Thursday, January 13, 2005

Murali's redemption

If anyone doubted that sport really can be a power for good, they should have had their doubts cast aside by watching the tsunami appeal charity cricket match on Monday. Hastily arranged, yet still raising £6million, and getting an audience in the ground of 70,000, the game was a great exponent of just how fun sport can actually be.

I'm not in favour of regular exhibition matches. For me, half the fun of sport comes in intense competition. However, when exhibition matches are played in the right spirit, and not just as an unnecessary money-spinner, then they are fantastic to watch. I remember a Barbarians match a few years ago against South Africa - a great example of running rugby and really enjoyable to boot. It is just a shame that the Barbarians have failed to make a niche in the new era of professional rugby and look likely to fall by the wayside.

The Tsunami Appeal match, however, was fun because of what it symbolised. The cricket world is often riven with divides, and all too often those are racial ones. You can often tell what is going on in the India-Pakistan conflict just by looking at how regularly the two countries square off against each other outside of international competitions; this time, their players were side by side in an "Asian XI"

And the game was fun, too. Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara gave some sublime displays of batting; promises to donate Aus$100,000 for every six had to be capped after five were taken off one over alone. Glenn McGrath, the stereotypical 'bunny' was promoted to number 6 to give him a chance to prove he could bat - one ball later he was back in the pavillion.

But the best story of the day was one of redemption. Muttiah Muralitharan is probably the most controversial bowler of all time - taking chuckloads of wickets, but with fairly strong accusations that those chuckloads were illegally chucked. Australia was the major base of these allegations; Murali had been no-balled there several times, and even the Prime Minister had waded in on the debate. As a consequence, Murali refused to tour Australia, denying millions of cricket fans the chance to see the two greatest spinners of all time, Warne and Muralitharan, going head to head.

And yet, when Murali came on to bowl in the Tsunami Appeal match, he received the loudest cheer of the entire day. Hopefully this will result in him agreeing to tour Australia in the future. But the day showed that sport, as much as it has caused divisions, really does have the power to bring people together. And that is something I hope continues for a long time yet.