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December 3, 2007
He was made to wait, longer than he or any of his legions of admirers could ever have imagined, but in end, the inevitable could not be postponed indefinitely. Muttiah Muralitharan, with a snake of a delivery that slithered past Paul Collingwood's half-formed defences and into the middle and off stumps, reclaimed his world record to spark scenes of delirium in his home town of Kandy.
The atmosphere in the morning had been nothing short of reverential. On any other day, the early start time of 10am might have caught his punters on the hop, but not today. They were ready as soon as dawn broke, and came flooding into the Asgiriya armed with banners, flags, drums and good humour, to put the finishing touches to a pageant that had begun with Murali's irresistible onslaught on the second afternoon.
The band at the foot of the Old Trinitians' clubhouse set the tempo, maintaining a frantic rhythm all throughout the first hour. And yet, England batted with a sense of purpose matched only by the sense of expectation. Collingwood nudged and hustled, and even unfurled a timely reverse sweep, while Ryan Sidebottom defied all predictions of his impending demise - no shot was better than his sweetly timed tuck off the pads to the midwicket boundary.
The supporters began to fret as the drinks session came and went. Murali took his cap and retreated from the attack after seven typically tight yet improbably fruitless overs, and Mahela Jayawardene took the new ball. The Barmy Army raised their voices in admiration for the efforts of their batsmen, but the over-riding feeling in the ground was more akin to the Grinch stealing Christmas. This wasn't scripted in the Kandy coronation.
The new ball did the trick and Sidebottom nudged a low catch to the keeper, but still England's resistance went on. An eight-over hiatus, and there was nothing else for it. Back came Murali to more glorious acclaim, and the band struck up a quick-step to hasten him to his goal. This time, there would be no more deviation from the script. Collingwood negotiated three anxious deliveries, the third of which ballooned teasingly off the pad, but the fourth fizzed into the stumps and pandemonium ensued.
Murali punched both fists in the air in triumph and hurtled down the pitch to be engulfed by his jubilant team-mates. The crowd formed a conga on the grass beneath the scorecard, while up on the hillside - where the monks were looking on approvingly - a barrage of firecrackers filled the air with noise and smoke to alert Murali's townsfolk that history had been achieved. "I meant to spin it one way and the ball went the other way," he grinned as the media engulfed him at the end of the innings. If he didn't know what he planned to do, what hope the batsmen?
He's been here before of course. Back in May 2004, Murali overhauled Courtney Walsh's mark of 519, but the setting on that occasion was the Harare Sports Club, and the opponents a meek and bewildered Zimbabwe. This time the stakes could hardly be higher. The acclaim for his record could not entirely distract from the success of England's batsmen. He and his team are in a battle in this Test, which you sense is exactly how he likes it.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches