Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
"It would have been incredibly contrived had it not been for real," this reporter wrote on July 22, 2010, just having watched Muttiah Muralitharan end his Test career with a wicket off the last ball, No. 800, also the last wicket in the match. At 792 wickets, Murali had announced the Galle Test would be his last. If 800 happened it would be good; if 800 didn't happen, so be it. How could 800 not happen?
At his beloved Galle International Stadium, a ground he had help rebuild after the 2004 tsunami had ravaged it, there was a cloud coming from the distance, Lasith Malinga was off injured, Sri Lanka were racing against time to finish India off, and the last wicket had frustrated them for 15 overs. In his 27th over of the day, Murali produced the final wicket.
About a year later, having agreed to delay his ODI retirement for the World Cup, Murali had fought a hamstring injury, a side strain, a troublesome knee and groin when it was suggested that he be preserved for the final and not be risked in a home semi-final against New Zealand, not fancied to beat the hosts on a sluggish surface. Rubbish. There is no way you could keep Murali out of his last match at home. If he could stand straight, he would play. And play he did.
The build-up, as expected, was not as big as Galle. Firstly ODI cricket doesn't allow such elaborate farewells, and then Sri Lanka were just two matches away from a World Cup win, and this was just his last match at home, and not necessarily his last match. The relief around in Colombo was palpable when it was announced Murali was fit to play. Just enough, it turned out. For in the sixth over he went off the field, and came back in the 11th. Still Murali, clearly not at his best, even on one leg, is presence enough. As soon as he had spent the four overs on the field to become eligible for a bowl, Murali gave it a twirl.
Round the wicket he started, and landed the first ball on the spot. In his third over, a big offbreak, not the best delivery he has bowled to take a wicket, bounced on Jesse Ryder, and New Zealand's match-winner from the quarter-final was gone. The ascendancy gained, Sri Lanka went ahead to apply the squeeze, and once again it ceased being all about Murali. New Zealand rebuilt through Scott Styris and Ross Taylor, and then asked for the Powerplay in the 42nd over.
Murali was brought back in the second Powerplay over. Now a 20-year-old kid, playing his 19th international match, served a reminder that a bad ball from Murali is still a bad ball. It was a levelling over actually. Kane Williamson employed the old trick on the master: came down and lofted him over mid-off one ball, and rightly guessed a short ball next and rocked back to cut it for four. Nathan McCullum hit him for a six in his next over, the ninth.
Murali's last match at home could not have ended in a whimper. He had one more over left, majority of which was bowled to the set Scott Styris. The Premadasa Stadium was awake to it. The Sri Lanka flags were raised in the stands, it seemed like a single long Sri Lanka flag, as long as the stadium's circumference, ran across the stands. For old time's sake, perhaps, Murali went back to bowling from over the stumps. For one last over at home, he started bowling the big offbreaks, reminiscent of the pre-doosra days. He even bowled a wide that turned too much down the leg side. The fourth ball of the over turned sharply into the pads, Styris tried to nudge it for a single, but there was no way a nudge was going to beat the two men square on the leg side. Same with the fifth ball. He knew he was bowling to his field, and knew Styris would need to take a risk to score off him.
Styris, more experienced than Williamson, was showing more reverence; he would have experienced much more Murali wrath than Williamson. He just wanted to see Murali off, and would take the single if he got it in the process. Murali ran in for his last ball at home, and bowled a bit wide, turning it back in, and hitting Styris in front. LBW. A wicket that kickstarted a collapse of 4 for 4.
It would have been incredibly contrived had it not been for real.