ATHLETICS C. Muralidharan, an Army basketball player rose to be an athlete at the international level in a quick three years, and then went on to coach the Services sprint team for 16 years
Basketball’s loss has turned out to be athletics’ gain. Says coach C. Muralidharan: “Basketball is a team game and I would have had it tough. I’d have gone to the national level at best. But in athletics it’s up to the individual and his motivation to reach greater heights.” Murali’s rise from an Army basketball player to an international athlete in a span of three years, is phenomenal. “I got selected for MEG for my basketball prowess as a Kerala school player at 17. I played for three years in the Army ranks as a ball-handler. But I suffered a shoulder injury during a match and I could not play that role anymore.” It was then that his coach M. Jagadeeshan suggested he try sprinting. “He told me that I had speed, and that basketball was not my sport.”
The switch was instant and intense. In his first competition – an Army meet in Bangalore in 1980 – Murali set records in both the 100 and 200m races. Jagadeeshan trained him rigorously for another year, lifting his endurance to prepare him for the 400m.
It soon became his favourite event. Another year later, he made waves at the Services Meet in Lucknow, bagging all five sprint golds (including the two relays). It catapulted him into national contention. “Milkha Singh had been the last man to do that sweep at a Services event,” he says. “I can still remember Sportstar’s headline: ‘Murali’s Monopoly’. It was a great boost for me at the right time.”
In 1983, three years after he had run his first competitive race, Murali was called to the Indian camp in Patiala. There was no doubt 400m was his best event. At a pre-Olympic meet in Delhi in 1987, he clocked a career-best 46.4 in the semifinals .
In the final, however, he could do only 46.76, and finished second. At the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, Murali was part of India’s 4x400m relay team that nearly delivered an unlikely bronze. The quartet of Ayyapan Durai, Gulam Kibreo, Ibrahim Cheenika and Murali – who ran the anchor leg – lost out on third place to the Philippines in a photo-finish. “When I got the baton, we were in fourth, and at least 10m behind them,” Murali recounts. “I chased hard and thought I’d caught up, but it turned out I hadn’t. Nobody expected us to come that close against good opposition.”
More success followed, at the SAF Games in Calcutta where the team took the silver in the 4x400 relay and an international meet in Delhi in 1989 where Murali won the gold in the 400m. It was a victory, he says, that remains his sweetest memory. “I hadn’t expected to win. There was a Sri Lankan runner called Fernando who finished second.”
After retirement in 1992, Murali turned to coaching without a second thought. “I wanted to give something back to the sport,” he says. He completed his coaching badges from the NIS, Patiala, in 1993. “It was easy to train my students because I had practical experience as an athlete at the highest level.”
Wards like Anil Kumar (Olympian) and Josman Matthew (Asian GP silver-medallist) scaled heights while numerous others — P.T. Jason, Binoy, A. Rajiv, Sajeesh Paul, Abubaker, B. Ramu and M.J. Joseph — were regulars in the Indian camp.
Asked if he’d rather be an athlete than a coach, the 53-year-old grins. “If you’re a coach, all you can do is instruct your student and hope he performs. You can’t run for him. But if you’re an athlete, your destiny in your own hands.”
Murali coached the Services sprint team, one of the most successful units on the national level, for 16 years and the Indian team for four (2004-07). He retired from the Army in 2010 as Captain, after 30 years of service, and soon set up his own academy. In the two state meets since its inception in August 2010, the Indian Athletic Academy has produced winners in all the sprints. “I have some really good talents that can go far.”
Despite all this success on the track, there is a love for his first sport that will not diminish. “I’m still crazy about football,” he concludes.
AVINASH NAIR SHREEDUTTA CHIDANANDA