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August 7, 2006
Muttiah Muralitharan feels that the team which handles the pressure best would end up winning the second Test at Colombo. At the end of an absorbing fourth day, Sri Lanka, chasing 352 runs for a 2-0 series win, had advanced to 262 for 5 with Mahela Jayawardene holding the key to their chances.
Sri Lanka required another 90 runs going into the fifth and final day with five wickets in hand. They have not chased more than 326 to win a Test match and, if successful, it would be there best effort. Their previous best was beating Zimbabwe by five wickets at the SSC in 1997-98.
Muralitharan said his team had a slight edge, thanks to Mahela's presence at the crease. "Cricket is a funny game but I would say that we have a good chance because Mahela is still there on 77 with Prasanna [Jayawardene] and two other good batsmen [Farveez Maharoof and Chaminda Vaas] are due to come in. Whoever handles the pressure better will win the match. I would say the chances are 50-50 but we have a slight edge because we have five more wickets and only 90 runs to get."
Muralitharan had another memorable day on the field, securing his fourth ten-wicket haul in as many Tests. He took seven wickets in the second innings bowling 46.5 overs, and ended with match figures of 12 for 225. In the first Test at the SSC, which Sri Lanka won by an innings and 153 runs, he picked up 10 for 172 and in England he had successive returns of 10 for 115 and 11 for 132 at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge respectively.
"Taking ten wickets in four consecutive Tests is very special to me," he said. "It is not easy to do that in two overseas Tests and in two home Tests against two very good sides England and South Africa. I am pleased with my performance and hopefully I will carry on further against New Zealand later this year."
In the process of taking seven wickets today Muralitharan also passed 100 Test wickets against South Africa. "Every country is a challenge for me," he continued. "I think I bowled better against South Africa most of the time. South Africans are very good players of spin but I have been bowling well against them. In the '90s I would say they were weak against spin but not now. They played [Shane] Warne well in Australia and in South Africa.
"I am not motivated by going after records. I motivate myself by keeping standards in every match. As long as I play I want to keep my standards. When I think that I am not achieving my standards I will stop. At the moment I am achieving them and that motivates me." Murali, 34, felt that his mental strength had enabled him to go on bowling. "I am able to bowl so many overs not because of my physical fitness and stamina. It is all about being mentally tough. If you give up mentally after bowling 10-15 overs, the body will say you are tired. Mentally if you are strong the body will say you can keep on going. Mentally I have prepared myself to bowl under 36-37 degrees. If I can bowl 39 overs in a day under these conditions I think I can bowl under any conditions. Mentally strong people don't give up easily they keep on going. That's why you get the great players and the ordinary players."
Interestingly, a large share of Muralitharan's wickets in this series were obtained without the aid of the doosra. "I've bowled lesser number of doosras in this series because the wicket was very slow and it was not effective," he reasoned. "I thought that offspin was going to get me more wickets."
South Africa's chances may hinge on Makhaya Ntini's fitness on the final day. "Hopefully if Makhaya [Ntini] is fit in the morning he and Dale [Steyn] can do a job for us," said Micky Arthur, the coach. "Our game plan was 350 runs. We thought we could defend that kind of total. We still believe we can do it."
Ntini limped off the field after 5.2 overs with a left hamstring injury but stayed on the field for the final session, although he did not bowl. "We kept him on the field to have an option. He strained a hamstring. I am not 100% sure what the exact diagnosis is. We wanted to have an option of him with the new ball. He will be treated through the night. We'll see how he responds. The worst case scenario is you could lose him for six-seven weeks and the best case scenario is if he wins you the Test match. It's a double edged sword. I am not sure which way it will go."