Sri Lanka v W Indies, 1st Test, Colombo, 4th day July 16, 2005

Vaas and Murali still have gas in the tank



Muttiah Muralitharan was back to his best in the second innings © AFP

One day, not this year, probably not the next, and hopefully not for many more after that, Sri Lankan fans will wake up to find no Muttiah Muralitharan or Chaminda Vaas in their team. It will be a moment of deep sadness that will, unless some bowlers of similar calibre are unearthed soon, herald Sri Lanka's slide down the world rankings.

But even sadder is the realisation that we have arrived at the stage of their careers where press-box bores are beginning to worry about whether they are "over the hill" or the "same bowlers they were". The twilight of their careers will be spent preoccupied by their inevitable passing, rather than marvelling at their remarkable skill.

Run-of-the-mill bowlers get written off when they get flogged to all corners of the ground over a series of matches. But great bowlers get date-stamped at the merest hint of decline, an ingrowing toenail, a whisper about fatigue or a wicketless match.

Thus, when Murali's surgeon cut deep into his shoulder last year, Sri Lanka fretted. Would he end up like Warne after the knife, capable only of bowling straight balls very cleverly? Worse, would he have to do a Gazza and spend his twilight playing six-a-side cricket in Chicago? People were genuinely scared.

And when he did finally return, he appeared to have fuelled mass panic, taking, God forbid, just 1 for 59 in the first innings and conceding a scandalous 1.93 per over. "Is Murali past his best?" was the immediate fearful posting on the Dilmah Cricket Network, a Sri Lanka cricket fan site.

To be fair to the person posting the message, a one-wicket haul is a very rare occurrence for Murali - it has happened only 10 times in 13 years when he has bowled more than 25 overs. But it was somewhat premature to be penning his obituary.

Fortunately, Sri Lankans can sleep happily over the rest of the weekend because normal service was resumed on Saturday. After Vaas's skillful demolition of the top order with a series of pinpoint inswingers on an overcast Friday, Murali moved in for the kill on a sunny Saturday, bamboozling West Indies' tailenders.

It was just like the old times: the pawing at his bowling mark, the narrowing of the eyes, the flick of the ball and the start of his tiptoeing, almost floating run, all finished off in a whirr of wrists and sinew and a knowing glint and grin. Murali was deadly accurate, cunning with his flight and fizzing the ball like a top.

For Marvan Atapattu, the reunification of Vaas and Murali, a perfect bowler's marriage and captain's dream, must have been a delight. Like Australian captains of the past decade, who have had the great luxury of McGrath and Warne, Atapattu had his SAS; men he could entrust at anytime, safe in the knowledge that no rescue mission was impossible. It must be a wonderfully empowering feeling to have such dependable firepower at your fingertips. Certainly, for cricket-watchers, it provides for gripping drama.

Of course, the true value of their 14 wickets in the match is open to debate, most of them freshers thrown in at the deep end due to the ridiculous and sad sponsorship dispute that is souring West Indies cricket. But you can only dismiss the opposition that walks to the middle and that they did quite ruthlessly when it mattered most.

Let's hope, for the time being at least, it's enough to keep the doubters and doomsayers quiet. Murali and Vaas have proved there is still gas in the tank and that alone should be reason alone for great celebration.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent

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