A man who overcame circumstances to become the greatest in his sport shares lessons on the art of winning and what it takes to make it to the top. By Rahul Pathak
Three months back, Murali had his own magic number in sight. 800.
Sub-continentals and cricket buffs require no explanation but to those not wedded to the sport, this is what it means: Murali was about to push the boundaries of his chosen field. No one in the game's 130-year history had ever taken 800 wickets, only one other person had crawled past 700 and here was Murali, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, a man born with a deformed elbow, with 792 wickets to his name. His powers were waning but he had enough cricket left in him to reach the landmark his country craved.
And what does he do? He announces that he is retiring from that form of the game and will give himself just one match to touch the milestone.
We are sitting in a Singapore hotel business centre, trying to figure out what separates greatness from a merely solid body of work in any field - sport or business - and here is Murali throwing the textbook out the window.
If you want something badly enough and if you have the talent and are willing to put in the hard work, everything will fall in place. Of course there are no guarantees. You can have your dreams and you can plan for the future but you can't control it. Still, if you want something badly enough and do your best, you will get somewhere.
Perseverance, you are guessing. Surely that's the key ingredient? Having laboured 18 years over 133 matches, having turned his arm over 44,000 times to pick up his 792 wickets, why wouldn't this man play the two or three more games it would take to get those eight wickets? A good bowler averages about four a match. Murali himself averaged six. Why risk falling short when time is on your side?
Into the pot of greatness, Murali throws in a maverick spirit and unreal self-confidence. 'I thought I would challenge myself,' he says by way of explanation.
'I needed eight wickets. I wanted to do it against the No 1 team (India). I wanted to get the best batsman in the world (Sachin Tendulkar) out. So I announced I would give myself just one match to do this and I think luck was on my side. I did it by getting the last wicket of the match and we won that match.'
The pragmatist in you can't help but ask: What if you had fallen one wicket short? Would you have played just one more match to hit 800? 'Of course not,' says Murali with some disdain. 'You can't go back on the word you gave in public.' It had never crossed his mind that he wouldn't cross the bar he set himself.
Where does this well of confidence spring from? After all, sports (indeed, life) is fickle and even the best go through spells of self-doubt when things are not going their way.
Murali's smile comes with an all-season warranty. Perhaps when you grow up as a Tamil in war-torn Kandy, it takes more than a few bad breaks to rattle you. 'A bomb would go off and the locals were used to it,' he said. 'But foreigners would get very scared.' Perhaps when your chosen vocation depends on the movement of your arms and you are born with a permanently bent elbow, it takes a certain toughness of spirit to become the best the world has ever seen. That smile sits on nerves of steel.
What Murali does for a living is to hurl a leather ball from 22-yards at a batsman who is trying to hit it out of the park.
Murali's job is to deceive him so that he either misses the ball or can't control it. He does this with a big tweak of his double-jointed wrists so that the ball leaves his hand whirring like the rotor blades of a helicopter. On landing, it darts about in unexpected directions. Sometimes the batsman wins the battle. Most times, Murali gets his man.
It's a job that requires the mind of a conman and the dedication of a Shaolin monk. Assuming that many gifted savants have passed this way, what makes Murali outshine them all?
'It's how bad you want it,' he says. 'If you want something badly enough and if you have the talent and are willing to put in the hard work, everything will fall in place. Of course there are no guarantees. You can have your dreams and you can plan for the future but you can't control it. Still, if you want something badly enough and do your best, you will get somewhere.' In his case, that has meant long, lonely hours of practice, bowling every day at a single stump, 28 inches high and 1.5 inches wide, attacking it from 22 yards with different loops and degrees of spin.
He adds one more pointer to the journey to the top of the hill.
'You also have to go about it the right way. If you take short-cuts or if you are dishonest, I think you will rise very fast but ultimately you will fall. Or fail.'
So here was Murali near the summit of his sport, turning his deformed elbow, twirling his double-jointed wrist, making the ball talk and sing and dance around miserable batsmen.
And there was this hard-eyed Australian umpire, like some square-jawed, bull-necked marshal from the old westerns who has decided to chase the varmint from his town.
Darrell Hair had a bone to pick with Murali. He was convinced that Murali's bowling action was illegal. If you bend you arm when you hurl the ball and then straighten it, it comes out faster. But Murali was not bending and straightening his elbow. It was just shaped differently.
