Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Galle, 4th day December 5, 2003

Murali's the man

Muttiah Muralitharan: already got the match sewn up?
© Getty Images 2003

England were always going to need a little divine intervention to escape from Galle with a draw, and so it has proved, after another frustrating weather-interrupted day that will have caused many more long faces in the Sri Lankan dressing-room than in England's. Nevertheless, the timing of the interruptions has set this game up for a gripping final day, assuming of course, that the rains now go away and leave us all alone.

The cynic would argue that the only things that will be "gripping" tomorrow will be Muttiah Muralitharan's incomparable offbreaks. And given the way in which he devoured England's middle order in the first innings, it is all too apparent how much rests on the experience of England's top four - Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe in particular, who played and thrived against Murali in these very conditions two years ago.

But judging by the way he has bossed proceedings so far, Murali has already got this match sewn up. Never mind those seven first-innings wickets - it has been his astonishingly free-flowing batting that has really put the skids under England. Over the course of two innings, he has helped add 86 runs for Sri Lanka's tenth wicket. When you consider how prolific he is at his day-job, those innings have turned a potential cliffhanger into a probable rout.

England have had no answer to him at any stage of this game, and it would be appropriate if he caps his contribution tomorrow with a freakish catch or a pick-up-and-throw run-out, just to complete the set. Mark Butcher, who dealt with him better than most in the first innings, said that he has never known Murali bowl the ball quicker or land his variations with more bite or accuracy. As a left-hander, he is naturally better equipped to deal with Murali's stock-delivery, the one that spits across his bows from outside leg. But how to combat that fizzing doosra is a question that will vex the entire dressing-room.

Sri Lanka are so confident of Murali's final-day mastery, they were content to dawdle along at two runs-an-over for most of today's play, even with all that rain in the air. Mahela Jayawardene's unbeaten 86 was an important insurance policy, after a late slump on Thursday evening had left them teetering on 99 for 5, but they might yet rue their diffidence if the weather behaves as badly tomorrow as it has done for most of the tour.

Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, is accompanying England on their travels throughout Sri Lanka.