Muttiah Muralitharan: All-action hero

He divides cricketing opinion like no other bowler. The extraordinary Sri Lankan has taken more than 600 Test wickets but been labelled a cheat. Muttiah Muralitharan talked to Angus Fraser about convincing the doubters, the new delivery he is still perfecting and how he concentrates on sport amid the political turmoil in his homeland

When I arrived at a cold and windy Hove on Wednesday morning I expected to find Muttiah Muralitharan tucked in the corner of the Sri Lankan dressing-room wrapped up in sweaters and a tracksuit, wishing he was somewhere warmer and more exotic. How wrong I was.

When Murali invited me up on to the players' balcony for a chat he was sweaterless, in his whites and generally making a nuisance of himself. As we found a quiet corner he told me that he may have to rush out to the middle every now and then to deliver a drink to the batsmen as it was his turn to act as 12th man.

Within two minutes of us sitting down, Jehan Mubarak was out and Murali bolted from his seat and sprinted to the middle with a bottle of water in his hand and a towel over his shoulder. While he delivered refreshment to Upul Tharanga, I asked Tom Moody, the Sri Lankan coach, why Murali was doing 12th-man duties.

With a huge smile on his face, Moody said: "I've told him that I will let him off 12th-man duties when he has taken 2,000 international wickets."

There are many remarkable things about Murali, or "The Freak" as he is lovingly called in the Sri Lankan dressing-room, but the most amazing is his energy and enthusiasm for cricket. Rarely does he sit still. If he is not strengthening the shoulder that has allowed him to take 1,028 international wickets with an elastic resistance band, he is messing around with team-mates.

Watching Murali integrate with the members of his side is a lovely sight because it would be so easy for him to sit in a corner feeling bitter about the game and sorry for himself. No player in the history of cricket has attracted as much criticism as Murali yet, despite all the words, chants and innuendo, his love for the game remains intact.

"The controversy never ends," he said wistfully when I mentioned the subject. "Last summer [the English winter] in Australia they were saying that when I bowled the doosra when I was tested I sent it down at about 78kph, and that in match conditions I was up to 89kph. So in an effort to clear things up I volunteered to have my action tested again and it showed that the quicker I bowled the doosra, the less I straightened my arm."

"It does frustrate and annoy me at times because people believe in science and technology for everything but when it comes to me they can't, or don't want to. It is not only ordinary cricketers who hold this view, top-class cricketers do too. They think what they think is right and are not prepared to move. They do not want to see or learn what is taking place. They have their views and they think they are right.

"I will happily do all the tests people want to prove that I am not cheating. I have never been afraid of being tested because if I was doing something wrong then I should be stopped. The only way to judge me though is by using technology. The human eye cannot see exactly what is going on and we should believe what the technology tells us. I wish there was a way of accurately testing players in the middle but there isn't yet.

"I have tried to do everything I can do to convince them but with some it is impossible. But the most important thing is that I am happy within myself. I have a few more years to get through and then I am finished."

Murali will sit down and review his career after next year's World Cup in the West Indies. The thousands of overs are beginning to take their toll on his wiry but strong body and he is considering retiring from one-day cricket in order to prolong his Test career.

Since making his Test debut against Australia in August 1992, Murali has shown that a bowler does not have to adhere to the coaching manual to take wickets at the highest level. Bowlers are the great innovators in cricket. They have to be. In a game that continually changes its rules to make life easier for batsmen, bowlers have to come up with something different to survive. Yet whenever they do find a new method that threatens the rule of batsmen, it is automatically questioned.

It was the case when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis began destroying batting line-ups with reverse swing in the 1990s. They, along with several other Pakistan bowlers, were accused of cheating to begin with. It was believed that a cricket ball would only reverse swing if it was tampered with. Yet wasn't it amazing how attitudes changed last summer when England's bowlers successfully used the art to regain the Ashes?

