Stand-off ... Darrell Hair and Muttiah Muralitharan. Photo: Jack Atley
Soon after lunch on Boxing Day of 1995, Chandika Hathurusinghe was fielding at square leg at the MCG when New Zealand umpire Steve Dunne posed him a question.
''He asked me, 'What do you think of Murali's action?' I said, 'What about it?' He said that Darrell thinks that he is chucking and he wants me to call. I said, 'It's not my opinion that is important, what do you think?' He said, 'I don't think he is chucking so, I'm not going to call.' … After that conversation, Darrell called from the head umpire's position.''
At that moment, when Australian umpire Darrell Hair called Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing on Boxing Day in front of 55,000 people in Melbourne, the cricket world changed. Seventeen years later, as Sri Lanka returns to the MCG for a Test for the first time since, neither Muralitharan nor Hair want to revisit the incident or its fallout.
But Hathurusinghe, now the interim coach of NSW, and Dunne, who has retired, have recalled the explosive aftermath of their quiet conversation at square leg. Hathurusinghe remembers Murali's shock and the team's anger.
''I was Murali's first captain in first-class cricket. I knew him from a young age,'' he says. ''Murali was upset and he didn't know what was going to happen. We were together for dinner as a team and he was a shattered young man. He was confident he was not throwing, but he didn't know what to do. We wanted to reassure him and take his mind off that and not talk much about it.''
He recalls, too, the tension between the Australian and Sri Lankan teams. ''The third Test match was in Adelaide and there was some heated argument, one of the players kicked our door on their way back to the dressing room.'' Still, a handful of Australians, Mark Taylor and David Boon among them, visited the Sri Lankan dressing room at game's end ''for a beer or two''. It was a gesture of goodwill, which went unreturned by Sri Lanka's combative captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who directed his players not to shake hands with the Australians after the subsequent one-day series in Sydney.
One of the central figures in the drama, Hair, refused to discuss the issue when contacted by Fairfax Media, saying he had nothing to add to what he had written in his books.
''I'm not interested … that was a long time ago and I've moved on,'' says Hair, who is no longer involved in cricket and works as the manager of the St George Police Citizens Youth Club.
But Dunne can still remember the game ''like it was yesterday''.
He had been looking forward to officiating in a marquee fixture such as the Boxing Day Test but he did not imagine how significant the game would become. ''The whole world remembers,'' says Dunne, 69.
While the Sri Lankans had suspicions Hair would call Muralitharan for chucking, Dunne was not expecting it. ''I didn't know he was going to do it and I hope it wasn't predetermined,'' he says.
Even when Hair stretched his right arm out, Dunne thought it was for overstepping the crease.
''I can assure you that was exactly what I thought initially, until Darrell came over and said it wasn't a foot fault,'' he says. ''That's when the penny dropped. It came out of the blue. It became electric after that.''
Dunne had a moral dilemma to address and little time to make up his mind. ''Do I just blindly support Darrell or do I do what I believe?
''We'd had an ICC meeting earlier in the year in the UK and throwing had been a topic that was discussed, and the instruction from ICC was that if you felt a guy threw that you should call it. That's what Darrell thought and that's what Darrell did. I wasn't so emphatic. I believe, and still believe, that it's almost impossible to categorically, with the naked eye, see that a guy is throwing. I believed that I couldn't categorically say that he threw, so I wasn't going to call him. I honestly don't know if he throws or not and I'm talking from my eye in the middle.''
Dunne's reluctance to follow Hair's example created tension in the umpires' dressing room. ''We were probably a little cool with each other for the remainder of the Test, not recently though,'' Dunne says.
''We saw each other several times after that. I certainly accepted his decision and never been critical of his decision. He did as he saw and I hope he respects the fact I did as I saw.''
Not that Dunne did not have any suspicions over the legality of Muralitharan's action - he reported the Sri Lankan on ''two or three'' occasions after the Melbourne Test.
''The laws changed and in my opinion it became a farce,'' Dunne says. ''The law change said if you suspect the guy's action you then should report him, and a lot of people didn't do that. We did initially and the end result was basically the ICC did nothing about it. In the end you said 'what the hell was the point writing a long report to the guy if nothing happened?'''
Hathurusinghe has crossed paths with Hair in NSW, and says there is no bad blood - ''It's all healed'' - and Dunne recently said he had forgiven the Australian umpire.
Now in Australia to represent the Melbourne Renegades while his compatriots prepare for another Boxing Day Test, Muralitharan says he just wants to forget the whole episode.