Colombo, Identity, Sport

THE POLITICAL LESSONS OF THE SMILING ASSASSIN: MURALI, CRICKET AND SRI LANKAN IDENTITY

Photo credit: Associated Press, published in Sydney Morning Herald

Savouring the richly deserved cascades of press coverage last week of Muttiah Muralidaran’s retirement from Test cricket on the magnificent record of 800 wickets, it is difficult to resist a surge of heart-warming patriotism. It was not only the doosra-like sequence of events in the last day of the Galle Test against India – wholly implausible had it been a fictional plot – that precipitated this onrush of Sri Lankan pride in your columnist. For once, international media coverage was depicting Sri Lanka, due to the achievement of a man who epitomises the best in it, as it always should be: for world-conquering talent, effervescent spirit, generosity and humility in public, ebullient camaraderie in private, and unflappable good manners throughout.

In the field of Test cricket, we shall never experience again that delightful frisson of pregnant expectation in the images of Murali’s impish smile and devious, quizzical glances, disconcerting last minute field adjustments followed by devilish deliveries, nor the anarchic pleasures of his agricultural cameos with the bat. To be sure, we shall continue to see him in the shorter version, and also perhaps in that ultimate expression of vulgar populism in cricket, Twenty-20. But Test cricket is how cricket should be played, and it is the template that enabled the dazzling displays of stratagem and stamina, attack and attrition, subterfuge and intelligence that characterised his spin bowling.

The brilliant and controversial career of Muttiah Muralidaran has from the outset been underlined by an intensely political theme of identity. In the international contretemps over his bowling action, an argument that was frequently advanced by his supporters was the political one of latent racial prejudice; or in its more refined variation, that a Western individualist ideological bias informed the interpretation of the imprecisely drafted Law 24:2, which resulted in manifest injustice in Murali’s case. This was notwithstanding the fact that Murali’s most abiding (and graceless) detractor is Bishan Singh Bedi, an Indian, and one of his most ardent defenders has been the Englishman Peter Roebuck (Millfield, Cambridge, Somerset and England), who seems to exemplify the values of positivist liberal individualism given his Cambridge law degree (and that too, given his erstwhile advocacy of corporal punishment, of a veritably Edwardian variety).

The trauma of the chucking controversy was tangible, especially in Australia, where even Prime Minister John Howard joined the lynch mob with ill-informed comments patently designed for political mileage. He has since been suitably chastened, with his ambitions for ICC office peremptorily curbed.

Despite this, Murali underwent strenuous biomechanical tests which demonstrated the appearance of throwing as an optical illusion caused by a congenital deformity of his elbow. Perhaps as satisfyingly, this also showed that many other bowlers whose action had never been questioned were in fact bowling illegal deliveries, which led to a reform of the rules. The accomplishment of this ‘game-changer’ in the rules, in turn, has generated another kind of prejudice argument, viz., that if he were a white player, he would not have benefitted from such solicitous sympathy, or at least the fear of allegations of racism and neo-colonialism from Asian and African cricketing establishments, as to have had the rules changed. It would all have been, in Bedi’s words, a case of ‘tough luck.’ I think we were all rather lucky, if only for the sheer pleasure and entertainment Murali subsequently provided, that counsel saner than Bedi’s prevailed.

However, it is the symbolism of Murali being the first Indian Tamil in the Sri Lankan side that is of the much greater import in the politics of pluralism within the country. Of immediate cause for gratification is that he has ruled out a post-cricket political career, an irritating sub-continental tradition, and perhaps in this he drew a salutary lesson from the hero-to-zero metamorphosis of his fellow icon, Sanath Jayasuriya, if not from his former captain, the Schmittian Arjuna Ranatunga. To the extent he has made any public comments of a political nature, Murali has been at pains to make them as colourlessly unobjectionable as possible. That may be because he is uninterested in politics, but it may also be that he has the innate sense of pragmatism and survival that ethnic minorities develop in some types of majoritarian society, instilled through the baptism of fire his family experienced in the race riots of 1977. I suspect it is the latter. When a colleague of mine approached Murali to do a television spot in the 2008 campaign to commemorate the twenty fifth anniversary of Black July 1983, he declined, with disarming frankness, on the ground that his involvement would be perceived by the government as the espousal of an unacceptable political viewpoint, which would in turn harm his cricketing career.

It is this virtue of public ethnic neutrality that has made Murali a poster-boy for a widespread notion of ethnic harmony and general wellbeing, as some of the embarrassingly inept, if well-intentioned, commentary in the local press has shown over the years. The basic idea here is to interpolate from Muralidaran’s success in a national sporting endeavour, and his universal popularity among all Sri Lankans, a certain model of national identity as well as national success. If the minorities plight their troth with the majority as unequivocally as Murali seems to have done, the argument goes, what is there to stop us achieving great things, as we have shown the world in the field of cricket?

Without a doubt, in societies such as ours, the representation of diversity in national sporting teams is of enormous symbolic value. But to stretch the analogy too far is not only absurd, but also dangerous, for a cricket team is neither a country nor a democracy. The presence of Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers, and Hindus, Muslims and Christians together with Sinhalese and Buddhists in the national cricket team is a welcome symptom of the potential for inclusiveness and pluralism we retain in our society despite generations of discord and conflict, but it cannot serve as a model of national identity and statehood. It is as ridiculous as arguing that our cross-communal enthusiasm for arrack and baila, or love of political melodrama – between Thileepan and Weerawansa, demonstrably a shared weakness – can be contrived somehow into a basis of ethnic cohesion.

It should also be remembered that for those in the chauvinistic end of the political spectrum who subscribe to this model of unity in diversity, Murali’s apolitical tact in public utterances as a professional cricketer also denotes exactly how a Tamil should behave: recognised and even venerated for his talent, as long as he knows his place within the firmament and desists from making impertinent and awkward claims. That is, after all, the conclusion to be drawn from the mentoring relationship with Arjuna Ranatunga that gained so much for Murali in his formative years on the national side.

For the moment though, it is perhaps far more agreeable to just indulge in a bit of forgivable nostalgia on that footage from The Oval in August 1998 when Muttiah Muralidaran arrived upon the world stage, taking sixteen England wickets in the match (seven of them on the last day), and raise a glass to The Smiling Assassin, not only for the immeasurable joy he gave us for eighteen years, but also for the fact that, as the London Sunday Telegraph pointed out, throughout the vicissitudes of his career he ‘has always shown himself a pukka gent.’

  • Ranjith

    Some of us maintain that Muralitharan is a chucker and that he has no place in the Sri Lankan cricket team. We seem to be in a minority though, but if truth by told the SL cricket team let itself down when it decided to let a man who cheats continue on his merry way. I think that the fact that he is a Tamil played a role in cementing his position in the team, despite his illegal deliveries. Murali will always have a question mark over his career.

  • Travelling Academic

    Very nice piece, thanks. I watched the 800 from a Kandy restaurant, and you capture the reactions of the waiters and my own thoughts very well. I did think about “minority guy knowing his place” and, perhaps more coincidentally, about the “Thileepan-Weerawansa, united in weakness” point you make. (Deviating from that point, of these puppets, the former was given just one chance at fast until death by his master while the latter has vowed to FUD as many times it takes — great fun Sri Lanka is.)

  • mvm

    what a beautifully written analysis and tribute. I wish the writer Publius–would have used hsi name as his by line so that we can track his other writings and relish the pleasure of reading.

  • chandran-kandy

    Yes, Sir, this is my humble letter simply written by Murali’s stotry.If any errors in this comment please forgive me. I firmly think that here-in-after in Sri-kanka’s history no any single person like Murali will join Sri-Lankan Cricket Team.Such a good player.Always co-operate with his colleagues.This is his ability and moral quality.Smiling face.He sacrificed half of his life into cricket. In his very young age Murali has made a journey to lots of countries in the part of world.And played good cricket.Not only Murali was a world class bowler but also fielding-wise even batting too occasionally he has done lot to his Sri-Lankan team. Born in Kandy.He started his education at St.Anthony’s college -Katugastota-kandy.I know Murali well. And met him several times.Same time I know very well his father too.He is a famous business man in Kandy.Their main business is making sweets.especially, Biscuits.cakes.etc.They run the main in the name of Lucky-Land Biscuit company which is situated at Natathrampotha-Kany.Murali’s native place.So, well done Murali-You deserved well. And lived a worthy life.Thanks.From chandran Kandy.

  • This is to Ranjith..
    Dead right it is a minority, Sri Lankans who think Murali is a chuker. I guess the number is only one and that is you.

    You can think what ever you want but take some trouble to look at evidence before you speak. It is overwhelming to prove that he is not a chuker, at least willingly. Almost all the bowlers in the world chuck the ball at some point according to the expert panel appointed at that time if you consider the 15 degree cut off point. Of course Murali is only one of them not an exeption for that matter. CHUKER OR NOT HE IS NOT A CHEATER.

    He is being playing in the team upto now soley on the merits of his efficiency, not because of political reasons as you have suggested.Did you know he was almost dropped for the Asia cup due to under performence which hurt him badley.

    Think before you talk friend !

  • Gunaratna

    Ranjith, People like you are shame to share a sinhalese name. [Edited out] . Murali is a great Sri Lankan and one of the greatest cricketers. He deserves his place in world cricket. I salute to that great Sri lankan

  • mvm, other writings by Publius, exclusive to Groundviews, can be easily accessed here – http://www.groundviews.org/author/publius

  • chandran-kandy

    From chandran to Ranjith Yes….. are you a Sri-Lankan? It is regrettable. during Murali’s period Who was suceesful bowler? Who has taken more wicket? whether Murali was a shukker or not,the whole World recognized him and praised Murali that he was a brilliant bowler. Are you agree with me Ranjith? Because of whom Sri_lanka has got reputation in our cricket team.Hello who reached 800 wickets in the world history.Is this not a world records? Do you know Murali’s record has gone to cricket record book.You can’t ever delete this record in the record book. Ranjith you as a Sri-lankan you should be proud of him.Don’t blame such a legendary person in our cricket world.

  • sinhala_voice

    WELL DONE Murali and may you bring lot more service to cricket in Sri Lanka.

    Murali had a very unique bowling action which the orthodox cricket administrators loved to hate. THat is why he was called for throwing.

    He bowled off spin with a wristy action which allowed him also to bowl the ball that went the other way (leg spin)

    Well done I hope you will contribute to Sri Lankan cricket especially cricket in the Northern and Eastern province where the majority are Tamil and would make a good role model for youngsters of all ethnic groups about dedication and hard work which are universal qualities.

    We should also acknowledge Arjuna Ranatunga’s brave stand on behalf of Murali at the MCG. If he (arjuna) did not make a big issue and took Murali off that would have been the end of his (Murali’s )career.

    Ranatunga’s action brought the whole question of throwing into the scientific domain and showed that ALL bowlers bend their arm when delivering the ball to some extent and that there needs to be a proper study in to throwing.

    Once again Murali well done.

  • nakkeeran

    Sir
    It is so degrading to everyone who tries to reopen a question which was well settled by all means that the bowling of Murali was perfectly legal. Whether Murali intended or not he has now become an icon in cricket all over the world. This brings Sri Lanka to the eyes of the world. Murali is a rock. Anyone who thinks that they can dent him is hitting their head on a rock. Rock never dent but…head.,……. That is the truth.

  • azath

    Murali,
    All the best, I miss you in the middle of test cricket. I used to watch the test matches to only to see how murali kills his opponents. He is simply a “bad dream” for all bats man. he would have passed 1000 wickets if all the legitimate “appeals” are considered, or If he were played for a country like Australia or England. unfortunately, he was in Sri Lanka. One main reason for Indians to refuse the revive system is murali factor that happened a few yrs ago.

    All batsman in the middle practice how murali balls but he killed them mercilessly.

    He proved us that he is not spent force but gallantly taken the decision may be for his personal reason but I lost the interest in middle overs.

  • What happens if Murali decides to run for Presi Dunce in the future? Will he be hounded and imprisoned like General Fonseka? I guess we will know in 6 years time!