True entertainers

David Beckham and Muttiah Muralitharan are great sporting figures and their fame is likely to live forever, writes Ted Corbett.

It is time to say farewell to two of the great sporting figures of the last 20 years; players marred by controversy, but such brilliant performers that their fame is likely to live forever.

David Beckham was tall enough at 6ft 2in to make Manchester United's fans forget that other skyscraper Eric Cantona as he won matches for club and England that made him the most famous footballer in the world.

He married the Spice Girl Posh but despite his show business connections never forgot the need for an extra training session or three — whatever his manager Sir Alex Ferguson thought — he earned millions but never lost his Essex accent and there have been few footballers with his ability to produce the perfect cross or free kick.

Now, or so we understand from the imperfect English of the coach Fabio Capello, Beckham's day is done. No more games directing England. We will miss him although he has replaced Princess Diana as the personality most likely to be on the front page of the British daily papers.

Muttiah Muralitharan was an object of astonishment from the moment he propelled his first ball down the pitch. His action was so strange that the game's lawmen had to revise their idea of what constituted a throw, his flight and turn were so devastating that only the great batsmen could keep the ball from their stumps for long and even in his final Test, as he took his 800th wicket, his enthusiasm was as great as ever.

I could not take my eyes off him. I still question whether what he did was legal, or morally desirable — for its effect on generations to come — and for that reason in defiance of the stats I think Shane Warne was the finer spinner.

Even I cannot deny Murali's greatness or his entertainment value. As he skipped to the wicket, his eyes blazing and his arm whirling, Murali held the attention of everyone. He was a batsman's nightmare.

Dead pitches did not daunt him; he tossed the ball higher. Good batsmanship did not thwart him; he loved the battle. His own team's failures did not concern him; he simply turned on a greater variety of tricks.

It angered him and his admirers that we did not all count him among our favourites but that ire just urged him on; Murali's answer was the ball aimed high outside off-stump only to spin sharply and hit middle and leg; the bowler's revenge, you might say.

As his career lengthened Murali found the doosra and greater varieties of leg-break, off-break and top-spinner.

As he worked out the subtle changes needed to cope with those batting-only strips in the sub-continent so he showed the rest of the world how to overcome their cruel ways.

The first time I saw him was at the nets in Sharjah in the company of a Test umpire. “Well, what do you think of that way of getting the ball 20 yards down the pitch?” I asked after five minutes.

“I had better not say what I think,” the umpire replied and hurried off. In the following few days he had plenty of opportunity to say what he thought in the middle; he stayed silent and so did his umpiring pals.

Two umpires from Australia gave their verdicts and shouted “no ball.” Tests in an Australian laboratory suggested Murali did not throw; cricketers who had been in the game for an eternity thought otherwise.

Even now the debate rages on and I feel it will never end but long before his final match the official view was that he could carry on bowling. Cricket waits to see if Murali's action produces a million young bowlers with similar — or more exaggerated — actions and, ultimately, whether the cricket bowler and the baseball pitcher are indistinguishable.

To judge from Sri Lankan street cricket there is no doubt about the future. Every schoolboy is trying to bowl the Murali way.

Now it will be interesting to see if either Beckham or Murali take any further part.

Murali probably has no need to seek power, position or further earnings from cricket but Beckham, with a show biz life to fund will certainly not turn down either more club football or his connection with the 2012 Olympic Games or anything else that comes along.

More likely, this man with houses around the world, continuing invitations to be part of this scheme or that — simply because of his popularity — and that toned physique and tattoos will earn huge sums for the rest of his life.

What the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has brought from politics, Beckham has dragged from football and it would be no surprise if this Double-B pairing repeatedly got together to support good causes or enhance the reputation of the country.

Blair earns £250,000 for each speech, and Beckham has only to join a ceremony or sporting event to pull in a dollar.

Their futures are rosy but I wonder if they will be as content as Murali, the unorthodox cricketer who turned the simple art of the off-spinner into a magical mystery show.