That's out: Murali calls time on his career of controversy

Top wicket-taker in Test history will retire after his next match

To be in Australia early in 1999 was to understand precisely what is meant by a witch hunt. For weeks, Muttiah Muralitharan was pursued from pillar to post in any forum available. His method as a bowler and status as a professional cricketer were in question. In private it was worse. Much worse.

Eventually, eight matches into a triangular series in which Murali had already played four times, he was called for throwing, in a match against England in Adelaide. The umpire who made the no-ball call was Ross Emerson, who had spent most of the previous week letting friends and confidantes in the media know what he would probably be up to.

All hell broke loose. Captain Arjuna Ranatunga led his team to the edge of the field and refused to continue until telephone calls were made to Sri Lanka. The match continued but in a dreadful spirit. It took a week to resolve, with players being reported following compromises and under-the-counter deals to try to prevent world cricket being split asunder.

Those events of that week in late January 11 years ago were the most extreme of a career whose end was announced yesterday. Murali said in Sri Lanka that the Test match between his country and India in Galle next week would be his last. He may or may not prolong his international career until the World Cup next year.

He will do what his country requires, as he always has, but there did not sound much enthusiasm to continue. Murali, the heaviest wicket-taker the game has known in both Test cricket, in which he has 792 victims, and one-day internationals, in which he has 515, has simply had enough. The body which he has put through a total of 10,349.2 overs, also a record, is at the end of its tether: the rotating shoulder, the corkscrew wrist and, yes, the bent arm.

It was well known that Murali (he is, incidentally, Muralidaran, not Muralitharan everywhere but England) would walk away from Tests this autumn. But he has decided to bring the retirement date forward because the demands were too great. Although it is hard to believe that, if he finished after the Galle Test on 799 wickets, he would not wish to continue until he became the first man to 800.

No bowler in the history of the great game has so divided opinion. Perfectly rational judges could foam at the mouth on seeing his whirlybird action with the arm he could straighten because that was simply the way it was. Others were much less inclined to analyse that his method amounted to a throw because of the innate defect and because of the sheer theatre that his presence brought to the game, any game.

Murderers are often given a better press than those bowlers in cricket who are considered to be chuckers. Once the rumours begin they never disappear and Murali's action invited it. The fact that he kept dismissing batsmen for fun had something to do with it, of course. On 66 occasions he has taken five wickets in an innings.

Against Australia, his record was indifferent, partly because they were a great side, partly because he would not have been human were he to be unaffected by their treatment of him. He still took 59 wickets in 13 matches against them, which all of his contemporaries would have died for.

David Lloyd, the respected commentator, was one of those who harboured doubts about Murali when he was coach of England. Famously, at the Oval one day in 1998 when Murali bowled Sri Lanka to a great victory, Lloyd called his action into question.

"He was a fantastic talent," Lloyd said yesterday. "He was unbelievably unorthodox, it was mind bogglingly ridiculous that he was so accurate and he was full of cheek too. There are many imitators who are nothing like the real thing."

Doubts crept in almost from the start, it is fair to say, but there were whispers and no action. In Australia, on Boxing Day 1995 in Melbourne, the umpire Darrell Hair decided that Murali's action did not meet the requirements of the law. By then Murali was in his 25th Test, he had nearly 100 wickets: it seemed a little late for decisive action.

Even then it might not have been too late. He was tested in laboratories in western Australia, once in England he put a brace on his arm so that he could not bend it further than it was already bent naturally. He tried everything to prove the doubters wrong; they never went away. Despite this, he always played the game with joy. There was not exactly a smile on his face because he was too intense a professional for that and the eyes almost bulged from the head on occasion. But he did everything with zeal and heart.

There is a suspicion that the laws of the game were changed to accommodate him and the degree of flexion allowed in a bowler's arm before it constituted an illegal delivery was raised to 15 degrees. Scientific evidence confirmed that plenty of bowlers, fast and slow, all but reached this cut-off point.

What a sense of occasion he brought with him. All English followers will remember him. Twice, he was instrumental in Sri Lankan victories in Tests against England in England. The second time in 2006 was wonderful enough when he took 8 for 70 in the second innings, but the first is one of those matches and occasions which will endure forever.

In 1998, Sri Lanka had been granted a one-off Test at the Oval. England had come off the back of a series win against South Africa. It is fair to say they fancied their chances and fancied them more when they made 445 in the first innings though Murali took 7 for 155. Sri Lanka batted brilliantly to establish a lead and Murali was irrepressible in the second innings, taking 9 for 65 – and if Alec Stewart had not been run out it would probably have been all 10.

That winter he went to Australia to be vilified. That he played for so long afterwards says much about his indomitable spirit as well as his abundant gifts.

The magic of Murali

Born 17 April 1972 Kandy

Test statistics

Debut v Australia (Colombo, Aug 1992)

Matches 132

Wickets 792

Best figures (innings) 9-51 v Zimbabwe, Kandy, 2002

Best figures (match) 16-220 v England, The Oval, 1998

Five-wicket hauls (innings) 66

10-wicket hauls (match) 22

Top Test wicket-takers

M Muralitharan (SL, 1992-2010) 792 wickets, ave 22.71, 132 matches

S Warne (Aus, 1992-2007) 708 wickets, ave 25.41, 145 matches

A Kumble (India, 1990-2008) 619 wickets, ave 29,65, 132 matches

One-Day International statistics

Debut v Sri Lanka (Colombo, Aug 1993)

Matches 337

Wickets 515

Best figures 7-30 v India, Sharjah, 2000

Five-wicket hauls 10

Murali also leads the standings in ODI wickets, ahead of Pakistan's Wasim Akram (502) and Waqar Younis (416).

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