At the start of his final Test, he was eight wickets short of entering territory that no other cricketer had. He began his last day in Test cricket needing two, and took one. His partner threatened to take everything else and he could do nothing but keep on bowling, and wait. The umpire denied him a palpable lbw. VVS Laxman, who kept him at bay for so many hours, ran himself out and there was only one wicket left to take. He waited and perhaps even fretted. He nearly ran out the last pair himself, twice. After 23 wicketless overs, with perhaps growing doubt about whether it would come at all, the moment arrived, and Muttiah Muralitharan was there, where no man had gone before. The long wait for the 800th wicket only exemplified the toil that went into the preceding 799. And by the way, Sri Lanka won his farewell Test too, by ten wickets for the seventh time.
The script had tinges of romance and fiction. Lasith Malinga nearly didn't allow Murali to get to 800. The Indian tailenders refused to relent, and it also threatened to rain. The real fight for the match, though, had ended in the first over of the day, when Malinga yorked MS Dhoni with a reversing outswinger. The ball seemed to drift towards leg but straightened at the last second to beat a clueless Dhoni and clatter into the stumps. Would Malinga knock out the tail before Murali got his two wickets? By design or otherwise, Kumar Sangakkara stepped in and removed Malinga from the attack after only three overs.
Murali is 38. The wrists aren't as supple as they once were, the old fizz was certainly missing, the shoulder aches and the knees creak when he pivots. Yet he still produced magical deliveries and took a five-for in his last Test. On the fourth day, he removed Dhoni with a magical offbreak and twice made Yuvraj Singh look like a tailender. Today, he didn't have to do anything special and just remain patient. The temptation to produce something magical, something unplayable to reach the landmark would have been there but he didn't show it. Murali kept delivering offbreaks, the occasional doosra and varied his pace and trajectory.
Fielders crowded the bat, appeals were made and Murali trapped Harbhajan Singh in front. Abhimanyu Mithun offered unexpected resistance and time wore on. Malinga stayed out of the attack. India took the lead. Murali changed ends. The photographers kept clicking every time Murali bowled a ball and ran from end to end for better views. The television cameras continued to do extreme close-ups.
Then it happened. Malinga eventually returned to knock out Mithun with an inswinging yorker. Barring a delivery that was pushed well outside off, Malinga was on target ball after ball but Laxman and Ishant Sharma stood firm. He did the same when he returned to bowl at the last pair Ishant and Pragyan Ojha. It felt right. Malinga bowling wides might have seemed like he was giving Murali time. It was also slightly alarming. What if Malinga took both wickets and Murali ended on 799? Perhaps there would be a touch of romance in that, if it happened, like the last-innings duck that left Bradman with an average of 99.94.
Sangakkara opted for the new ball, and Murali very nearly made his tryst with destiny. A ripping off break from round the stumps had Laxman in front but umpire Daryl Harper didn't budge. Perhaps he thought it was missing leg stump.There was more nail-biting drama after lunch.
And just when the fans watching began to fear it would not come, it did. Ojha edged a flighted offbreak to slip where Mahela Jayawardene grabbed his 77th catch off Murali's bowling. Murali roared, his team-mates hoisted him on their shoulders, his wife and mother jumped out of their seats, the crowd cheered and the fireworks exploded. All seemed well with the world.