On Boxing Day, 1995, in Melbourne, Australia, with 85,000 people watching, Murali bowled and Hair said it was illegal. He bowled again. Again Hair said it was illegal. Boos erupted from the crowd. No bowler had ever been taunted like this. No sportsman tainted so mercilessly.
Successful people know that calamity is never far away and your nemesis can always poke a leg out to trip you.
'Some people are like that and there is nothing you can do about it,' says Murali. 'So the first thing you have to ask yourself is: Am I doing the right thing? If you are, you have nothing to fear. This is true of business and sport and any walk of life.
'After that, you must treat such people as mere obstacles that you have to overcome. You can't let them overpower you.'
With the help of a doctor and a friend, Murali had a brace of plaster and steel splints manufactured. When he wore it around his arm, it was impossible to either bend or straighten the limb. Then, with TV cameras trained on him from every angle, he proceeded to bowl his entire repertoire, spinning the ball viciously and proving once and for all that his action was perfectly legal.
'Cross my heart, you cannot bend this!' gushed the TV compere. With that, the controversy was on its way to being buried.
And what of his nemesis, Mr Hair? 'Once it is done, you just do your own thing and forget about such people,' said Murali.
Your own luck
There is one final ingredient to the greatness recipe. It is the cards that you are dealt, the fates you cannot control.
Murali's approach to this is largely one of acceptance. When his country was torn by civil war and politicians of every hue called on him to take sides, he - his country's greatest ever sportsman - determinedly stayed above the fray.
'I am both a Tamil and a Sri Lankan,' he says simply. 'That is my identity. That is how I was born. You cannot make me choose. One is my race and the other is my country and I am proud to belong to both.'
And so it was on another Boxing Day, Dec 26, 2004, that he was driving down towards a coastal part of his country to distribute books to school children when he saw crowds running in the opposite direction. 'I thought it was a riot or a fight or something,' he says. 'In Sri Lanka we keep having small riots. But these people said to me in Sinhala that the sea had come onto the land. I asked 'how can the sea come to the land?' and turned around.'
Only after the waters had receded did tsunami become a part of the Sri Lankan lexicon and resettling its victims became Murali's burning passion. He doesn't talk much about it except to point out that had his car reached the coast 15 minutes earlier, he could have been washed away as well.
His celebrity didn't make him waterproof but it gave him the tools to help others. Between cricket matches, he founded a charity and supported orphanages in Colombo. On discovering that it was a child's second birthday, he took all 100 children to a water park. On the week of his wedding he was at a devastated fishing village, donating new homes.
You can't change luck, he believes. But you can deal with its fallout.
As he lands at Changi airport, he is mobbed by a group of Sri Lankans. At his hotel, some South Africans come, seeking autographs. Next day, he is unveiled as the brand ambassador for QNet's range of lifestyle and wellness products.
'Why Murali for QNet? Because, Murali is real. He is a man who has refused to succumb to the circumstances of his surroundings, from whence he came and where he is. But rather has chosen to surpass them,' says says Vijay Eswaran, executive chairman of the QI Group, whose flagship subsidiary QNet has embraced Murali.
Meanwhile, Murali is coaching children and dispensing another little tip to garnish his recipe. 'If you want to be great, don't try to be me,' he says. 'Be yourself.'
Major teams Sri Lanka; Chennai Super Kings; Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club
International debut 1992 against Australia
Number of Test Match wickets800 (world record, next highest is Australia's Shane Warne with 708)
Number of One-Day International wickets515 (world record, next-highest is Pakistan's Wasim Akram with 502)
Ambassador United Nations World Food Programme
Founder Foundation for Goodness charity; raised US$4 million for tsunami survivors; signed bater endorsement deal with cement giant Lafarge in return for cement supply for relief work
ON the brink of immortality, Muttiah Muralitharan gambled. Not because he needed to, but for the thrill of it. Much like Bill Gates and banking professionals, sportsmen, too, understand the magic of numbers. Numbers are a shorthand for achievement. They are arbiters of argument. Say what you will about the wizardry of Seve Ballesteros, but Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors will clinch the debate. Federer's 16 singles grand slam titles put Nadal in the shade and Usain Bolt's 100-metre sprint in 9.58 seconds is persuasive as a judge's gavel. The US$53 billion and loose change that William Henry Gates III can rattle around his pocket rings truer than protestations of Steve Jobs' genius.