And no doubt views about the doosra - a ball from an off-spinner that spins away from a right-handed batsman - will change in years to come when an English or Australian spin bowler manages to perfect the delivery. The doosra is the most contentious delivery in cricket, with many believing that it cannot be bowled without the arm straightening by more than the allowed 15 degrees.

Murali has used the doosra to great effect, and he is in the process of developing a new ball. "Bowlers, and particularly spinners, have to adapt to the game and this is why they come up with different deliveries," he explained. "I have one more which I am working on - the flipper - but I have got no further than bowling it in the nets. I bowl it by pushing the ball with my thumb but it's not ready to bowl in a match yet.

"Nobody taught me to bowl the doosra, I just picked it up by watching other bowlers bowl it. It took two or three years' practice before I bowled it in matches, and four or five years before I mastered it.

"I bowl the doosra less now than I used to. I used to bowl it a lot because I thought it would always take wickets, but now I just bowl it to distract the batsman. The off-spinner is the ball that takes more wickets."

There is one subject that takes the smile off Murali's face and that is the domestic political turmoil that is manifesting in Sri Lanka. Murali is the sole Tamil in the team and he fears that the present difficulties will ultimately affect cricket in the country.

"What is happening in Sri Lanka at the moment is very scary," he admitted. "In the last three or four years nothing has been happening and people have been able to move freely around the country. Now in the north and the east of the country it is getting worse and peace is in trouble. There are likely to be more and more problems to come because the government and the other party are not coming to an agreement. If things go wrong, cricket will suffer too because Test sides will stop playing in Sri Lanka, and that is a scary thought.

"It is something of a distraction, because if it is getting dangerous in Sri Lanka we worry about our families. We are all keeping an eye on what is happening there and following the news. It is OK at the moment, but it could easily get worse if things do not go the right way."

We switch back to cricket, a subject he feels far more comfortable about, and I ask him about the second Test at Edgbaston.

"I have good memories of Edgbaston," he said. "I got five wickets there the last time I played, but England got a huge score. Edgbaston turns a little bit more than Lord's. I have looked at the county scores there and the spinners take lots of wickets. But I can't imagine the groundsman there will want to give me much of a chance. I can't remember the last time I played on a spinning pitch, even in Sri Lanka. I expect they will try to produce a seaming wicket so I will have to work hard. If he produces a turning wicket then I have a chance."

Indeed he will. A turning pitch will give him a wonderful chance of closing the gap on Shane Warne, who currently has 71 more Test wickets than him. Murali insists, though, that he is not interested in regaining the world record.

"He can have the record," said Murali. "It was nice to hold it for a while but it does not mean a great deal to me. I just want to play for my country, do well and win games of cricket.

"Warne is one of the greatest bowlers I have ever seen. We get on OK, but it is not a close friendship. We say hello to each other, but conversation never goes much further than that. I don't compete with him but he might feel the other way.

"He has said quite a lot about me in the newspapers, saying that I take cheap wickets against sides like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and he does not. To me a Test wicket is a Test wicket. They all give me the same pleasure, and he will have understood when he went to Bangladesh, that it is not that easy to take wickets there because they can play."

The next five weeks will give English cricket lovers their last chance of watching Muttiah Muralitharan live. Make the most of it.

Passing the Test Top 10 bowlers in history

* Top 10 Test wicket-takers

Shane Warne (Australia) 685 wickets (140 Tests)

Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) 614 (104)

Glenn McGrath (Australia) 542 (119)

Courtney Walsh (West Indies) 519 (132)

Anil Kumble (India) 510 (106)

Kapil Dev (India) 434 (131)

Richard Hadlee (New Zealand) 431 (86)

Wasim Akram (Pakistan) 414 (104)

Curtly Ambrose (West Indies) 405 (98)

Shaun Pollock (South Africa) 394 (101)

Top six spinners in Test history

S Warne 685 (140)

M Muralitharan 614 (104)

A Kumble 510 (106)

Lance Gibbs (West Indies) 309 (79)

Bishan Bedi (India) 266 (67)

Richie Benaud (Australia) 248 (63)

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