Muralitharan earns mixed reaction after setting Test record

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The Independent Online

Muttiah Muralitharan became the second cricketer in a month to break a world record when he claimed his 520th Test wicket in Harare on Saturday. The controversial Sri Lankan spinner passed Courtney Walsh's career haul of 519 when he lured the Zimbabwean tail-ender Mluleki Nkala into edging a pad-bat catch to Mahela Jayawardene at silly mid-off.

Though Muralitharan's remarkable achievement was celebrated enthusiastically by his team-mates in Zimbabwe and his supporters in Sri Lanka, the feat has received a mixed reception from the remainder of the cricketing world. This reaction stands in stark contrast to the euphoric scenes - with the exception of a few sour Australians - which followed Brian Lara's world record score of 400 against England in Antigua.

This is because the game is divided on Muralitharan. Some regard the 32-year-old as the best slow bowler cricket has ever seen, but others see him as a "chucker" who should be booted out of the game.

Muralitharan's helicopter wrists and corkscrew action have allowed him to spin the ball more than any other bowler in the history of the game. It also makes it very difficult for anyone to see what is going on when he lets go of the ball. I do not dispute that a ride on the off-spinner's elbow may not be the smoothest trip in town but I also turn up at cricket matches hoping to be entertained, and Muralitharan seldom lets me down.

What if Muralitharan does throw the odd ball? Cricket is littered with bowlers with questionable actions and he is not going to kill anyone. It still takes an enormous amount of skill and practice to bowl as he does, and if it was that easy, why is the game not full of similar bowlers?

Muralitharan's approach endears him to many. There is a sense of energy and enjoyment about his game that you see in very few cricketers and, although it is inevitable, it would be sad if his career were to be remembered solely for the legality of his bowling action.

Barry Jarman, who played 19 Test matches for Australia during the 1960s, was the first match official to raise suspicions and his views differ from mine. "It makes a joke of the game," said Jarman. "It makes me sick talking about it. Everyone knows he bowls illegally. I saw his photo in the paper the other day and put my old school protractor on his arm. It was bent at 48 degrees. He is a lot worse than the University of Western Australia reckon he is."

Muralitharan's 12-year Test career has been dogged by controversy and he overtook Walsh - another bowler whose action has raised the odd eyebrow - whilst on probation. His action was reported by Chris Broad, the match referee, at the conclusion of Sri Lanka's recent Test series against Australia.

Subsequent tests proved that Muralitharan straightened his arm by 14 degrees - nine more than he is allowed to - when he bowled his "doosra", the delivery which spins away from a right-handed batsman. This has not prevented him from playing Test cricket but if he were to be reported again, he could face a ban.

This was not the first time his unique bowling action has caught the eye of an inquisitive referee or umpire. On two occasions - in 1994-95 and in 1998-99 - he was no-balled for throwing by Australian umpires but was subsequently cleared by experts at the University of Western Australia. During the remedial work which followed in 1995, Muralitharan was found to have a congenital condition which prevented him from straightening his right arm.

His reputation was growing before Sri Lanka toured England in 1998 for a one-off Test at The Oval but the 16 wickets he took in a famous victory appears to be the moment when his career took off. Since then he has taken 334 wickets in 48 Test matches, at an average of seven wickets a game.

It is hard not to have sympathy for this likable cricketer but there must be fears that budding young spinners will attempt to copy him and the game will soon become flooded by bowlers with iffy actions.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, is that Shane Warne, who is probably the greatest spinner cricket has produced, will never hold this record. The Australian leggie beat Muralitharan to 500 Test wickets in March but may never get the chance to top a list where his name would sit favourably with everyone.