his career by Allan Border. Aside from his off-break, his main deliveries are a fast topspinner which goes straight on, and the doosra, a surprise delivery which turns from leg to off (the opposite direction of his stock delivery) with no easily discernible change of action. His newest variation is a version of Shane Warne's slider, which is flicked out the side of his hand and rushes onto batsmen like a flipper. His super-flexible wrist makes him especially potent and guarantees him turn on any surface.
During the second Test between Sri Lanka and Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day 1995, Australian umpire Darrell Hair called Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing in front of a crowd of 55,000. The off-spinner, was no-balled seven times in three overs by Hair, who believed the then 23 year old was bending his arm and straightening it in the process of delivery; an illegal action in cricket.
The drama unfolded midway through the second session of play. Muralitharan had bowled two overs before lunch from umpire Steve Dunne's or the Members' End of the ground with umpire Hair at square leg and these passed without incident. At 2:34pm he took up the attack from umpire Hair's or the southern end. Muralitharan's third over was a maiden with all deliveries again passed as legitimate but in his fourth Hair no-balled him twice for throwing on the fourth and sixth balls. The umpire continued to call him three times in his fifth over on the second, fourth and sixth balls. While the bowler stood with his hands on his hips perplexed, the five calls provoked an immediate response by the Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga who left the field at 3:03pm in order to take advice from his team management. He returned at 3:08pm and continued with Muralitharan who was called two more times in his sixth over on the second and sixth balls. At 3:17pm Ranatunga removed the bowler from the attack, although he reintroduced him at 3:30pm at umpire Dunne's end. Although Hair reports in his book, "Decision Maker", that at the end of the tea break he stated that he would call Muralitharan no matter which end he bowled he did not do so. Muralitharan completed another twelve overs without further no-balls.
The controversy bubbled on during the two-day long Australian innings. After being no-balled Muralitharan bowled a further 32 overs from umpire Steve Dunne's end without protest from either Dunne or Hair, at square leg. The Sri Lankan camp was outraged after the incident, but the ICC leaped to Hair's defence, outlining a list of steps they had taken in the past to determine, without result, the legitimacy of Muralitharan's action. By calling Muralitharan from the bowlers' end Hair overrode what is normally regarded as the authority of the square leg umpire in adjudicating on throwing. Dunne would have had to break convention to support his partner.
At the end of the match the Sri Lankans requested from the ICC permission to confer with Hair in order to find out exactly how to remedy the problem with their bowler. Despite the game's controlling body agreeing to it, the Australian Cricket Board vetoed it on the grounds that it might lead to umpires being quizzed by teams after every game and meant that the throwing controversy would continue into the World Series Cup during the coming week. The Sri Lankans were disappointed they didn't get an explanation and decided they would continue playing their bowler in matches not umpired by Hair and wanted to know whether other umpires would support or reject Hair's judgement.
Muralitharan's action was cleared by the ICC after biomechanical analysis at the University of Western Australia and at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology in 1996. They concluded that his action created the 'optical illusion of throwing'. Doubts about Muralitharan's action persisted however, on the 1998–99 tour to Australia he was once again called for throwing by Ross Emerson during a One Day International against England at the Adelaide Oval in Australia. The Sri Lankan team almost abandoned the match, but after instructions from the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka, the game resumed. The Sri Lankan captain at the time Arjuna Ranatunga, was later fined and given a suspended ban from the game as a result. It later emerged that at the time of this match Emerson was on sick leave from his non-cricket job due to a stress-related illness and he stood down for the rest of the series. Muralitharan was sent for further tests in Perth and England and was cleared again. At no stage was Muralitharan requested to change or remodel his action, by the ICC. Up to this point in his career (1999) Muralitharan primarily bowled two types of deliveries, namely the off-break and the topspinner. He had not yet mastered the doosra.
Muralitharan continued bowling, taking his 500th Test wicket in the second Test against Australia in Kandy on 16 March 2004. At the end of the series his doosra delivery was officially called into question by match referee Chris Broad. At the University of Western Australia (Department of Human Movement and Exercise Science), three-dimensional kinematic measurements of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling arm were taken using an optical motion capture system while he bowled his doosra. Muralitharan’s mean elbow extension angle for the doosra delivery was 14°, which was subsequently reduced to a mean of 10.2° after remedial training at the University. The findings reported to ICC by the University of Western Australia's study was that Muralitharan's doosra contravened the established ICC elbow extension limit of 5° for spinners.
Under the original throwing Laws of Cricket, the umpires officiating were under an obligation to call "no-ball" to a delivery that they were not entirely happy was absolutely fair. This Law gave the umpires absolutely no discretion. In 2000, the Laws were changed to put an allowable figure of straightening of 5° for spinners, 7.5° for medium pacers and 10° for fast bowlers in an attempt to more clearly define what was legal. But these figures proved difficult to enforce due to umpires being unable to discern actual amounts of straightening and the differentiation between the three different allowable figures. Testing in Test Match conditions is not currently possible "when the identification of elbow and shoulder joint centres in on-field data collection, where a shirt is worn, also involves large errors. Due to the overwhelming scientific findings, researchers recommended that a flat rate of 15° tolerable elbow extension be used to define a preliminary demarcation point between bowling and throwing. A panel of former Test players consisting of Aravinda de Silva, Angus Fraser, Michael Holding, Tony Lewis, Tim May and the ICC's Dave Richardson, with the assistance of several biomechanical experts, stated that 99% of all bowlers in the history of cricket straighten their arms when bowling.
Despite the scientific investigations the controversy has continued to rumble on. Then in July 2004 Muralitharan was filmed in England, bowling with an arm brace on.
Initially, Muralitharan bowled three balls – the off-spinner, the top-spinner and the doosra – as he would in a match. Then he bowled the same three balls with a brace made from steel bars, which were set into strong resin. This brace was moulded to his right arm, was approximately 46 centimetres long and weighed just under 1 kilogram.
TV presenter Mark Nicholas who tried the brace himself, confirmed that "There is no way an arm can be bent, or flexed, when it is in this brace." All three balls reacted in the same way as when bowled without the brace. With the brace on, there still appeared to be a jerk in his action. When studying the film at varying speeds, it still appeared as if he straightened his arm, even though the brace made it impossible to do so. His unique shoulder rotation and amazing wrist action seem to create the illusion that he straightens his arm.
Bruce Elliott, the professor who is also the ICC biomechanist said that he had found that a lot of bowlers from the Indian subcontinent could bowl the doosra legally, but not Caucasian bowlers. Since there are now so many cricketers from the subcontinent playing for different sides, I doubt that this matters, but it is an interesting fact to lie alongside something else I read yesterday that no white athlete has ever broken 10 seconds for the 100 meter dash.