Greatest off-spinner of all time or an illegal motion cheat? Those are just two of the ways Sri Lanka bowler Muttiah Muralitharan has been described, and with his retirement Tuesday, the record holder for most wickets taken in test matches and one-day internationals was lionized/defended by the Guardian’s David Hopps ;

Murali’s unique action, which is reliant upon an elbow deformity at birth that prevents him from straightening it fully and a highly supple wrist, has provided one of the most passionate cricket debates in history. It has involved not just cricket officialdom, but presidents and prime ministers, biomechanical scientists and, at the bottom of the heap, the boorish cricket fans who have drawn amusement from shouting “no ball” whenever he bowls.

Murali’s great career has uncovered one unpalatable fact “ under the strict interpretation of the Laws, everybody chucks. The scientific studies that arose out of the Murali furore proved that nobody bowls with a straight arm, as the Laws demand, and perhaps nobody ever has.

Six years ago the International Cricket Council acted upon a study of bowling actions worldwide. They were taken in staged and match conditions, involving cameras from up to six different angles, some capable of 250 frames a second. They showed that at the point of delivery a bowler’s arm straightened between three and 22 degrees. This led the ICC to introduce a tolerance level of 15%, the point at which the straightening of the arm became apparent to the naked eye.

Barry Jarman, a former Australian wicketkeeper and the ICC match referee who first expressed misgivings about Murali’s action in the early 1990s, railed. “It makes a joke of the game “ it makes me sick talking about it,” he said. “Everyone knows he bowls illegally. I saw a photo in the paper the other day and put my old school protractor on his arm. It was bent at 48 degrees. I put it up in the pub to show everybody.”

Scientists could strap sensors to Murali’s arm, film him from innumerable angles and make computer calculations, and Jarman still preferred the evidence of fading eyesight, two-dimensional photographs and his old school protractor. It was absurd.