Another pitstop for the Milestone Man
Another day, another milestone. For Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's genial spin wizard, the current series against Bangladesh has seen him pass a series of landmarks, providing more intrigue for the statisticians, more delight for his proud team-mates, and greater reason to grumble for his detractors, the sour and ignorant Luddites that refuse to accept that his unique skills and remarkable achievements are to be cherished not scorned.
During the first Test in Chittagong he became the first bowler to take 1000 international wickets and then during the second he scaled three more peaks: his 50th five-for; 50 wickets against all Test-playing nations, a first; and the most importantly, 600 Test wickets from a career that started as a spindly and innocent 20-year-old back in 1992, a Colombo Test that he travelled to from his uncle's house in the suburbs on a public bus, to save precious rupees.
If he had reached the landmark in Sri Lanka they'd have been firecrackers and special ceremonies; bila bands would have gyrated and drummed frenetically in appreciation. But, in Bogra, Muralitharan's celebrations were modest: some backslaps and bumtaps from team-mates and some proud flag-waving from two travelling supporters, who had endured a 35-hour train journey from Chennai. Murali, a modest man devoted to his team, would have preferred in that way, close to those he cares about most.
Murali is cricket's Milestone Man, a prolific oddity in the world of cricket statistics, one who threatens to set records that will stand for generations to come. Yet the irony is that the higher he climbs and the more felicitations he attends, they mean less. Mountaineers are obsessed by the final peak but Murali loves the climb. Ask him to swap a five-for for a Test victory and he'll throw away the lot. Team success is what matters most. And in terms of personal satisfaction, being involved in building one of the hundreds of houses for tsunami victims makes him far prouder than his cricket harvests.
Indeed, Murali the man is even more remarkable that Murali the cricketer. His has been a journey of never-ending challenges. Whether you believe him to be a cricketing God or a fraud, you can't but help admire his infectious enthusiasm for a game he adores. Others would have thrown in the towel years ago had they faced the allegations, scrutiny and mud-slinging that has followed him in the past 14 years. Can you imagine being hooted and humiliated in front of 80,000 Australians, having been called for chucking during the Boxing Day Test in 1995? It takes serious mental strength to absorb what he has been through.
Of course, it helps when you have seen life through his eyes. From an early age he learned that life could be unjust and irrational. Before he'd even bowled a cricket ball he'd heard terrible stories of ethnic mobs burning down the family biscuit factory. He'd heard heroic tales of his father - a humble, generous, down to earth and successful businessman who rarely speaks a word to his to his son but commands his complete respect - being the last man standing that night before machete-wielding thugs broke through the factory's gates and chased him out. Murali, a hill-country Tamil, was raised during a particularly violent period in Sri Lanka's history, a decade marred by ethnic riots, civil war and bloody student uprisings. It all helped him retain a sense of perspective throughout the chucking controversies that have rocked his career.
Even more remarkable than his steely inner strength, is his generosity of spirit and human compassion. As Kumar Sangakkara wrote in his Cricinfo column: "Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay to Murali is that the number of friends he has made around the world is far greater the number of wickets he has taken. I have never met a more honest man. He is simple and humble and a beacon of hope for all Sri Lankans." Indeed, off the field, Murali has touched many lives, dedicated an enormous amount of his time, energy and wealth to the charity he set up with his manager Kushil Gunasekera, the Foundation of Goodness.
Thankfully his cricketing journey still has more chapters. There has been much media speculation over his possible retirement after the 2007 World Cup but Murali is certainly not ready to bid farewell. Still only 33, he feels that he can play for at least another three years of Test cricket, possibly more. His earlier retirement from one-day cricket, though, is likely. This means that, injury permitting, he could play another 25 to 40 Test matches. When you consider that he raced from 500 to 600 Test wickets in just 14 games, the mind boggles when you consider the final tally. But no matter how many he takes, one can be assured of one thing: he will be a source of wonder, inspiration and hope far longer than his record lasts.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent