Par for the course
When Muttiah Muralitharan has previously passed important milestones there have been firecrackers and presentations, even parades. Here, though, in his home town and in front of his adoring mother, Lakshmi, his greatest fan, scalping his 700th wicket was greeted with congratulatory backslaps and high fives from team-mates, a standing ovation from the small grandstand and a brief press conference in a makeshift media centre doubling up as a tea room for dignitaries.
On the surface, at least, it was a strangely low-key response to an amazing achievement. But, on deeper level, that is hardly surprising: people have become so used to Murali's phenomenal feats that passing 700 is just a passing milestone in a journey that will soon enter unchartered territory. As he said afterwards: "It is a big achievement, but I anyway knew I was going to get 700 wickets. The challenge now is whether I can get 1000 test wickets before I retire."
Few were surprised that he did snare his 700th victim today. The setting could not have been more perfect in a hill-country town he loves with a large family he adores all watching on from the main pavilion. Murali has always enjoyed bowling here, not just because of nostalgia and home support, but because this Asgiriya pitch offers more bounce and bite than the docile surfaces of Galle and Colombo. On the fourth day, after the pummeling they received yesterday from Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, who gorged themselves to 470 runs in a day, Bangladesh were ripe for the taking and Murali was also likely to be the chief assassin.
Even Sujeewa de Silva's double strike mid-afternoon, which left Murali needing to take three out of the remaining four wickets, did not dent the feeling that Murali was destined to get to 700 today itself. Sure enough, needing to take the last two, he did it with customary efficiency to seal victory and his record.
It left him with another bountiful series haul - 26 wickets at 10.84 - and opens up the ironic probability that he will now break Shane Warne's 708 wicket world record this November in Australia, the country that produced his most bitter memories during the controversial tours of 1995-96 and 1998-99. He'd love to break the record in front of a home crowd against England, but it will surely be equally sweet in his arch enemy's backyard.
|Murali, however, will not be getting too carried away, although he does play close attention to the game's records and his own statistics. No doubt there will be a small party tonight in his home adjacent to the Lucky Land biscuit factory, still run with meticulous efficiency by his hard-working father, but he will be keeping his feet firmly on the ground. He loves taking wickets, but his ultimate motivation and enjoyment comes from winning|
Today he looked like he wanted the record from his first over, bowling with heightened intensity and great effort from a shoulder that has now released 37,382 deliveries in Test cricket. He dismantled the top order with ease, suckering Habibul Bashar into a suicidal mow across the line, beating the well-set Shahriar Nafees with a delivery that spun sharply and pinning Mohammad Ashraful - the only Bangladesh batsman capable of decoding his doosra - to his crease with a quicker off break. Critics will always complain that Murali's career tally is bloated with the scalps of hapless tailenders, but the reality is that is share of wickets against top order batsmen is equal to Warne, the man to whom he will always be compared.
Critics will also grumble about Murali's good fortune at playing Bangladesh and Zimbabwe so regularly. Indeed, it is true that approximately 25% of his victims have come from these two minnows. But Murali would also have enjoyed Warne's volume of matches against England, a team against whom he has been equally prolific. In any case, his 26 wickets in this series is now par for the course considering the fact that he raced from 600 to 700 in just 12 matches: an average haul of 8.33 wickets per Test against opposition that includes Pakistan (2 Tests), England (3 Tests), South Africa (2 Tests), New Zealand (2 Tests) and Bangladesh (3 Tests). His wicket-taking was no more prolific against Bangladesh than it was against the rest.
Perhaps the most astonishing statistical nugget is that he seems to race to each hundred wicket milestone with ever-increasing speed. His first 100 wickets took him 27 games and then between 100 and 600 he took between 14-16 matches. His last hundred wickets has in fact been his quickest. Assuming he remains fully fit, based on his current rate of wicket-taking, he will need only another 36 Tests to reach 1000 Test wickets. By that stage he's he'd have played 149 Tests. Shane Warne, by comparison, retired after 145 matches.
Murali, however, will not be getting too carried away, although he does play close attention to the game's records and his own statistics. No doubt there will be a small party tonight in his home adjacent to the Lucky Land biscuit factory, still run with meticulous efficiency by his hard-working father, but he will be keeping his feet firmly on the ground. He loves taking wickets, but his ultimate motivation and enjoyment comes from winning. He'll be proud to have reached the 700-wicket landmark, but he'll already be eying this winter's high-profile clashes with Australia and England, two series that this Sri Lanka team are determined to win.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent