Cricket: Why Murali is worth the risk

David Llewellyn finds Lancashire still in the dark but backing their man
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The Independent Online
WILL THEY or won't they? Since that infamous moment which shook the cricket world in January the silence on the subject of Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling action has been deafening - and still no one has any real idea what is going to happen when he bowls for Sri Lanka in the World Cup or Lancashire in the domestic season afterwards.

In the absence of anything better from the International Cricket Council - although the off-spinner's action is believed to be under scrutiny from the council's panel on illegal deliveries - Lancashire are taking Tammy Wynette's advice and standing by their man. But there is no doubt that they are taking a gamble, as Jim Cumbes, the county's chief executive, admitted.

"Unfortunately each examination of his action can only clear him of past suspicions," Cumbes said. "He can't be cleared for the future, that's where the tricky bit is. We could sit every umpire in the world down at Old Trafford and have them watch... film of his action and they could all be convinced, yet they would be perfectly within their rights to call him the very next day."

But he added: "It is a risk we are prepared to take, being open to something like that. And we are convinced he will be cleared yet again."

It was the Australian umpire Ross Emerson's calling in the one-day international against England in Adelaide in January - he first no-balled the Sri Lankan for throwing in a one-day international between Sri Lanka and West Indies in Australia in January 1996 - which sparked rumours of renewed examination of Murali's action. But in keeping with their policy of protection of the reputation of the bowler (although it is hard to see how Muralitharan's could have been dragged much further through the mud), the ICC have refused to confirm anything.

They have not even informed Lancashire as to what is going on vis-a- vis their overseas signing for the new season, which has left Cumbes baffled. "I was told by the ICC that they could not discuss the matter with me. It is a strange situation," he said. An official ICC communique issued on 16 January, five days before Muralitharan was called by Emerson, stated in magisterial tones: "It is ICC policy not to reveal the name of any player... as that may be prejudicial to his public image and to the assessment of him by umpires in subsequent matches." Such a noble sentiment is undermined by the plain fact that when an umpire calls a bowler for chucking during a match his image is instantly - and very publicly - sullied. And other umpires will have been alerted to his suspect action in subsequent games.

Cumbes, not surprisingly, has studied his new player's action extremely carefully. "When I first saw his action on film I thought, `Crikey that looks a bit dodgy'. But when I looked at it more closely, and in slow motion, I realised he had a different action, that was all. I must have watched 40 or 50 minutes of him at the time he was called in Australia, all of it in slow motion, and I think it is a fair action. I acknowledge that it is unusual, but I concluded that he didn't actually throw."

Cumbes is reasonably qualified to judge after a first-class career spanning 20 years with Lancashire, Surrey, Worcestershire and Warwickshire.

He added: "Everyone at the club looked at the film and we were convinced that it was a fair delivery. Jack Simmons, our chairman, was an off-spinner himself and was closer to it than anybody, and he was convinced of its fairness." The snag is, what Lancashire think does not count.

Any decision will be taken by the ICC's nine-man advisory panel on illegal deliveries chaired by the former West Indies batsman Sir Clyde Walcott and including India's former all-rounder Kapil Dev, Michael Holding, the former West Indies fast bowler, the English umpire Nigel Plews, Australia's former Test captain Bobby Simpson, the former Sri Lankan Test captain Ranjan Madugalle, and the former Pakistan batsman Javed Birki.

The ICC first studied videos of Muralitharan's action back in 1995, but no action was taken. The Sri Lanka board even contemplated engaging the services of a Hong Kong-based professor, Dr Ravi Goonetilleke, to see if computer analysis of the angles of the arm at delivery would settle the issue once and for all. The Sri Lankans have maintained that Muralitharan was born with a bent elbow, which cannot be straightened past 11 degrees.

But Cumbes suggested the impression that Murali throws could be created by something else. Cumbes said: "When I met him, Muralitharan showed me how his middle finger, when it is bent backwards, can touch the back of his wrist. He is double-jointed in the wrist and probably in the elbow as well."

What troubles Cumbes is the effect the long saga might have on the player. He said: "If the calling goes on, if there are repeated examinations of his action throughout the summer then it could have a detrimental effect on the player and on the confidence and morale of the whole side."

Right now it does not seem to bother Muralitharan and however complex the issue of his bowling action, the player is an uncomplicated person, according to Cumbes. "Murali has a huge enthusiasm for the game," he said. "When we met him to discuss his terms he did not want to hammer out his demands, all he wanted to talk about was cricket. He asked what the pitch was like, we said it was good. He asked if there was bounce and we said yes and he said `Then I will get lots of wickets'. He is a lovely personality."

Whether he stays that way rests with the authorities and their actions are already suspect.