Throwaway line with a dire result
No ball: Umpire Darrell Hair calls Muthiah Muralidaran for throwing at the MCG in 1995. Photo: Jack Atley
SOON after lunch on Boxing Day, 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 [Hair, umpire] 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, I'm not going to call'. After that conversation, Darrell called from the head umpire's position.''
When Hair called Muthiah Muralidaran for throwing on Boxing Day before 55,000 fans 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 Muralidaran nor Hair wants to revisit the international incident or its fallout, which included a less public reporting and testing regime for illegal actions and the contentious 15-degree rule.
But Hathurusinghe, now the interim coach of New South Wales, and Dunne, who has retired to Whakatane on New Zealand's north island, 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 wasn't throwing, but didn't know what to do. We wanted to reassure him and take his mind off that and not talk much about it.''
Hathurusinghe also recalls 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,'' he says.
Still, a few 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 goodwill gesture that wasn't returned 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.
One of the central figures in the drama, Hair, who is no longer involved in cricket and works as the manager of the St George branch of the Police Citizens Youth Clubs in Sydney, said he had no desire to discuss the issue when contacted by Fairfax Media.
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 never imagined how significant the game would be. ''The whole world remembers,'' he says.
While the Sri Lankans had suspicions Hair would call Muralidaran 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 nothing more sinister than 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,'' Dunne says. ''That's when the penny dropped. It came out of the blue. It became electric after that.''
Dunne suddenly had a moral dilemma to face - 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 [International Cricket Council] meeting earlier in the year in the UK and throwing had been a topic that was discussed and the ICC instruction 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 suspicions over the legality of Muralidaran'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'?''
Dunne officiated in another 36 games involving Muralidaran but never discussed the events of that game with the spin wizard.
''I don't really feel I have any duty to discuss that with the player and I certainly wasn't prepared to discuss something my partner had done,'' he says. ''That's just taboo, that's the way it operated.''
Hathurusinghe has crossed paths with Hair in NSW, and says there is no bad blood - ''It's all healed'' - and Muralidaran recently said he had forgiven the umpire.
In Australia for the Melbourne Renegades while his compatriots prepare for the Boxing Day Test, Muralidaran says he just wants to forget the whole episode.