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The breaking and making of Murali

Darrell Hair no-balls Muttiah Muralitharan Jack Atley / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

For Sri Lanka, there was one last test before the 1996 World Cup: a near three-month tour of Australia. Nothing would come easy, but the opportunity to test their mettle down under meant a lot. They knew they would be thrown into a pressure cooker. "I remember on the plane, the senior guys said, 'It's going to be really tough. You have to be really tough to beat Australia in Australia,'" Ravindra Pushpakumara recalled. "We thought, what do you mean tough? I don't know - honestly, what do you mean? We have to sledge? We have to fight? No, you need to be tough mentally."

Pushpakumara sees this toughness as a natural consequence of the Sri Lankan experience. "We were tough, mentally tough," he contests. "Our cricketers come from the villages. They were very tough. I used to go to practice without food - that's mentally tough. I'd walk six, seven kilometres to go to practice - that's mentally tough. I didn't have shoes for the whole year - that's mentally tough. It comes from our nature." When you have to prove yourself a survivor day after day, how can something as trivial as cricket lump pressure on your shoulders? Pushpakumara's "just a game" mentality, seemingly shared by a number of his teammates, no doubt helped Sri Lanka deal with the trials they faced down Under.

From the moment they arrived, it felt like all of Australia was intent on destabilising their progress. Sniffer dogs met them at the airport, putting noses out of joint - and the team were shunted from the warmth of Cairns to the colder Tasmania, before being dumped into the cauldron-esque WACA for the opening Test.

Nonetheless, Arjuna Ranatunga remained upbeat. "We are a very young, positive side," he told the press before the match. "Our fielding has improved and we have three bowlers who can take wickets." Strikingly, he made sure to remind the world of the significance of cricket in Sri Lanka. "Our players are deeply committed for their country," he said. "Everyone at home is keen on cricket rather than the other problems we have. If we can do well here, there will be a lot of smiling faces back home - and that is important to us."

Optimism quickly dissipated. Sri Lanka might have been encouraged by the algal virus which slowed the pitch - yet it quickly proved curse rather than blessing. A number of batters got in, but none stuck around; it was a long, hard slog in the field as the hosts pounded their way to 617 for 5. The game was up: though Hashan Tillakaratne's 119 helped restore a little dignity, it was hard to gloss an innings defeat.

Ultimately, the match was defined by an incident that had little to do with cricket. In the 17th over of Australia's innings, umpire Khizer Hayat examined the ball and said its seam had been tampered with. There were three conversations between Ranatunga and the umpires, but the ball was not confiscated - as Sri Lanka requested and the rules dictate.

Though umpire Peter Parker was initially unconvinced, a report was submitted to match referee Graham Dowling. With little evidence and no thought of consulting the Sri Lankan management, Dowling issued an extraordinary press release, stating: "The Sri Lankan captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, was notified that the condition of the ball had clearly been altered by a member or members of his team during the course of the 17th over." The Lankans had been branded cheats prior to any proper investigation. Worse, they were effectively gagged by the ICC laws - barred from making any statement to the press.

The next morning, the "tampering' Lankans" name was dragged through the mud in newspapers the world over. Though they had no real reason to manipulate the ball - and certainly no bowlers looking to exploit reverse swing - Sri Lanka held an emergency meeting at the close of play. "I was thinking, 'What do I gain by tampering if I'm Murali [Muthiah Muralidaran]?'" Chandika Hathurusingha reflected when we spoke on the issue. "And I remember [Michael] Slater hitting one shot down the ground into the concrete stand. I was actually thinking, what would I gain, bowling 110, 120 [kph]?" All 11 steadfastly denied tampering with the ball. A bewildered Ranatunga was seen on the brink of tears.

When Pakistan had been accused of tampering in a tour match at the WACA earlier in the summer, it quickly became clear that an algal virus had created an unusually abrasive pitch. Equally, there had been consistent complaints about the quality of Kookaburra balls throughout the summer. Considering the facts alone - an abrasive pitch, a potentially dodgy ball, which the umpires did not confiscate - how could anyone accurately assess the cause of the damage, especially with Slater smiting the ball into the stands?

Secure in their innocence, Sri Lanka went on the offensive. The BCCSL threatened the ICC with legal action - and when the second new ball showed similar signs of degeneration, the media began to change tack. Two weeks later, the team were cleared of any wrongdoing. An editorial in the Age bemoaned the fact the ICC report "expressed 'sincere regrets' to the Sri Lankans but did not include an apology. The best that can be said is that the ICC came to the right conclusion, if belatedly, and that the Sri Lankan players conducted themselves with dignity throughout the unfortunate episode." Some felt the incident had racial undertones; certainly, there was a sense that England or New Zealand might have been treated differently.

