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by Dinesh Weerawansa

 


Murali who I knew

In the late 80s I took particular interest in going to the Air Force grounds at Katunayake to witness a school cricket match. Making use of my Saturday off day, I peddled all the way to Katunayake from my hometown of Negombo.

It was a less important inter-school game between Maris Stella College, Negombo and St.Anthony’s College, Katugastota. But I had a person to meet, of course without an appointment. He was a young cricketer who was a member of that St. Anthony’s side.

Having joined the ‘Daily News’ as a cub reporter, I was in-charge of school cricket since 1987. I occupied the entire inner back page of Tuesday’s paper with my school cricket review, which was sub editored by my dear friend, the late Marianne Decker.

There was an Antonian cricketer who had been going great guns but even the sports reporters did not know the exact way he spells his name. The intention of my ride to Katunayake was to meet the emerging schoolboy cricketer and find how he spells his name and pronounces it.

His first name was spelt it different ways in different newspapers - Some called him Muttiya, Muttiyah, Muttiah, Muttiyaa or Mutiaya. When it came to his surname, it was still worse - Muralidharan, Muralidharam, Murralitharan, Muralitharan or even Muralitharam. On that particular evening after the match, I met this young schoolboy to find out the correct spelling.

Ever since, I used that correct spelling in all my school cricket write-ups. It was this young schoolboy who has now become a household name in Test cricket.

He is the man who accounts for the world record for most number of Test wickets - Muttiah Muralitharan.

Muralitharan showed the makings of a world beater right from his early days as a schoolboy cricket. On two successive inter-school seasons, he aggregated over 100 wickets each.

Incidentally, it was in his hometown city of Kandy (Asgiriya Stadium) that Muralitharan got both his first and the world record 709th wickets in Test cricket.

On the opening day of his first Test against Australia on August 28, 1992, Muralitharan trapped tail ender Craig McDermott leg before wicket for nine runs to finish with 1 for 32. He was too expensive in the Australian second innings to capture two for 109.

That was the humble beginning of this simple cricketer who has achieved great things a bowler could ever dream in Test cricket. True his vicious off breaks brings nothing but misery to any world class batsman but his simple and honest smile has won hearts of millions of people world over.

He is definitely a match winner and asset to any captain. But it was Sri Lanka’s world cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga who firmly backed Muralitharan when the bowler’s career was in danger.

When Australian umpire Ross Emerson called Muralitharan for throwing in that infamous 1999 Boxing Day Test at the MCG, it was Ranatunga who stood firmly behind Muralitharan like a tower of strength.

Of course, captain cool lost his cool on that particular day to see that justice was meted out to a deserving cricketer. It was not a moment to think about the code of conduct or ethics but to fight against gross injustice. If not for Ranatunga’s fearless decision in Melbourne, Muralitharan would not have gone this far.

Muralitharan’s road to success is a great example to all. Even after that bitter experience at the MCG in 1999, Muralitharan had to face many other obstacles. He even had to face stinging remarks from his opponents. Some opposing teams and section of media were engaged in a sinister move casting remarks and made life uneasy for this great cricketer.

Eventually, Muralitharan had to undergo many biomechanic tests to prove his action is legal. Even then, there were a few extremist characters such as Bishan Bedi who constantly cast ugly remarks on Muralitharan.

Yet, Murali’s courage and determination emerged victorious at the end as he went past Australian Shane Warne’s world mark of 708 at Asgiriya Stadium last Monday.

It was nice to see President Mahinda Rajapaksa backing the Lankan world record holder. The President telephoned Muralitharan to congratulate and share the joy. Fire crackers were lit at Temple Trees and many places all over the country. Milk rice was prepared as the Presidential officials too celebrated Muralitharan’s great milestone.

President Rajapaksa commended the determination, courage and fighting qualities of Muralitharan. While congratulating Muralitharan on his great achievement, President Rajapaksa wished him all success to take Sri Lanka cricket to greater heights.

“You have done wonders to mark Sri Lanka prominently on the world sports map. “While congratulating you on this great achievement, I wish you all success in future matches,” the President said in a congratulatory message.

Minister of Posts Rauff Hakeem travelled all the way to Asgiriya to take part in the issue of the first day cover as the Government issued a cricket ball-shaped special commemorative stamp to mark the historic occasion. That was a fitting tribute to a champion bowler.

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