A goniometer was used to measure the angle of “fixed deformity” in Muralitharan’s elbow…
The recently concluded tour by the Sri Lankan cricket team to Australia will certainly rank as one of the most controversial tours in the history of the game. At the centre of the controversy was Sri Lanka’s champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, whose bowling action caused extensive worry among the Australians (and the English).
The heat on the over-80-test-old Muralitharan, rated by many to be the worlds best off-spinner, was intense: the media hounded him—some calling for his ban from cricket; the Australian spectators jeered and called him a “chucker” every time he came on to bowl; and the umpires, including even the South African match referee, only added fuel to fire.
Matters came to a head in Adelaide on 23 January during the one-day fixture between Sri Lanka and England, when the Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga almost led his team out of the game after umpire Ross Emerson ‘called’ Murali for throwing. Ranatunga declared half-way through the tour that Murali, Sri Lanka’s highest wicket-taker ever, would not visit Australia again.
Commented Mark Nicholas of The Telegraph of London: “For the last month a witch-hunt has followed Muralitharan around Australia. Crowds have heckled him and newspapers have put him in the dock. Australia has appointed itself as judge and jury. The hostility to an innocent, gentle man who possesses an intriguing cricket talent, whatever its legality, has been extraordinary.”
This was Murali’s second run-in with the Australians, actually. He was first ‘called’ for throwing by umpire Darrel Hair in the now-infamous Boxing Day incident during the 1995-96 Sri Lankan tour. Following that call by Hair, ICC chief executive David Richards—an Australian—had faxed a ‘dossier’ on Murali to the ACB to be distributed to the media. Sri Lanka refused to be cowed down and continued with Murali in the attack.
Two weeks after the Hair incident, Murali was ‘called’ again, this time by umpire Ross Emerson. The Lankan team management called Emerson’s bluff by shooting its own videotape of the action to show that the umpire called Murali six times for “throwing”, when he had in fact been bowling leg-breaks. And anyone who knows his cricket knows that you cannot throw a leg-break, as it comes out from the back of the hand.
With this evidence of umpiring incompetence and possible bias, the Sri Lankans summoned leading Melbourne-based surgeon, Barclay Ried, to use an instrument known as goniometer to measure the angle of “fixed deformity” in Murali’s elbow to check whether it prevents full extension. The medical report said that the deformity was congenital. This was followed up by a bio-mechanics test at Australia’s leading laboratory for this technology at the University of Western Australia, where slow-motion video was used to study the movement of his bowling arm. The evidence was presented to the nine-member ice panel set up to judge suspected bowling actions. Murali was cleared by the panel, and went on to set up new bowling records for Sri Lanka.
Despite the ICC clearance of Murali’s bowling action, and the fact that he has since bowled in almost all major cricket-playing nations, in front of over 40 umpires, including leading umpires on the ICC’s international umpires’ panel, most Australian experts refuse to accept his bowling. Wrote Patrick Smith of The Age, “For a man who cannot straighten his right arm, he bowls a wonderful leg-spinner and when he claims a wicket, his arm points straight up when rejoicing.” Given sentiments like these, it was only to be expected that the last had yet to be heard on Murali and his bowling.
The latest Murali episode began last August, set off by comments of the English coach David Lloyd, after the Lankans humbled his team on its home turf. During the test match at Lords, international cricket’s official headquarters, Murali bagged a lethal haul of 16 of the 20 English wickets. Lloyd’s outburst was followed by umpire Hair’s autobiography, The Decision Maker, in which he called Murali’s action “diabolical”, and threatened to ‘call’ him again in Australia in the coming season.
The Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) was quick to take issue and complained to the ICC that Hair had breached its code of conduct for umpires and demanded disciplinary action. In early January, the ICC agreed that Hair had indeed acted against the code of conduct and asked the ACB to take disciplinary action against him. Hair was stood down from umpiring in the recent triangular series involving Sri Lanka, Australia and England, but later the ACB judge acquitted him, which allows him to umpire in the forthcoming World Cup in England.
Sri Lanka’s poor performance this season in Australia has been attributed by team officials and its sports commentators to the treatment the team received from the media, spectators and officials. After the Adelaide controversy, veteran Sri Lankan sports journalist, Elmo Rodrigopulle, who accompanied the team on the tour, described the whole experience: “The tour of Australia…has been one helluva nightmare for Sri Lankan cricketers. On this tour the Lankans must now be experiencing what it is like to be in cricket’s hell.”
It is a hell that others have been through before and may have to do with the deep-rooted racism which exists in Australian sports and media. The former West Indian captain Viv Richards in his autobiography, Hitting Across the Line, had this to say about their tours to Australia
The force of their hostility was nothing sort of frightening. We had to take so much! The verbal abuse, in particular, left our team completely stunned…as soon as we wandered out on that field, we had to face their taunts. It did not prove easy to concentrate when someone was snarling at you and saying, you /. off, you black bastards!
On the issue of chucking itself and what the umpires’ role should be, many cricket writers argue that it does not matter what the ICC says, the umpire on the day has the right to ‘call’ a bowler. Cricket law 24.2 says that for a delivery to be fair, the ball must be bowled, not thrown. If either umpire is not entirely satisfied with the absolute fairness of a delivery, they can call or signal “no ball” instantly upon delivery. The throwing law was obviously devised to protect batsmen from unscrupulous fast bowlers who could gain an unfair advantage from throwing the ball and intimidate batsmen or put them at risk of serious injury. Interestingly, this rule has lately not been used to book fast bowlers; instead it has gone against spinners of the Subcontinent. Most recent cases of complaints to the ICC panel involve spinners Rajesh Chauhan and Harbhajan Singh of India, Shahid Afridi of Pakistan and Kumar Dharmasena of Sri Lanka.
In the end, whether there has been a “throw” or not is a matter of opinion, and Muralitharan’s experience has shown how this can lead to subjective decisions against a particular cricketer or even a cricketing nation. Perhaps the last word on this should be allowed to Peter Roebuck of Sydney Morning Herald: “It [Muralis action] is a matter of opinion. Sometimes people see things they want to see. It’s scarcely to be expected that they [Sri Lankans] will bowl like some stiff Anglo-Saxons.”