The tampering scandal was swallowed whole by the circus that engulfed the second Test. In so many ways, this tour revolved around Murali. It changed his life: during the early carefree days of the trip, he would slip out of the team hotel and explore Cairns unrecognised; by the end of the tour, he couldn't step into open air without flashbulbs bursting in his face. The storm had been brewing. Murali had no idea that his action had been reported twice by match referees prior to the tour; nor that umpires Darrell Hair, Nigel Plews and Steve Dunne had expressed concerns to match referee Raman Subba Row during Sri Lanka's recent trip to Sharjah.

"For many, chucking was a scourge on cricket, a repugnant canker that must be removed. The chucker was a dirty cheat - even today, few acts on the cricket field are accompanied by such a grave sense of wrongdoing"

"Chucking" was becoming an increasingly contentious issue - strangely, often couched in moralistic terms. For many, it was a scourge on cricket, a repugnant canker that must be removed. The chucker was a dirty cheat - even today, few acts on the cricket field are accompanied by such a grave sense of wrongdoing. Yet, as Ian Peebles pointed out in his 1968 book on the subject: "Surely the essence of sharp practice of cheating is the covert and deliberate disregard or breaking of a rule or agreement. The suspect bowler subjects himself to the judgement of the umpires and up to eighty thousand people. He makes no attempt to conceal anything, in the confidence that, in his own judgement, he is in no way infringing the letter or spirit of the law."

Perhaps chucking was transformed into a deplorable crime by the way it was framed. As Australian influence grew during the early '90s, the country's administrators seemed to declare themselves moral guardians of the game. Just as it was their duty to rid the game of the Asians who would pick at a seam, they felt obliged to crack down on the chuckers who threatened to bring cricket into disrepute. Suspicion surrounding Murali's action had amped up after he took seven wickets in a warm-up match against Queensland. Now, not only was he a threat to the sanctity of the sport, but to the reputation of this Australian side. Moving forward, TV cameras zeroed in on his action in the nets. Sri Lanka coach Dav Whatmore was troubled, and told Arjuna as much. Together, they decided that Murali should sit out the three-day game in Tasmania before the first Test.

Meanwhile, ICC match referee Subba Row had been in touch with the BCCSL, imploring Sri Lanka to take their own look at Murali. Whatmore knew he had to get ahead of the game, so he bought a video camera and began shooting his star spinner. Both he and Murali were convinced there was no problem, but realised that might not be immediately clear to outsiders.

After all, Murali's mechanics simply cannot be replicated - in a sense, it is as though his body was built to bowl offspin. Not only was he blessed with an extremely supple wrist, his right shoulder was flexible almost to the point of double-jointedness; on top of this, he had a slight deformity which meant he could not fully straighten his right arm. Were it not for these physical abnormalities there is no way he would be able to impart such lavish turn. Yet, these elements equally combined to create the illusion that Murali was chucking. Those defending him were clear in their stance: Yes, the arm was slightly bent at the point of release, but only because it cannot straighten. It would take Murali many years to prove he wasn't breaking the rules.

The whole squad woke up with butterflies on Boxing Day morning. This was the big time: 55,000 crammed into the MCG; Australians from Darwin to Devonport gathered around their TVs. Pre-'96, Sri Lanka often struggled to attract broadcasters for their Tests; the marquee sporting event of the Australian summer was a chance for them to prove their worth.

Arjuna opted to bowl, turning to his star spinner just before lunch. Murali thought nothing of the fact that Hair stood further back than usual; nor was he concerned when his second ball was flagged. Only when his third delivery was called a no-ball too did he sense something was wrong. He asked Hair if he was cutting the side crease. The umpire's frank response chilled Murali to the core. "No. It's your action. You're chucking."

Arjuna arrived on the scene for a lengthy discussion. Though he encouraged Murali to keep bowling normally, it's hard to imagine how the spinner found the strength to carry on. "It was so insulting," Murali told me when we spoke on the matter. Hair called no-ball another five times in his three-over spell. Had a crack burst from the ground and offered to swallow Murali whole, there's little doubt he would have willingly obliged.

