Murali delivers on a big occasion, again
A man who averages 24.48 in 34 ODI tournament finals, conceding runs at 4.1 an over, cannot be accused of not having a sense of occasion. And his farewell Test has been some occasion. You can't escape the farewell Test. The road from the team hotel to the ground, some 40km along the coast, is full of Murali posters. The Galle International Stadium is full of Murali: banners, cut-outs, messages, an electronic countdown to 800 wickets, the works. The Galle Fort overlooking the stadium has two giant Murali cut-outs. Every cricketer who has spoken in public has been asked to pay tribute to Murali. There have been guards of honour, 21-gun salutes, his family has been on the TV camera most of the time.
It is only natural to feel some nerves going into your final Test, ending 18 years of as many ups as downs. Memories must have flown, he must have thought of his future. In between, there was a Test match to be won. There were fears if the farewell would distract the team. Would he himself be able to concentrate and bring his best for one last time, especially given his recent lean form? This man, however, has left worse distractions, worse pressures, behind when walking on to the field to represent Sri Lanka. "Boss, when I go out, I don't think about these things," he says. "My job is to get batsmen out, I think about that only."
And get batsman out he did on his penultimate day of Test cricket. Also on display was the big offbreak that seems to have gradually become smaller ever since he began bowling the doosra. The way he got MS Dhoni's wicket is any offspinner's dream. Dhoni had not just come in - he had his eye in, having scored 33. The ball drifted away from him, dipped too, Dhoni's feet played the original line, the bat went chasing the ball, and then it spun, spun big, through the gate, kissing the inside edge, not enough to alter its track, and found the stumps.
Inexplicably Murali had been kept away from action for 17 overs in the morning. Even after Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman were had, Kumar Sangakkara let Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni settle. Even Tillakaratne Dilshan was used before Murali. It was as if he was being set a challenge - do it from here, with India just 105 short of saving the follow-on. He didn't start off too well, bowling two long hops in his first over, which were duly dispatched by Dhoni.
Soon, though, came that magic ball. With the sight of tail in, Murali squeezed into the door left ajar. We were right up Murali's alley, with runs on board, no hope of a win for the opposition, the batsmen uncertain. Of all the times in the world, you don't want to face Murali at such a time. Yuvraj, who had played well for his 52, was drawn out, he wasn't sure which way the ball would turn, had to play at it, and Mahela Jayawardene hardly ever drops those edges off Murali.
The tail was easy for Murali. Pragyan Ojha wasn't the first batsman poking at one outside off, fearing the doosra, edging it away. For Abhimanyu Mithun he produced the sharp offbreak again, finishing his 67th five-for. "You have to ask him if felt any nerves," Trevor Bayliss, Sri Lanka's coach, said. "But this is the first time I've seen Murali showing a bit of emotion after taking those five wickets. Throwing his arms in the air... I'm sure he's happy with the way he's gone so far in the match."
In the second innings, perhaps the age showed. The trajectory got flatter, more doosras were bowled than the big offbreaks. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, although for not enough time from India's point of view, batted expertly, denying Murali for long. The ball, though, doesn't know how old you are. Murali stayed at the batsmen for 18 long overs. Whatever might have happened earlier in the day, there was no way that in dying light, anybody else was going to bowl the last over of the day.
In the 13th over of that spell, Murali got Yuvraj in similar fashion as in the morning. This one was pitched middle and off, he had to play at it, it spun away sharply, Jayawardene was there again, with his fingers under the dying ball. Murali is having some drink for the road.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo