Murali must never be abused
On being told I had been tasked with writing a blog about Muttiah Muralitharan ahead of Saturday's World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka, the first thing I did was to pose a question on Twitter: "Thoughts on the man and his career, if you please..."
The ellipses were deliberate, the pessimist in me believing my trailing off into silence would soon be punctuated by a cacophony of insults. And sure enough, there came the inevitable cries of "chucker!" from approximately a quarter of the respondents, in reference to Murali's unorthodox bowling action.
But it was a message from a certain Darren Jalland that caught my eye, quoting as he did 'big in the 90s' experimental electronic group The Shamen: "For much of his career, Murali has been like Ebeneezer Goode - 'very much maligned and misunderstood'."
A quick perusal of the full lyrics of number one smash Ebeneezer Goode reveal it could have been penned for the little genius from Kandy himself: "You can see that he's mischievious, mysterious and devious" and "he gives a grin that goes around from face to face to face" seem particularly apt.
But it was the "maligned and misunderstood" line that seemed most pertinent: never in sport has a man been the subject of such wonder and ridicule in equal measure. Yet here is a man who was lucky to have played cricket at all, born as he was with a defective arm into a community with little or no connection with the sport.
Muralitharan is held aloft following Sri Lanka's semi-final win against New Zealand. Photo: Reuters
From such barren soil, Murali blossomed into the highest wicket-taker in both Tests and one-day internationals, amassing a mind-boggling 800 in the former, 534 and counting in the latter. In 133 Tests, he took 22 10-wicket hauls, and in 349 ODIs he snaffled five wickets on 10 occasions. Oh, and let's not forget that historic World Cup win in 1996.
Yet, on the verge of his final appearance for his country, all some people can talk about is that unorthodox bowling action.
"He's one of the toughest characters you'll ever come across, he never gave up or let the criticism get him down or worry him. And he gave himself up for scrutiny, he never shied away from it," says Sri Lankan cricket commentator Roshan Abeysinghe, referring to the extensive investigations and biomechanical testing which led the International Cricket Council to finally clear Murali of any wrong-doing.
"He's absolutely been cleared from a scientific point of view, but whether we've been able to convince the general public and selected aspects of the media, that's still a question that someone else should answer," commented Bruce Elliott, who oversaw four rounds of tests on Murali between 1996 and 2004. Judging by the response to my recent tweet, apparently not.
But it is telling that few of his opponents, some of whom you would expect to have big axes to grind, have come out to condemn him. Shane Warne, who vied with Murali for most of their careers for the crown of cricket's greatest ever spinner, said on his rival's retirement from Tests in 2010: "He'll be missed, Murali has been wonderful for the game."
Warne and Muralitharan vied for the crown of the greatest ever spinner. Photo: Getty
And not just for his mountain of wickets. "He's a bit of a free spirit," Andrew Flintoff, a team-mate of Murali at Lancashire, told BBC Sport. "He just lets himself go, he enjoys the moment."
And why not? What he has done for Sri Lankan cricket is an undeniably joyous achievement. "Sri Lankan cricket wouldn't be where it is today without him," says Abeysinghe. "Not just because of the number of wickets he took but because of how he conducted himself as a cricketer. It is difficult to imagine Sri Lankan cricket without him."
Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara adds: "What he means to us is hard to explain. Murali is an icon of Sri Lanka, a champion on and off the field. Every time he's played he's done wonders for us. And as a human being, no-one matches him."
This is a sentiment the people of Seenigama, in southern Sri Lanka, would wholeheartedly agree with. Through his Foundation of Goodness, established in the early 2000s, Murali has provided education, training, healthcare and housing, as well as raising more than $4m to rehabilitate the area following the 2004 tsunami. "He's a nice guy," says Sangakkara, "that's why nice things happen to him."
Adds Abeysinghe: "He was a great unifying force during a time of civil war in Sri Lanka [which came to an end in 2009], coming as he does from part of the Tamil minority community. He was one of the few Tamils who played for the Sri Lankan side and was a bridge between the two sides.
"To do what he has done is a remarkable achievement for someone of his background. His rise has shown there are opportunities for everyone in Sri Lanka, whatever background you are from. For that reason, he means a huge amount to the entire nation of Sri Lanka."
For those of us non-Sri Lankans, it is all about the rubber wrists, the goggle eyes, that grin that goes around from face to face to face. If you will allow me another Shamenism to finish: Murali's refined, he's sublime, he makes you feel fine, and he's the kind of geezer who must never be abused.