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December 3, 2003
Muttiah Muralitharan: eager to take centre stage
© Getty Images 2003
Muttiah Muralitharan has been a muted presence on this tour. He was hardly required at Dambulla when England folded for 88, while another M - Monsieur Monsoon - has since dominated the headlines and dampened down the pre-series sparring. But on the very day that the rains finally abated, Murali was ready and waiting to leap onto centre stage.
He was so eager, in fact, that he jumped the gun. His astonishing batting rampage was the sort of onslaught that is threatened every time he lifts a bat, but is very rarely achieved. Andrew Flintoff couldn't help a surpressed smirk when Murali heaved and missed at his first short-pitched delivery - he would have seen such bravado in countless net sessions at Lancashire. But by the time Flintoff had been forced to post a long-stop (the first in Tests since the 19th Century?) to stem the flow of runs, England had lost their collective grin.
It had been a hard-earned grin as well. Up until then, everything that could have gone England's way had done just that. Richard Johnson once again demonstrated his carpe-diem tendencies with the big first-ball wicket of Kumar Sangakkara, which proved at last that his 15 wickets against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were an accident of scheduling, rather than an opportunistic hit-and-run. Flintoff, meanwhile, recorded his best Test figures for 18 months, and even got the rub of the green with an lbw decision.
But from 240 for 7 at lunch, Sri Lanka rallied ominously, and with Murali already performing handstands on a second-day wicket, England may come to rue those misplaced runs. In the absence of Nasser Hussain, much - almost too much - rests on the current pairing of Mark Butcher and, in particular, Graham Thorpe, because what follows oozes potential, but little guaranteed substance.
As debutants go, Paul Collingwood is about as experienced as England could hope for, and he has already demonstrated his level-headedness in one-day cricket. As for Flintoff - well, anything is possible, and Murali's assault on his figures will only harden his resolve. But as he whirls his way towards England's tail tomorrow, every run that Murali stole today will count for double.
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