Instead, he soldiered on. Ranatunga switched him to Dunne's end; though Dunne had previously expressed doubts over Murali's action, he told Hathurusingha, fielding at square leg, that he wouldn't call him during the Test. In his mind, doing so was tantamount to playing God. Mercifully, his arm remained by his side. But by tea on the second day, Hair decided he'd had enough. Unless Murali was removed, he would call "no-ball" regardless of where he was stood. His sudden disgust strikes as strange, given the fact that he had stood in four Sri Lanka ODIs in the past four months. For many, it is hard to escape the sense that the incident was timed to cause maximum humiliation. Even Steve Waugh later admitted that "it was a bit unfair the way it unfolded". Murali had been crucified for the whole world to see.

His tour, and his whole career, lay in tatters. Privately, Murali planned for the worst-case scenario, hoping legspin could provide a lifeline. But the team stood firm behind him. "Arjuna and Aravinda [de Silva] supported me a lot," he remembers. "They said, you're not doing anything wrong; we will challenge this." Sri Lanka could have easily yielded and sent Murali home, but Ranatunga insisted they rally around him. "If he had any other captain, I don't think he would have survived," Pushpakumara opined. The incident was hugely destabilising, but it helped the Lankans develop a sort of siege mentality. As Asanka Gurusinha put it, "We were together [before], but that brought us very, very close."

The ICC were quick to stand behind Hair: the umpire had become judge, jury and executioner. Murali made it through a ten-over spell in an ODI in Hobart, but was called three times by Ross Emerson during his first over in the following match. At least the team had a plan. Sensing Hair had been calling haphazardly, Murali switched to legbreaks - widely considered impossible to chuck. Emerson fell headfirst into the trap, calling one a thrown no-ball.

With this one fell swoop, humiliation shifted from bowler to umpire's shoulders. Clearly, Emerson had no idea if Murali was bowling some balls and throwing others. His calls were coming at random. The incident lifted Murali from his pit of despair. His tour was over, but the injustice he had been subjected to was plain to see. A volley of boos rained down on Emerson, who needed a police escort to leave the field. Standing in his first ODI, he had made himself look a fool - and exposed the sham that simmered beneath the surface of the scandal.

Even in 1995, there was the stench of something rotten. On 27th December, Robert Craddock reported in the Herald Sun that "a series of secret conversations between leading umpires, high-ranking officials and disgruntled players preceded the stunning decision to call Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan". He went on to reveal that "at least one high-ranking Australian official felt strongly Muralitharan be exposed as a 'thrower' and had a lengthy bar-side conversation with a Test umpire three weeks ago forcibly expressing this point". Clearly, such a discussion between a partisan national representative and a supposedly impartial employee of the ICC, saw both men wading into murky water. It suggested collusion: something Steve Waugh hinted at when he later said, "I think Darrell Hair, we all knew, was probably going to make that call."

Dunne subsequently claimed the umpires' "dressing room was never free of at least one member of the ACB". The Australian board's CEO Graham Halbish damningly admitted to telling Hair "that if he called [Murali] for throwing he would have the full backing of the ACB". Prior to the tour, Australia's coach Bob Simpson asked the official board photographer to take photos of Murali's action - even suggesting his preferred angles. This was the antithesis of a fair and balanced trial.

Yet shockingly, as the Sri Lankan author Michael Roberts pointed out, all involved felt they were "serving the long-term interests of cricket". They seemingly forgot that targeting one of the opposition's stars so forcefully created a serious conflict of interest. Equally, they went about their business without a shred of care for the bowler. Murali was just 23 - a rising star from a fledgling cricket nation; the type of talent that should be nurtured and protected by those who want to see the game flourish. No one can criticise these men for suspecting Murali of throwing, but did his humiliation need to be played out in front of the biggest TV audience of the year? As Murali put it to me 25 years later, "The only question I have is why didn't he do it before? Why did he wait for Boxing Day?"

While Sri Lanka continued to toil across the country, Murali was sent to Daryl Foster in Perth to prove his legitimacy. This was an ideal solution: the UWA's department of human movement and exercise science offered facilities, and an air of impartiality, that Sri Lanka could not. Murali bowled under the gaze of high-speed cameras; the footage was enough to convince doctors that he did not extend his elbow while delivering the ball. Murali had been vindicated.

Though he was in the clear for now, his trials were far from over. For the next 15 years, Murali laboured under a cloud of suspicion; wherever he went, he had to endure grudging handshakes and brush off unfounded allegations. It must have been tough to carry on. "It made me a very strong-minded person," he told me. "I will never give up."

This is an excerpt from An Island's Eleven: the Story of Sri Lankan Cricket by Nicholas Brookes, available now via The History Press (UK) and Penguin India (Asia)