Technically impossible for him to `throw'

An illegal delivery is the one where the bowler bends and then straightens his elbow. It has been scientifically proven that Muralitharan, because of his deformity, cannot straighten his elbow to the extent for it to be illegal, writes S. DINAKAR.

THOSE big, bold eyes, bristling with sunshine and laughter, hope and joy, would surely have shed tears from the inside. Beneath his infectious charm and that buoyant exterior, Muttiah Muralitharan conceals pain and anguish, frustration and anger.

Muttiah Muralitharan leads the Sri Lankan team back to the pavilion after returning figures of 16 for 220 against England at The Oval in 1998. — Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

His dazzling off-spin might have illuminated the dullest of arenas, but then the Lankan's career has been a blend of the light and the shade with dark clouds often threatening his very existence in the game.

To many, he is among cricket's glittering ornaments, to others he is no more than an impostor, who had managed to hoodwink the law. The ends shall never meet.

When the predictable question — what do you make of the chucking allegations against you — pops up during interviews, the Lankan turns silent for a moment, then he smiles wryly, gazes straight into you, and defends himself, with calm, collected words.

While the man from Kandy has learnt to put a lid over his emotions, his cricketing quest appears driven by that rage within. The fire only he can extinguish.

A deformity in his right elbow has meant that he was up against great odds from the very beginning. Now, after conquering several peaks, he has a staggering 485 Test scalps from 85 Tests, and 345 ODI victims in 227 matches. It has been an exhilarating flight into rarefied heights by the Lankan, who, when he went past the 400-wicket landmark in his 72nd Test, became the quickest and the youngest, at 29, to achieve the feat.

Two years later, Courtney Walsh's world record 519 Test wickets is well within his sight and even as the cricketing world warms up for what should be a breathless race to the finish line between two famous spin assassins, Muralitharan and Shane Warne, the chucking debate has returned to haunt the Lankan.

It's about time that this contentious issue is settled once and for all. The key elements here are Muralitharan's bent elbow and the dextrous wrist of his bowling hand.

An illegal delivery is the one where the bowler bends and then straightens his elbow; on most occasions he gains extra speed. This particular ball is a chuck or a throw.

Muralitharan does not fall under this category. There is no denying that the elbow is bent, but he does not straighten it; it is his highly flexible and almost magical wrist that gets the ball to dance to his tunes.

This was precisely the reason why, not too long ago, the International Cricket Council's (ICC) bowling review panel COULD NOT decide on the evidence available whether Muralitharan was straightening his arm or not.

If more than an element of doubt about Muralitharan chucking persists — this after watching countless replays, from a variety of angles — then the benefit of doubt should definitely go to the bowler.

It has been scientifically proven that Muralitharan, because of his deformity, cannot straighten his elbow to the extent for it to be illegal. Thus, he is in the clear, technically.

Here, it would be pertinent to hear the view of Ian Healy, Australia's former ace wicket-keeper, who certainly knows a thing or two about spin bowling. The Aussie said, "what really confuses the whole issue is the fact that if you watch his hand, he can really flick the ball out of his hand with an exceptional range of moving his wrist like no other bowler in the world and he has a freakish ability to spin the ball on a bent arm. But he doesn't throw."

Healy's observation carries plenty of weight, for there is no question of bias here. If anything, the Australians had been the harshest of Muralitharan's critics, and it was Down Under in 1995 that Muralitharan was first called, by Darrell Hair, creating sharp divisions in the cricketing world. And it was in Australia again, in 1999, that Muralitharan ran into serious problems once again.

There are others such as Healy's successor, the mercurial Adam Gilchrist, who have indicated that they are not entirely convinced about Muralitharan's action.

Muralitharan's great Australian rival Warne is ambiguous when he says, "What he does is a mystery to everybody. He confuses the batsmen with his unusual action."

What might be bothering the batsmen when Muralitharan operates is that, due to a combination of a bent arm and out of the ordinary wrist, they have to contend with deliveries coming out of the hand from various heights.

Muralitharan's ways with the ball will continue to evoke varied response, but his skills will never be in doubt. The tantalising flight, the deceptive loop, the vicious spin and the bag of tricks often have the batsmen in a tangle.

The Lankan can get the ball to spin sharply on any surface, and has evolved as a spinner extraordinaire. From being largely one-dimensional, with a huge off-spinner and little else, he now possesses a wrong 'un, a flipper and a top-spinner and can bring about subtle variations in his flight, speed, extent of turn, apart from using the crease cleverly and tirelessly sending down long spells.

As the former Lankan coach, the wily Dav Whatmore often points out, Muralitharan's fitness levels and exuberance are such that it is virtually impossible to keep him out of a game for long periods; following a barren stint he can come back hard.

The Lankan is at his meanest when there is a degree of bounce in the pitch for he can, both get his deliveries to turn and bounce, and make them skid through, putting the seeds of doubts in the batsmen's mind.

He has also willed himself to bounce back from a serious shoulder injury, displayed the mental strength to haul himself up from a deep hole when all kinds of talks about his action were flying around, and has sustained his level of performance for over a decade now; the hallmark of a champion bowler.

Unlike many off-spinners, he is more comfortable bowling to the right-handers — given that he spins the ball prodigiously, it is hard to cut him, and those who launch into a big cover-drive invite the risk of being castled.

It is also against the right-hander that he gets the delivery to spin and drift away and it is this delivery of Muralitharan that has invariably been under scrutiny. It is also true that most off-spinners conjuring the doosra or `the other one' have come under the scanner. In the Lankan's defence it has to be said that he cannot really straighten his arm.

Dave Richardson, the ICC General Secretary, has maintained that even the bowlers who have been cleared of a faulty action, can be put under a microscope on a later date; this is bound to ensure that a climate of uncertainty will continue to prevail vis-a-vis Muralitharan.

At least in the case of the Lankan spinner the debate should be put to rest.

It is time Muralitharan, of eyes that laugh, of a wrist that delights, and of a spirit that is boundless, received true recognition.