A true Mass hero

Last Updated 24 July 2010, 15:17 IST

For a while, just a brief while, his voice cracked. He took a moment to compose himself, and was then back in remarkable control, easily the most poised person at a most emotional gathering.

The stage was the Galle International stadium, the occasion the post-match presentation function, moments after he had spent his last few hours as a Test cricketer. As Tony Greig took him through the roller-coaster ride that his memorable career has been, Muttiah Muralitharan looked every bit as sanguine as he had been for 18 years plying his unconventional, unique brand of off-spin.

Cricket for Muralitharan was no escape. It was a platform from which he could entertain and inspire. By his own modest admission, it was the only thing he was good at, so he had no option but to pursue it. So, how good is he?

He is 800 Test wickets and 515 one-day wickets good. In terms of sheer numbers, he is better than good. He is quite simply the best, by a country mile.

Is he, however, as good as his figures suggest? How could he not be?

Muttiah Muralitharan’s contribution to Sri Lankan cricket extends beyond mere numbers, however impressive they might be. For 18 years, he typified the spirit of the tiny island nation, David taking on big bad Goliath and coming out on top more often than not. Incredibly, he did so with a broad smile – not a taunting grin or an ungainly snarl, not with intemperate words and ugly body language – as he wore his heart on his sleeve, and carried a divided, yet united, peoples along with him.

The lasting legacy of Muralitharan’s career will be the emphatic debunking of the myth that nice guys don’t finish first. Even his staunchest critics and most vocal opponents will readily concede that when it comes to human beings, they don’t quite make them better than Muralitharan.

Cricket isn’t exactly the Sri Lankan way of life. For all the wonderful success the national team has had, including that epochal World Cup triumph in 1996, the sport isn’t a matter of life and death, as it can sometimes appear in India. Here, the people  have seen life and death in their truest, starkest form. Cricket is merely a sport and that’s how they approach it. Except when it comes to Muralitharan. His struggles against the establishment when he was ‘called’ for throwing during a Test match in Australia was when he graduated, in the eyes of his countrymen, from hero to superhero. They recognised the fact that Muralitharan was out on a mission – to exonerate himself of any wrongdoing, to prove that while his action might appear bizarre and illegal, it was nothing more than an optical illusion brought about by a hyper-extended elbow, a congenital defect.

Sri Lankans instantly recognised the spunk and the spirit of the little man. Suddenly, it no longer was one man’s battle against officialdom. A country closed ranks and joined hands. The legend of Murali was born, and since then, it has only grown in strength.

Muralitharan belongs to the whole of Sri Lanka. His parents, owners of a biscuit factory in Kandy, couldn’t have been prouder than when they saw from close quarters at Galle last Thursday just how much esteem he is held in by his peers and contemporaries, team-mates and opposition alike. There is little not to like about Murali, even if you are the hapless batsman transfixed by a searing off-break or a deceptive doosra. He might make you look incompetent, but never makes you feel thus. An apologetic smile, a gentle clap of the hands and you are on your way. Talk about killing ’em softly! He is no softie, though. Beneath that happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care exterior lies an inner steel that has seen him come through difficult examinations with his spirit untouched. To hear him say that life was all about forgiving and forgetting in the context of the men that publicly humiliated him – umpires Hair and Emerson – was humbling. It was all grace and style, a champion statement from a champion performer.

And a champion person, too. Not unlike many of India’s cricketers, Muralitharan too has preferred that his work for charity remain unpublicised. Given the scale at which he has undertaken reconstruction work for tsunami victims,  it is impossible for him to keep his association with charity low-key. A visit to the Seenigama village, just outside of Galle and severely damaged by the natural disaster of 2004, is at once an eye-opener and a touching experience. Educational institutions and state-of-the-art medical facilities compete with cottage industries and verdant playgrounds. Children are taught the significance of education and sports; housewives are taught to be self-sufficient and independent.

The thousand houses he has had constructed there are comfortable without being ostentatious. “I wanted for people to have a roof over their heads, but more than that, I wanted them to learn to chart a path for themselves,” he had told this paper sometime back.

