Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Kandy November 29, 2007

No hiding from the hype

Murali only has a few last steps to go to No. 709

Muttiah Muralitharan: out of the shadows and back in the nets in his hometown © Getty Images
Until today, Muttiah Muralitharan was a peripheral presence on England's tour of Sri Lanka. He popped up briefly at the Nondescripts ground on Sunday to grab a sneak preview of his opponents, but by and large he's been keeping a low profile, recovering from a tough tour to Australia and leaving others to speculate about the unique challenge that he poses. But there's no hiding from the hype any longer.

Murali is back in his home town of Kandy, and on Saturday, when the first Test gets underway at the Asgiriya Stadium, he faces the tantalising prospect of reclaiming his world Test bowling crown in front of his most ardent adorers. Back in January, his great spin rival, Shane Warne, retired from the game with a benchmark tally of 708 wickets, but now Murali needs just five more scalps to reclaim the record that he himself took from Courtney Walsh (519) at Harare in May 2004.

"It would be a special moment to do it in my home place because I grew up and played my cricket here in my younger days," said Murali, as he faced a scrum of media ahead of Sri Lanka's training session. "But it all depends on how I bowl and how they bat." On past form few would bet against him, but Murali was a shadow of his former self in Australia recently, where he managed a mere four wickets at 100 apiece in the entire two-Test series.

That familiar grin was back on his face today, however, as he shrugged off the disappointments Down Under and focussed on his next challenge. "Australia played well and for most of the time there was pressure on the bowlers and 500 runs [on the board], said Murali. "They are a great batting line-up and the wickets didn't spin much. This time we are at home, so that gives us a little edge."

Though he refused to be drawn on the man he would most like to take with him into the record books, there's no question that the wicket of Kevin Pietersen would be a particularly coveted prize. Murali secured the last laugh during the 2006 series in England by bowling Sri Lanka to a share of the series at Trent Bridge, but up until then, Pietersen's strokeplay had bordered on the dismissive, particularly at Edgbaston where he produced an outrageous reverse-sweep for six.

"He's one of the great batsman but one mistake and you can get out," said Murali. "That's one of the things about Test cricket, you can't just reverse-sweep every time. But if he wants to, he's takes his risk."

Eighteen months on, Pietersen is perhaps a shade more deferential in his assessment of Murali's talents, but as ever remains geared towards aggression. "I will play pretty similar to the way I played him in the UK, I will just have to be a lot more patient," said Pietersen. "These are his conditions and it is definitely going to spin a lot more. I have thought about how to counter it and if it works it works, if it doesn't work it doesn't work."

Pietersen is well placed to pass judgment on the current world-record holder and his soon-to-be successor, having crossed swords with Warne during his farewell series in Australia last winter. "They are both assassins. Both champions. Both geniuses," said Pietersen. "It is just a pleasure to face them and hopefully try to get the better of them.

"I know the way Shane tries to get you out and the way Muralitharan tries to get you out. The difference is Muralitharan spins the ball both ways and is harder to pick. If you look at Muralitharan's delivery stride, his feet don't change whereas other bowlers' do. The only change is his wrist and it is hard to pick that up.

"I am going out there as confident in my preparation as I can be, as I always am," said Pietersen. "The more you face Muralitharan the more you start to pick him. Last year I only picked him 70-80% of the time, but the more you play him the easier it becomes, as with any bowler. It is just a case of trying to spend some time in the middle and get through your first 20 balls."

However, it'll take more than just 20 balls of resistance to deny Murali his most coveted milestone. At the age of 35, there cannot be many years left in one of cricket's most incredible players, but for the moment the enjoyment of the game remains strong, and he's determined to push on for as long as possible - maybe even as far as 1000 wickets.

"It depends on my body and if my performance is as good as in the past," said Murali. "You can't just target wickets because you have to bowl well, and wait for batsmen to make mistakes. To get to 1000 I'd have to play for another four or five years, so realistically it's not possible, but if something goes well, like when I got 96 wickets last year, it could happen. You never know."

Such achievements never even crossed Murali's mind when he started playing the game as a schoolboy in Kandy. "I made it to a school team, then kept on going up to the national team, where I thought if I played one Test I'll be happy. But I wanted to keep on going a little more, and I kept on playing and the wickets came. I love the game so much I keep on playing. It's the No. 1 game in Sri Lanka, and until they find someone good I'll just keep on being that person."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo