CricInfo talks to Murali after his narrow failure to take all ten
Hill-country spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan came agonisingly close to recording the best bowling figures ever in Test cricket at the Asgiriya International Stadium on Saturday morning only to be denied all ten when Chaminda Vaas inadvertently dismissed last batsman Henry Olonga. Nevertheless, the 29-year-old has not given up hope of breaking Jim Laker's bowling world record.
Muralitharan, who finished with nine for 51, still the fifth best figures in 124 years of Test cricket, would have surpassed Jim Laker's ten for 53 against Australians in 1956 if Russel Arnold had not fumbled a simple bat-pad catch off the first ball of the day. Then, fifth ball, Muralitharan spun an off-break sharply back into the pads of Travis Friend only to see umpire Venkatraghavan rule in the batsman's favour.
Next over, Vaas ran through the motions, bowling gentle medium pace at number 11 Olonga. But the dreadlocked tailender couldn't resist a swipe the left-armers last ball and edged behind to be caught by Kumar Sangakkara. There was a stifled appeal and a moment of silence - when the Sri Lankan players wondered whether they could just ignore the final wickets' fall - before umpire Asoka de Silva was forced to raise his finger.
Muralitharan remained philosophical afterwards: "I am a little bit disappointed but I am quite pleased with my performance. On another day the luck would have gone my way and I would have got the tenth wicket - but that is part of the game."
But he hasn't given up hope of taking all ten. Some other day," he mused. "It depends on how my bowling goes but getting ten wickets is still achievable."
He rated his nine for 65 against England at the Oval in 1999 as the better performance: "The nine wickets that I took there were better than this because here I had my home support, which always makes it easier, and England were also a stronger side than Zimbabwe."
Muralitharan may have missed out on ten wickets, a feat only achieved by Laker (10-53) and Kumble (10-74), but he is the second man to take nine wickets in an innings twice and in the second innings will have a chance of eclipsing New Zealand's Richard Hadlee by becoming the first bowler to claim ten ten-fors. During the day he also cruised pass Ian Botham (383) into seventh position in the alltime wicket-taking list with 391 victims.
He hopes to pass 400 in the next Test in Galle, if not in the second innings here, but then expects a tougher fight to get to 500 as Sri Lanka embark on a difficult schedule overseas.
"I am bowling really well at the moment but it is going to be harder when I go abroad, as they are clearly not going to prepare me spinning tracks," he said. "Nevertheless, if I can continue my form, and pick up four or five a game on the seaming tracks abroad, then I could get to 500 in the not too distant future."
Sri Lankan captain, Sanath Jayasuriya, disagreed with Muralitharan, believing his virtuoso performance topped his first nine-wicket haul against England: "I don't think you can compare it to his nine-wicket haul at the Oval. This was a more effective effort because he took all his wickets on the first day of a Test match on a pitch that got flatter and flatter as the day progressed."
Geoff Marsh, the Zimbabwean coach, refusing to be drawn on whether Muralitharan was a better bowler than Shane Warne, paid tribute afterwards: " It was a great performance, particularly so because he did it in the first innings of a Test match. Every year he plays, he grows in experience and he is still improving. Whilst we have been here he has been working on some different balls, but it is accuracy combined with the amount of turn that he can extract that makes him so special."
Muralitharan had bowled in the morning despite having torn ligaments on the ring finger of his bowling hand when he had dislocated the same finger the previous evening whilst diving full length to take a catch off the final ball of the day.
He had no regrets about going for the catch: "Whenever catches come you have to take them - I didn't think about the tenth wicket. The guys are always catching mine and show tremendous courage fielding close to the bat when I am bowling, so I have to do the same."
According to team physio, Alex Kontouri, Muralitharan may have to travel to Melbourne after the tour for pre-cautionary surgery on the ligaments. With a six-week break scheduled after the Zimbabwe series he is not expected to miss any international cricket if he does.
Pain or not Muralitharan is determined to bowl in the second innings: "Hopefully, I will be able to bowl in the second innings although I expect the pain to be the same. It's not going to die down in two or three days. But even if there is pain, I have to bowl and help get the wickets."