January 4, 2002

Muralitharan grabs limelight with brilliant nine wicket burst

An extraordinary power struggle between the national selectors and the Sri Lankan team may have dominated the build-up to the second Janashakthi National Test against Zimbabwe at Kandy but local hero Muttiah Muralitharan soon grabbed the limelight with another brilliant bowling display on Friday.

The 29-year-old off-spinner took all nine wickets to fall on the first day to leave him with a outside chance of taking all ten and breaking Jim Laker' s world record (ten for 53) bowling performance at Manchester in 1956 when play starts tomorrow.

But Muralitharan, who finished with nine for 51 when bad light stopped play, will only do so if he recovers from a dislocated finger on his right hand, which he sustained whilst attempting to take a tumbling catch on the square leg boundary in the final over.

Sri Lankan physio, Alex Kontouri, quickly clicked his third finger back into its joint and the team management were confidant that he would be able to resume his astonishing spell on the second morning, which had seen him move past Ian Botham (383) into seventh position in the all-time Test wicket-taking list with 391 victims..

Muralitharan had looked set to surpass Laker before close when he cleaned bowled top scorer Grant Flower for 72 to leave Zimababwe on 201 for nine with 38 minutes of play scheduled to the close.

But Travis Friend (28 not out) and Henry Olonga (17 not out) survived the remaining 33 tense minutes of play, as they capitalised on some deliberately gentle spin bowling at the other end and one suspicious drop from the normally safe hands of Marvan Atapattu, to leave Zimbabwe on 234 for nine at the close.

It all brought to an end a bitter 24 hours in which the Sri Lanka team had been at loggerheads with the selection committee, who had controversially decided to rest vice-captain Atapattu and fast bowler Charitha Fernando to give experience to Chamara Silva and Prabath Nissanka.

The team management were vehemently opposed to the decision, taken in Colombo without proper consultation, arguing that this was not the appropriate time for experimentation. With the selectors refusing to back down the management appealed to the new sports minister Johnston Fernando, who finally overruled the selection committee as midnight approached.

As the politics gave way to cricket, after a delayed start because of some residual dampness, Zimbabwe boldly decided to bat first. Sri Lanka, too, would have batted but were not unhappy to bowl, fancying a dart at the visitors on the fresh looking surface.

But the Sri Lankan seamers failed to break through with the new ball as Trevor Gripper and Hamilton Masakadza added 39. Nuwan Zoysa threatened, with both openers playing and missing, but Chaminda Vaas was disappointing, clearly lacking rhythm as he bowled seven no balls in his first four overs. Finally, when he was clattered for 19 in his fourth over, Jayasuriya threw the ball to Muralitharan.

The off-spinner struck with his second ball when Gripper (20) tried to sweep and was caught via his bootstraps by Mahela Jayawardene at first slip. Next, Masakadza (10) played across the line of a straighter delivery and was bowled before Gavin Rennie (0) two-stepped up the wicket and was smartly stumped. With Andy Flower becoming also caught off his boot as he tried to sweep, Zimbabwe were left on 71 for four at lunch.

After the interval break the pitch had lost its moisture, which had allowed Muralitharan to turn the ball prodigiously. Nevertheless, Muralitharan spun a booming off-break back into the pads of Stuart Carlisle (20) to win an lbw (83 for five).

Grant Flower and Craig Wishart (26) held up the Sri Lankans for an hour and a quarter, forcing Muralitharan out of the attack with a robust 54 run stand - Zimbabwe's first fifty partnership of the tour.

But almost as soon as that landmark had passed, Jayasuriya whisked Muralitharan back into the attack with instantaneous success. Fatally, Wishart went back to his third ball and was left plumb into front as skidding off-break jack-knifed back from outside his off-stump (137 for six).

Flower continued to resist, with an unattractive but effective display of thrusting pads and premeditated sweeps, as he reached his 13th Test fifty and passed 3000 Test runs.

At the other end though Muralitharan was having a ball. Heath Streak threw his pad at another exploding delivery only to see it deflect onto his stumps and Douglas Marillier, who had been preferred to Gary Brent in the morning, was bowled through the gate (166 for eight).

Finally, Flower was dismissed to set up a nerve-jangling finale to the day. But somehow Olonga managed to keep Muralitharan at bay - for the time being at least.