If Muthiah Muralidharan didn’t take to the cricket ground, he may have been running a biscuit factory today.
But he did; playing the sport from an early age, with dreams of becoming a fast bowler for Sri Lanka. “When I was young, I just wanted to bowl really fast,” Murali tells us, recalling growing up at a hostel at St Antony’s College, Kandy. Someone pointed out that he did not have the height for that, and so he changed track, and bowled off-spin. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Muralidharan today sits tall among all-time cricketing legends. In a career spanning from 1992 to 2010, Murali — as he is fondly called — has bagged 800 wickets, making him the leading wicket-taker of all time in international test cricket.
His biopic, set to release in October 2023, is titled 800. Starring Madhurr Mittal in the lead role and directed by MS Sripathy, it hopes to narrate not just his impressive showing in the international cricketing scene, but also his many struggles along the way.
800’s journey started due to two childhood friends from Chennai; Tamil filmmaker Venkat Prabhu and Madhimalar, now Muralidharan’s wife. “They lived in the same neighbourhood in Chennai (RA Puram). When Venkat came over for lunch, I showed him all my trophies and he suggested that my life was ideal for a biopic. I was hesitant initially, but my manager said that it would help our foundation (Foundation of Goodness, his NGO in Sri Lanka), and we went ahead.”
Tamil star Vijay Sethupathi was originally selected to play Murali, but that decision hit a roadblock when local political leaders and members of the film fraternity suggested that the actor avoids the biopic since the cricketer once made comments perceived to be in support of the war waged by Sri Lankan forces against the LTTE. Madhurr Mittal, known for his role in Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, walked in to play the lead. “He (Madhurr) has nailed it, be it my bowling action or my body language,” quips Murali.
800 will also take us back to Murali’s childhood in Kandy, where he first took to the sport. Recalls Murali, “My school had strict rules and regulations. There was a timetable — to get up, wash our clothes and study, but the time I looked most forward to was between 3 and 5.30 in the afternoon, when we went out to play. We had a big school ground, and at that time, there would be almost 600 people playing tennis-ball cricket. I started training seriously when I was eight.” When he won the Bata Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year in 1991 — thanks to a whopping 127 wickets in 14 matches — Muralitharan was noticed by the cricketing fraternity, which led him to be picked for a tour to England.
It was an impressive career, with teams across the world fearing his vicious spin when he came to bowl, but it was not one without controversy.
On the 1995 Boxing Day Test, a much-celebrated cricketing event, Muralidharan — well known for his unorthodox bowling technique — was called out by Australian umpire Darrell Hair for what he thought was an illegal action. The months that ensued were among Muralitharan’s most trying times, something that he says has been captured in detail in 800 as well.
How does he look back at that phase? “I’ll be honest with you. We didn’t have television when I grew up, and so, I have never seen myself bowl on television. I thought I bowled pretty much like my captain, Nuwan Kalpage (Sri Lankan cricketer). The first time I saw myself bowling on TV was when I played a day-night game when I was 17; even for me, it was very different. So, I can imagine the doubts in Darrel Hair’s mind. What I was most disappointed and shocked is that he chose the Boxing Day Test to call me out and not earlier; he had watched me bowl on previous occasions. But I have no regrets; my policy in life is to forgive and forget.”
Murali also had a successful stint with the Chennai Super Kings during the IPL’s first few years. He fondly remembers the camaraderie that existed with the team then, and says that he follows the journey of CSK till date. “IPL is special for every cricketer. When the idea of IPL was announced, I was excited and really wanted to play for Chennai, as I have close links with the city and the State of Tamil Nadu. I remember the late cricketer, VB Chandrasekar, telling me that N Srinivasan’s order during the first IPL auctions was to first bid for “Dhoni and Murali.” We were the first two cricketers to be selected for CSK, and we did really well in the first few years. It was like family,” recalls the cricketer, who subsequently played for Kochi Tuskers and Royal Challengers Bangalore and is now among the coaching staff of Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Madhurr Mittal and sports films
Madhurr Mittal wasn’t the first choice to play Murali. It was Vijay Sethupathi – a decision that led to a lot of controversy – and Madhurr, known for his role in Slumdog Millionaire, walked into the project with some trepidation. “I grew up in the 90s and followed a lot of cricket – Murali was huge then. As an Indian fan, we feared him. So, when I met him, I was nervous. But he told me to go beyond the mannerisms, and find the truth of the man,” says Madhurr.
What helped was the two years of research that the film’s director, Sripathy, had put in. “I heavily leaned on that, and watched video archives of his matches and interviews that I soaked up as much as I could. It was daunting because the person I am playing would watch it, and I didn’t want to disappoint him and his family.”
Madhurr has had trysts earlier with sports-based roles — in Say Salaam India (2007) and Million Dollar Arm (2014) — but 800 is probably his biggest project so far. “Sports films seem to draw me, and I’m not complaining at all.