Any day now, one of the greatest of all cricket records will be broken. It has changed hands regularly in the past 10 years but this time it will be different, this time the man holding it will do so for an extremely long time. For ever should not be ruled out.
As of yesterday, Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan off-spinner, needed seven more Test wickets to overtake Shane Warne's total of 708. Since he is only 35, has an insatiable appetite for dismissing batsmen and the next man on the list has 566 wickets, the conclusion that he will be hard to catch is obvious.
So prolific is Muralitharan that it is hardly fanciful to suggest he might go past 1,000 wickets. It has taken him 114 matches to get this far (Warne, pictured, played 145) and if he continues his present rate of progress he would reach four figures in another 48 matches, probably shortly before his 40th birthday.
It has been a phenomenal achievement, and it should be a moment of glorious celebration in the next two weeks in Australia or next month against England in Kandy. Instead, the applause, though loud, will be accompanied by some vigorous head-shaking at the back.
For as long as he lives, Murali, an engaging man and fierce competitor, will never rebut the conviction in some quarters that his action is illegal; that, not to put too fine a point on it, he throws. The allegation, disproved at least twice by a combination of slow-motion film and human-movement specialists, has blightedhis career. Nothing in cricket, and perhaps in all sport, evokes greater emotion than the bowler who is branded a chucker. Wife-beaters have had a better press.
Anybody hearing any random discussion about Murali would assume that innuendo was a new type of mystery delivery. The topic of his bizarre but compelling action and whether it falls within the realms of legality under Law 24.3 – much less arcane than once it was – is ever-present wherever he performs. As his method is also allied to spellbinding accuracy, it simply begs to be addressed, and the fact that, statistically, he will take Test bowling to new horizons only exacerbates the matter.
Nor is it only those who follow cricket from the stands. Several more closely involved in the game have niggardly opinions on the action. Some international umpires think it is illegal but would not dare say so publicly or officially for fear of imperilling their own careers. Dr Paul Hurrion, of the International Cricket Council's expert panel of human-movement specialists, is as dispassionate as they come. But he understands why Murali generates such emotion.
"I have no problem at all with his first 400 wickets in Test cricket when he was bowling only the off-break, but possibly some of them since then would be open to scrutiny," he said. "I think it would be good for Murali and the game if he went through the system again. I think his standard off-break is fine, but every so often other deliveries might be open to doubt, though it is very difficult to judge with the naked eye. By now it would be difficult for anybody to put their head above the parapet."
There are several elements to the controversy about Murali's action, and because he has a corkscrew wrist and a congenitally bent right arm they have invariably been made more complicated. His standard off-break, as Hurrion has it, meets the law's requirements. But whether it always did so is doubtful.
Under regulations introduced in March 2005, bowlers are allowed a 15-degree bend in the arm. Cynics suggest that this limit was agreed purely for Murali – that had it been, say, five degrees, which was the limit Hurrion set for spin bowlers when he devised his computer video software in 2001, he might have been in trouble.
Murali has been no-balled seven times by Darrell Hair for throwing, when Sri Lanka played Australia in a Test at Melbourne in 1995, and once by Ross Emerson, in a one-day international against England in Adelaide in 1999, when all hell broke loose. In the latter case at least there was certainly a hint of the man in the figurative white coat doing some grandstanding. The effect has been that Murali, a sensitive fellow, has always struggled in and against Australia.
If Murali successfully comes under the 15-degree level of extension – and Hurrion is adamant on the point – he made life more difficult for himself by developing the doosra. This is the off-spinner's wrong 'un, the ball that spins from leg to off to a right-handed batsman (it means "the other" in Urdu and Hindi).
It was lethal, and marvellous to see, but its relationship to bowling was slender at best. He was told to stop deploying it but the feeling has grown that he is untouchable. After so long, that is perhaps as it should be.
"It is supposed to be an ongoing process," said Hurrion. "You can come through the system and you could still be called in the next game, though that doesn't tend to happen. The last thing you learned is always the first thing under pressure that you forget. I would like the ICC to put in place a system where bowlers, if necessary, can be reported from the ground. There are enough cameras in place. Say something happened in the morning, it could be done with by lunchtime."
The probability is that Murali will live out his career with no more official censure. The ICC, who now ensure that actions are monitored before players reach senior level, received no reports this year about dodgy actions.
Murali has gone beyond that. Against all but Australia (55 wickets at 31.41 compared to 702 overall at 21.51) he has been supreme, a freak and a wonder of the age. And soon, and for a very long time, he will look down on every other bowler there has been. A lesser man might use his bent arm to display two fingers.Reuse content