Muttiah Muralitharan, who has just passed 700 Test wickets to draw close to Shane Warne's world record haul, is doomed to be pursued by the allegation that he doesn't play fair: that, in short, he is a chucker. As the photo to the left demonstrates, it is quite easy to see why people think so. Watching with the naked eye it seems absolutely blatant, bent elbow, fizzy action, ludicrous turn: QED.
I certainly thought so. I bowl off spin myself, albeit at a less elevated level and have always thought it impossible to get as much turn as he does from mere finger spin. But Murali's tweak comes from the wrist action - as can be seen from the photo. Monty Panesar, on the other hand, bowls with a classic finger spinner's action, gaining turn from the revolutions he puts on the ball - helped by massive hands and long fingers. I saw Murali bowl in a full arm cast - designed to prevent any straightening of the arm at all, and it still looked as if he were throwing it, evidence surely that he isn't.
So what is he doing, and how does he get so much god-damned turn? The answer, I believe, is that he has a bent arm. This doesn't mean he throw it, which would require him to straighten the arm, but it still gives him a definite advantage. This is because you can put your wrist through a greater degree of twist with a bent elbow than with a straight elbow. Combined with his double-jointed wrist, Murali can put as much work on a ball as could Warne with his wrist spin.
With a traditional off-spinner like Robert Croft (left), the wrist can only turn about 90 degrees as the fingers rip across the seam. Murali, with hyper-extended elbow and double-jointed wrist, can put his wrist through more than twice that, at speed, imparting far more revolutions onto the ball, making it turn more and dip through the air. So Murali does
have an unfair advantage - it's just not an illegal one. It doesn't hurt that he plays so much against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe either, but that's another story.