1,347 wickets to his name, including 800 wickets in Tests and 534 wickets in ODIs. But life has not been easy for the legendary spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. In the initial years of his career, Muralitharan had a tough time on his tour to Australia in 1995-96 for a three-Test series.
Umpire Darrell Hair no-balled him 7 times in the match. The incident shocked the cricketing world as Muralitharan had bowled earlier in Australia. The Sri Lankan off-spinner had no clue why the Umpire had been no-balling him repeatedly. Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, too, had a few words with the Umpire and it was quite clear that he no-balled him for throwing the ball.
It was a disheartening sight for cricket fans around the world. Muralitharan had a congenital deformity, which did not allow his elbow to be straightened. According to the rules of International Cricket Council (ICC), back then a bowler was allowed to bend only 5 per cent of his elbow. However, it was changed to 15 per cent after the new laws came into play.
During the match, Muralitharan found support from commentators. Even former England cricketer and commentator Tony Greig felt that it was unfair to target him. Former Australian cricketer Steve Waugh also felt that it should have been handled differently.
After 12 years of the fiasco, Waugh opened up and shared his side of the story. He said:
I just felt it was a bit unfair. We all knew he was gonna make that call and he made his call and…fact that he believed he was bowling illegally. It was ugly to see a player in such a big spectacle. It should have been sorted out beforehand or in a different way. I just thought he was crucified on the biggest stage of cricket. To me, that’s pretty demeaning and disrespectful to a player.
Waugh indicated that the Umpire’s calls may have been premeditated. He further added,
You get a feeling of building up. There was a lot of talk in the media before the Test match about Murali’s action… Looking back on it, his action was actually illegal. He just had a physical… I guess abnormality. That’s the way he was born and the way he can bowl. If it was easy and he was doing something wrong then someone should have been able to copy his action and no one has done that. So, that proves it was just a unique action.
Waugh recalled another instance where a different umpire, Ross Emerson, no-balled him in a match between Sri Lanka and West Indies in Brisbane in 1996. He said:
Where it came in the question, I guess Emerson on the other end who called a no ball on one of the balls he actually bowled a leg spinner with a purely proper action. He called that a no ball so in my mind that means that Emerson’s calls were probably a bit premeditated. It was a different action.
Waugh shared his experiences of playing against the highest wicket-taker in ODIs and Tests.
I just knew that he was very hard to pick up. It was like an optical illusion when you are batting he appeared to bowl a ball but it did not come out and you are still looking and it’s a fraction later than the normal type of bowler. He was very hard to face and first time you come up against him you are purely guessing whether the ball is going to turn or not. If it’s turning you hope it hits your bat and you somehow survive and maybe get used to playing him. He is extremely hard to play against.
Not just the Umpire, Muralitharan was humiliated by the crowd and even the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard who called him a ‘chucker’. The humiliation was the reason why Muralitharan refrained from touring Australia in 2004.
However, all the hardships in his career did not stop him from becoming the best spinner (arguably), the world has ever seen.