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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 49, Dated Dec 22, 2007
the nice kandyman

The Nice Kandyman

It’s in the eyes. Muttiah Muralitharan may go on to take a thousand Test wickets, but even more special is his gift of turning adversity into generosity of spirit, writes ANAND VASU

LET’S GET it out of the way at the outset. Under the laws cricket is currently played under, Muttiah Muralitharan does not chuck. There was a time when all it took was one look, from coach or umpire, pundit or journalist, to affix the label chucker to a bowler. But now, extensive studies have shown that almost every bowler straightens his elbow to some degree in the course of delivering a fiveand- a-half ounce ball the distance of 22 yards. After research, the International Cricket Council decided that any flexion of 15 degrees or less was a legitimate delivery. Murali falls within that limit.

And there the matter should end, but somehow it does not. You may not agree with the laws — and I for one don’t — but Murali did not make them. You may not agree with the way the law is interpreted, but Murali didn’t come up with those procedures.

You may not like the remedial procedures in place for those suspected of having illegal actions; after all, Murali has taken every conceivable test in different laboratories in the world and always come out clean.

The question really, for those who can’t look beyond that rubberwristed action, from the forthright yet mistaken Bishan Singh Bedi to those in Australia who slyly insinuate their accusations, is whether the problem is with what Murali does, or how well he does it? Had Murali not stood on top of the world, having dethroned that fair dinkum blond Aussie who served a one-year ban for taking an illegal substance, would anyone be bothered at all?

They should, and not because this is the best bowler in the world at the moment. Stop for a moment and go beyond the statistics, mind-boggling and probably unbeatable as they are, and behind the image lazy feature writers have conjured of a shy and smiling bloke who somehow has been blessed with a talent and privilege no one else has, and is harvesting wickets by just showing up and rolling his arm over.

Start instead at the village of Kundasale, not far from the hill city of Kandy. It was here that our young Tamil boy went through the formative years that would make him the man he is. The year is 1983 and the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese is at its height. Murali, only 11, was witness to his father Muttiah’s flourishing biscuit factory being burnt down by Sinhalese mobs. Muttiah was the last man out, and emerging from the flames was attacked by men wielding machetes and badly injured. Murali and his family were herded into the cellar of a Muslim friend’s house, and there they sheltered as the mob waited outside, knowing that Tamils were being protected in the house. But the Muslims refused to yield and eventually the mob grew tired of waiting and moved on to find other victims.

This is not an isolated incident in Murali’s dramatic and often traumatic childhood. In the earlier riots of 1977 as well, his family was affected, though not to the extent of 1983. Through his schooling, at St Antony’s, Murali was confronted by violence, and tells stories of how he would see corpses floating in the river when he walked or was driven to school. This was when the People’s Liberation Front, the JVP, were at their violent best.

But Muttiah, when confronted with a life in tatters, seeing all he built laid to waste, did not walk away. Instead, with the help of his brother, Murali’s uncle, the biscuit factory was rebuilt and now employs more than 300 people from all communities.

It was this childhood that gave Murali the sense of perspective that he has carried with him till today. It was these first-hand experiences that toughened him up like no game of cricket can. If Murali learnt something from his father, it was that, in life, some people had to go out and deliver no matter how many times they were pushed down. That for some people, proving others wrong would be a lifelong struggle.

Kumar Sangakkara, Murali’s teammate and friend, speaks of how Murali is the most supportive colleague one could hope for, and how Murali is the most dedicated sportsman he has met. But, at every opportunity he gets, Sangakkara goes further, and stresses that Murali is the greatest human being he has met.

Even today, despite being a veteran of 116 Tests, Murali is a nervous wreck before a game. From the afternoon before, he is restless and nervy, sometimes short-tempered and curt, and tries to sleep as much as he can to avoid that feeling of nervousness. On the morning of a game he can’t even eat, and when he’s waiting for play to start spends most of his time locked up in the toilets or the changerooms. And till he bowls his first ball, Murali is worried. When he sends out
that first fizzing offbreak, though, a switch is thrown somewhere in the back of his mind. The nervous energy that comes from being expected to deliver in virtually every innings he bowls, is converted into a drive to perform.

But Murali’s achievements on the field, laudable as they are, pale in comparison to the work he does off it. He, along with manager Kushil Gunasekara, established the Foundation of Goodness, a charity organisation, in the early 2000s. Unlike some cricketers, who lend their names to causes, or occasionally donate a bat or a ball to raise money through charity auctions, Murali has actually given his own money to development projects.

WHEN THE tsunami devastated Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, Murali was incensed at some of the aid efforts being made. He himself narrowly escaped death, arriving 20 minutes late at Seenigama, where he was to give away prizes at one of the charity projects he worked on. Galvanised into action, Murali got down to ensuring that aid reached people it needed to. While international agencies were bringing food in by air, there was an urgent need for transport, and Murali organised three convoys of 10 trucks each, paying for these himself, to get the food to people who needed it. He persuaded those who could to donate clothes, and supervised the delivery himself.

During the hard work of rehabilitation in the tsunami’s aftermath, cement was in short supply. Murali promptly signed an endorsement deal with Lafarge, a global cement giant, that was a straight barter, where cement would be supplied to the Foundation for Goodness in exchange for work Murali did. It’s now three years since the tsunami, and the foundation has raised more than US$ 4 million to help survivors. They’ve built homes, schools, sports facilities and computer centres and still manage these facilities.

In all this, what stood out most was Murali’s urge to feed some of the money he made back into Sri Lanka where it was needed, and his unshakeable belief in doing the right thing. If something was wrong, Murali would not stand for it, irrespective of which president or minister he would rub the wrong way.

As the only one to have got 200-plus wickets of the four Tamil Test cricketers who have played for Sri Lanka, there was always the chance that politicians would try and use Murali as a symbol. He’s stayed away, ensuring that his Tamil identity was not highlighted, and his Sri Lankan image always overruled everything else

Not long ago, when a confidanté asked Murali if it was not traumatic to repeatedly have his action questioned and be called a cheat despite being cleared by the authorities, he said: “I got no-balled, but I’m still alive.” That, in one sentence, tells you pretty much all you need to know about the little man who keeps going on and on and on.

Vasu is assistant editor, Cricinfo

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 49, Dated Dec 22, 2007

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