The message was obvious, if unsaid. Learn to stand on your own feet, don’t expect a prop all the time. It was a lesson Muralitharan had learnt the hard way in the gruelling cauldron of international cricket, a lesson he wanted to pass on gently to people willing to eat out of his hands.

Post retirement, Muralitharan has no plans of putting his feet up and resting on his laurels. He isn’t entirely lost to cricket yet – he has kept his opens option as regards next year’s 50-over World Cup and has made it clear that he will play the Indian Premier League for at least another two or three years – but in the interim, he is planning to throw himself further into the redevelopment process.

Never shy of his innate Tamil-ness, Muralitharan will now turn his attention to the hitherto strife-torn north of the island, where he is to build 1000 houses for people whose lives have been disrupted by the long civil war that ended last year, a project that has the nod of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lankans, though, haven’t looked at Muttiah Muralitharan as a Tamil. He has and will always remain Sri Lankan first, a national treasure to derive inspiration from, to be celebrated and extolled. To them and to the rest of the world, he is an example in humility, a role model whose determination and perseverance are worth emulating. A true hero of the masses, if ever there was one!

Incredible journey - a statistical survey of Muttiah Muralitharan’s amazing performances over the years

*Born on April 17, 1972 at Kandy
*Test debut: vs Australia at Colombo (RPS) on August 28, 1992.
*Tests: 133. Highest score: 67 vs India at Kandy, August 2001.
*Best bowling in an innings: 9/51 vs Zimbabwe at Kandy, Jan 2002. Best bowling in a match: 16/220 vs England at the Oval, August 1998.


*Anil Kumble: There was no better way to finish on that high note. You cannot ask for anything else. It was an honour to play along with him.
*Shane Warne: I don’t think anyone will get there.
*Wasim Akram: Murali is something phenomenal. I don’t think anyone will even come close to taking 800 wickets.
*Graeme Smith: Glad I don’t need to face him in Test cricket again.
*Kapil Dev: Murali is a genius. His achievements are incomparable.
*EAS Prasanna: He has performed in all types of wickets and terrorised batsmen across the world. No way any other bowler in the globe could surpass his feat.
*Kumar Sangakkara: I am never going to go around looking for another Murali. Because you are never going to find any.
*M S Dhoni: It is not always possible to restrain him. And I am really happy that he has got 800 wickets in his Test career.

Tests    Inngs     NO     Runs     Ave     HS     50s
133        164       56    1261    11.67    67      1

Balls    Mdns    Runs    Wickets    Ave    5WI    10WM
44039 1794   18180    800         22.72   67      22

At home

Tests    Overs    Wkts    Ave    Best     5WI    10WM   
73        4176.5    493    19.56    9/51    45     15

Tests    Overs    Wkts    Ave      Best     5WI    10WM   
60        3163       307    27.79    9/65      22       7

Against all opponents:

Versus     Tests    Overs    Runs    Wkts    Ave    Best
Australia    13      685.3     2128    59      36.06    6/59
B’desh        11      452       1190    89      13.37    6/18
England     16      1102.1   2247   112     20.06    9/65
India         22       1170      3425   105     32.61    8/87
NZ             14      753.2       1766   82      21.53    6/87
Pakistan    16      782.5      2037    80      25.46    6/71
S Africa     15      984.4       2311   104     22.22    7/84
Windies    12       622.3     1609     82     19.62     8/46
Zimbabwe 14      786.5      1467    87      16.86    9/51

Total        133     7339.5  18180   800    22.72    9/51


Wkt    Test    Victim            Rival    Venue       Year
Ist       1    C McDermott     Aus    Colombo    1992
100    27    S Fleming         NZ    Wellington   1997
200    42    J Crawley         Eng    The Oval    1998
300    58    S Pollock          SA      Durban       2000
400    72    H Olonga          Zim    Galle          2002
500    87    M Kasprowicz   Aus    Kandy         2004
600    101    K Mashud       Ban    Bogra         2006
700    113    S Rasel           Ban    Kandy        2007
800    133    Pragyan Ojha India   Galle         2010

(Published 24 July 2010, 15:17 IST)

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