Muttiah Muralitharan: Master of all he surveys

WITH a final toss of the ball, skip to the wicket and frenetic flurry of shoulder, arm and body, Muttiah Muralitharan completed India's second innings and his own Test career. It was a fitting end.

The Test match was won on his favourite ground in Galle, it was his 800th Test wicket and he celebrated the victory much more than his own achievement. It has always been his way.

The Tamil from Kandy with the deformed elbow and incredibly flexible wrist has always been a team man. It has been why so many in cricket are so fond of him and why there was such distaste at the witch hunt at the start of the last decade that threatened to have him banned from the game he so clearly loves and has served so well.

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So first the controversy. Often it looks as if he is throwing the ball although it was the doosra, the leg spinner with an off-spin action, that looked suspicious much more than his conventional off-spinner. In an appalling episode of sporting McCarthyism, a series of narrow-minded Australian umpires called no-balls against him for chucking, one extraordinarily from the bowler's end.

They tried to drive him from the game but he refused to wilt under the pressure. Instead he willingly underwent a trial by television where his arm was placed in a fixed cast, sensors were attached and he bowled a series of deliveries. The result was he bent his arm a little but importantly so did every bowler.

Indeed those sanctimonious Australian umpires should have called some of their own because the ICC had to review their policy on throwing to allow up to 15 degrees of bend and flex in the bowling arm. This was not just for Murali as Glenn McGrath was shown to sometimes have flex of 12 degrees and seamers flex a lot more when bowling a bouncer.

No, Murali was cleared and rightly so and cricket was the beneficiary.

But much more than his achievements and the records he holds as highest Test wicket-taker, most five-wicket innings, most ten-wicket matches and so on, it is his character that demands the plaudits.

He has never been involved in disciplinary action for poor behaviour on the pitch or off it. When the tsunami and floods devastated Galle and destroyed the cricket ground, he, with the other spinning superstar Shane Warne, immediately provided funds and help to the region.

It is this generosity of spirit and wealth that marks him as special. Famously during a Test match against England in Sri Lanka, he misplaced his bat. It seemed only natural for his Lancashire team-mate, Andrew Flintoff, to lend him his. Nasser Hussain bristled at it but the fact it happened speaks volumes for Murali.

And another county colleague, Rob Key from Kent, relishes recounting stories of Murali's generosity.

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During dinner a few years ago at the end of the county season, Key's wife, Fleur, said she'd love to visit Sri Lanka one day. A passing comment, conversational titbits which are the staple of many dinner conversations. Murali, however, was delighted as he is so proud of his country and for the next few weeks he hectored Key to book flights. Even after he had returned home he e-mailed asking when they were arriving.

"I couldn't get the flights we needed," explained Key, "so I kept e-mailing Murali to say we couldn't make it for the dates he could be there so thanks for the offer and all that.

"This happened over about three weeks and then he phoned me up, told me the tickets would be at the airport desk and that he'd sorted it out by phoning the airline in Sri Lanka direct and getting a manager to sort it out. We turned up and he was there at the airport to meet us, whisked us to a fantastic hotel and introduced us to absolutely everyone from the manager to the waiters. It was amazing, they loved him and looked after us as if we were royalty. Then after two days he turned up again and took us to a superb resort a few hours away and the same happened there, everyone was all over him and he knew them all. The whole trip was like that, best holiday I've had.

"I'd only known him a few weeks but that's the kind of man he is. We didn't spend a penny, we couldn't, and he gave us so much time."

The interesting thing is many have similar stories about him.

To the public, Murali will be remembered as the spinning dervish with wide eyes and a sheepish grin. A record breaker, world cup winner and thrilling entertainer.

To his friends, and they are legion, he is simply a great man.

He has beguiled and beaten but also been subjected to terrible stress and been publicly savaged. The wonderful thing is he has accepted both with charm and genuine smiles.

That's why he is a champion; the 800 wickets are just a milestone supporting it.

Test Matches Cricket

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