x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Home is where the heart is for spin ace Muttiah Muralitharan

Muttiah Muralitharan, the legendary Sri Lanka off-spinner, has a lot to thank his upbringing in Kundasale for.

Muttiah Muralitharan always returns to his home village when he is in Sri Lanka.
Muttiah Muralitharan always returns to his home village when he is in Sri Lanka.

When Muttiah Muralitharan opens the curtains of his room at the five star Earl's Regency hotel this morning, he will be able to easily make out, just across the Mahaweli river at the bottom of the hill, the Fatima Shrine.

Next door to the Catholic church is the Luckyland biscuit factory, the business his father and uncle first set up 55 years ago here in the blink-and-you-miss-it village of Kundasale, near Pallekele in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka. Next door to that, his family home.

The man with the record number of international wickets is unlikely to ponder for long just how far he has come, although some significant mileage has been clocked up in his journey across that river. He has serious business to attend to.

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This afternoon he will renew his pursuit of a second World Cup championship, playing at a stadium he helped to construct just seven kilometres from his family home.

And anyway, everyone in town is busy. They have grown used to having a champion in their midst, and it was business as usual at the factory yesterday.

"I've seen him here lots of times," said Prashant, an intern from the other side of Kandy who is working on the factory floor while taking a year off from studying in America.

"When he retired from Test cricket he was here a lot, but not quite so much lately. He obviously has a house in Colombo now, but that is his residence here," he adds, pointing at the house next door, visible through the window.

"If it is a Test match and the players have a bit more time here, then all the Sri Lanka team come here to have dinner because they like Indian food," said Ramasamy Manoharan, Luckyland's managing director and Muralitharan's cousin.

"We probably will not see them this time because it is a one-day match and they are very busy because it is the World Cup."

It was Manoharan's late father, S Ramasamy, who first set up the biscuit factory with his brother, Muralitharan's father Sinnasamy Muthiah, back in 1964.

"It was just two of them who started it and at first it was very small, just like a bakery," Manoharan said.

"My father was a sales rep at another biscuit factory but he had the idea to start his own company with his brother."

The move was a prudent one. From a two-man operation at inception, the family business now has a staff of more than 200 on the factory floor, 60 sales representatives, and they export biscuits as far as Africa and Europe.

Not that the 55-year rise of the Tamil family-owned empire has been without problems. In 1977, when Sri Lanka was blighted by post-election riots in which around 300 Tamils were killed, part of the factory was burnt down by an angry Sinhalese mob.

The family's response to the attack explains many of the virtues for which Muralitharan has been credited during the course of his career in cricket.

They rebuilt, and were back in business within a month. Had the business not been a success, Muthiah might never have been able to afford to send his son to St Anthony's College in Kandy.

He might not have been persuaded to give off-spin a try rather than medium-pace. And that international career might not have happened.

Ethnicity matters little at the factory these days, with a staff made up of Tamils and Sinhalese. Similarly, as the only Tamil in the national cricket team for much of a career which overlapped for so long with civil war, Muralitharan was held up as a symbol for tolerance and acceptance.

It remains a family business. Father Muthiah, a simply-dressed man who outwardly exhibits no evidence of either wealth or having a superstar son, has an adjoining office to cousin Manoharan. Muthiah's brother-in-law works at the desk nearest to his office, in an administrative office of six people.

Muralitharan was only five when the fire happened. He, his brothers and his cousins had other things on their mind rather than fear and fighting.

"Murali was my little cousin, but I never played cricket with him as I preferred rugby," said Manoharan, who, at seven years Muralitharan's senior is still a member of Kandy Sports Club for rugby. He will be making the short trip to the ground for the cricket today, however.

The 50 yards or so between the bottom of the Earl's Regency's winding driveway to the narrow, potholed road leading to Luckyland is enough room for two large billboards carrying Muralitharan's image.

One is an advert for Sun Rich biscuits, one of the 15 varieties and 55 denominations of biscuits which are produced just across the A26, the harem-scarem road from Kandy to Pallekele.

The other is a tribute to a whole team, with Muralitharan at the centre, sending "Best Wishes to Sri Lanka" for the World Cup.

There are five more roadside billboards between there and the stadium, discounting the official World Cup bunting which lines the street.

The stadium is officially named the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium, yet it is known to many as the Muttiah Muralitharan stadium.

His achievements are unparalleled, and this ground is an equally impressive monument to him. If there is a more scenic sporting venue anywhere in the world, it must be paradise.