Following the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the ICC reinstated South Africa as a full Test nation in 1991.
South Africa played its first official international game since 1970 against India on November 10, 1991 - a one-day international won by India by 3 wickets. The enormous Eden Gardens cricket ground in Calcutta drew a capacity crowd for the historic occasion, later claimed by many to have broken the record for the largest crowd at a cricket match, of 90,800. Jagmohan Dalmiya, then president of the Cricket Association of Bengal, however pointed out that there were only 90,452 seats in the ground. Although the South African players seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, the presence of fast bowler Allan Donald, nicknamed "White Lightning" and rumoured to be the fastest bowler in the world based solely on reports coming out of the South African domestic competitions, lent immediate respectability to their attack as he produced figures of 5/29 in 8.4 overs.
South Africa's first Test match after reinstatement was a one off Test against the West Indies, played on 18, 19, 20, 22, 23 April, 1992. The West Indies won by 52 runs. South Africa's cricketing skills had slipped a little during their period of isolation, but they were soon to prove they were a strong team.
Unusually for a new Test nation, Zimbabwe's team contained a player who had played Test cricket before. John Traicos had made his debut in South Africa's last series before it was banned in 1970. He then moved to Rhodesia, which eventually became Zimbabwe and was admitted as a Test nation. Now 45 years old, Traicos was still Zimbabwe's best off spinner and an athletic fielder. He played four more Tests after a gap in his career of 22 years and 222 days - a record that still stands.
Following the game there was immediate scrutiny and comment on Muralitharan's arm action as he bowled. To some commentators, it looked as though his arm was straightening as he bowled - a violation of the rule against throwing. The response from Muralitharan and the Sri Lankan board was that he had a congenital deformity of his right arm, which meant he was physically incapable of straightening the elbow to a normal extension. Thus his arm was perpetually slightly bent, resulting in an obvious difference from other bowlers and the illusion that he must be straightening the arm during the bowling motion.
Talk about Murali's bowling action became a topic for fan discussion and debate over the next three years as he became an integral part of Sri Lanka's team and drove his Test average down to 30.
In 1994-95, Sri Lanka toured New Zealand, winning a two-Test series 1-0. But match referee Barry Jarman had doubts about Murali's bowling action serious enough to order a slow motion video tape made for closer scrutiny. He forwarded the tape, with his concerns, to the ICC, who in turn called in the BCCSL to look at it. In what some might call a clear conflict of interest, the BCCSL chairman of selectors and cricket manager viewed the tape, together with a senior umpire of the ICC international panel. The group concluded there was nothing untoward about Murali's action. In releasing this news, the ICC included in its statement the fact that they had previously received reports from three international umpires and two other match referees about Murali's action - which came as a surprise to everyone. If so many officials were making such reports, why wasn't anything being done? The ICC released a statement signed by chairman Sir Clyde Walcott and chief executive David Richards, expressing "misgivings" about Murali's action. But they went no further, and Murali continued to bowl.
Later the same year, in the 1995-96 season, Sri Lanka toured Australia for a three-Test series. The Australian media played up the doubts now surrounding Murali's bowling action, amidst charges of persecution by Sri Lankan media. The first Test, marked by Shane Warne's 200th wicket as Australia crushed Sri Lanka by an innings and 36 runs, saw controversy in a different form, however. On day two, umpire Khizar Hayat examined the ball with which Murali was bowling, and noted that it seemed to have been tampered with, presumably in an illegal manner. He showed the ball to fellow umpire Peter Parker, and warned Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga that any further tampering would be met with appropriate action. Then followed an extraordinary lapse by the umpires, in which they returned the ball to Sri Lanka to continue using, in violation of Law 42.3 The match ball – changing its condition, which clearly states the ball must be replaced immediately. Given several more overs of bowling, this effectively erased any physical evidence of any tampering.
This astoundingly bad umpiring was lambasted by the Sri Lankan media as an obvious witch hunt, attempting to do anything and everything possible to disrupt Muralitharan and the Sri Lankan team. The direct charge of bias and cheating by the umpires may not have been made, but the implication was there.
The second Test was the traditional Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Sri Lanka put Australia in to bat. When Muralitharan began bowling in the session after lunch, umpire Darrell Hair called a no ball. Every cricket fan around the world who was following the game held their breath. As Hair explained to an increasingly agitated Ranatunga, the call was for an illegal bowling action. Murali continued bowling and was called six more times by Hair, amidst growing confusion and chaos. In a desperate move, Ranatunga instructued Murali to bowl from the other end, where New Zealand umpire Steve Dunne allowed him to bowl without calling him.
The media exploded. Many considered Muralitharan's career over, as the stigma of being branded a "chucker" would haunt him as it had Ian Meckiff 32 years earlier. The Sri Lankan board however, had other ideas. Labelling Hair a racist who had deliberately victimised Murali, they urged the Australian Cricket Board to sack him as an umpire. Amidst growing argument over whether Hair had done the right thing or not, the ACB relented slightly, and removed Hair from umpiring duties in any other Sri Lankan matches that summer.
The central point of the argument was whether Hair had acted properly by calling Murali, or if he should have submitted a post-match report to the ICC instead. Law 24.2 Fair delivery – the arm clearly states that if in the opinion of umpire the ball has been thrown, the umpire shall call "no ball". And yet many people insisted Hair had no right to call Murali, and had made one of the most grievous errors in cricket history. The fact that Hair was then effectively punished for applying the written laws of the game led to an increasingly complicated situation with regard to the throwing law. In not so many words, umpires had been told that upholding the throwing law on the field was cause for possible punishment.
Ten days later, on 5 January, 1996, Sri Lanka played the West Indies in the 7th ODI of the triangular World Series competition, in Brisbane. Umpire Ross Emerson was making his international debut, with Tony McQuillan. They both no-balled Muralitharan for throwing, twice and three times. Murali bowled only three overs before being removed from the attack by captain Ranatunga. When Sri Lanka lined up to play the third Test beginning on 25 January, Muralitharan was no longer in the team.
In an attempt to settle the controversy, the ICC ordered Muralitharan to undergo biomechanical studies under the eye of human movement expert Professor Bruce Elliott at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and at the University of Hong Kong. These studies concluded that Murali's bowling was legitimate. His congenitally malformed right elbow and the subsequent inability to extend the joint fully produced an optical illusion that the arm was straightening during delivery. Perhaps that should have been the end of it, but doubts lingered, particularly in Australia.
Sri Lanka returned to Australia in 1998-99 for the triangular ODI series with England. Once again, the Australian media rehashed all the old issues about Murali's bowling action. However, with the biomechanical studies having concluded his action was legitimate, and having bowled in the mean time in Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa, and England without incident, nobody expected the storm that was to follow.
Sri Lanka played England in Adelaide on 8 January, 1999, in the 8th ODI of the series. Ross Emerson was umpiring with Tony McQuillan again. In the 18th over, Emerson, standing at square leg, no-balled Muralitharan. He indicated that it was for throwing, and chaos erupted. Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga confronted Emerson and a heated argument broke out. Ranatunga then summoned his team and led them off the ground. At the boundary, he called for his team management, who appeared on the field, followed by match referee Peter van de Merwe. They were joined by the two umpires. Amidst much arguing, it appeared that Ranatunga would walk off and concede the match. Someone produced a mobile phone and Ranatunga called the BCCSL in Sri Lanka. Whatever was discussed, it seemed to calm Ranatunga, who finally led his team back on to the field to continue play after a delay of 14 minutes.
Murali bowled two more balls to complete the over, without incident, and then Ranatunga swapped him to the other end. With Emerson at the bowler's end, Ranatunga asked him to stand up closer to the stumps - an allowable request to make room for the bowler's run up, but possibly also designed to keep Murali's arm action out of Emerson's line of sight. Murali finished seven overs without being called again.
The media had another field day, alternately condemning Emerson for single-handedly defying the ICC findings that ruled Murali's action legal, and praising him for enforcing the Laws of Cricket on the field when management refused to do so off it. At issue was more than the legality of Murali's technique, but the very role of the umpire in the game of cricket. Was an umpire now nothing more than someone paid to watch the game, and unable to enforce the laws of the game without fear of ridicule and punishment? What was really needed was a review of the procedures for handling suspicions of throwing and support for umpires who made decisions according to the laws. On this point, the ICC failed badly.
What they did was to order another study of Muralitharan's bowling action. Murali underwent more testing at the University of Western Australia, and also in England. Again the studies concluded that his action was legal and the appearance of straightening the arm was an optical illusion produced by his permanently bent elbow. This raised the ire in Sri Lanka even more, as they felt Murali had been vindicated twice, and yet was still persecuted. The only logical conclusion they could come to was that this was indeed a racist witch hunt.
In April 1999, Muralitharan and his captain Ranatunga were named two of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year.
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