The second Test between Sri Lanka and South Africa in Colombo was among the most exciting matches in recent times - wickets and runs came at a brisk rate, and neither team dominated for long stretches - but in the midst of all that excitement, a little side story that got ignored completely was the performances of two aging stars who are battling to shine like they did in their pomp.
Shaun Pollock is 33 years old, while Chaminda Vaas is just five months short of 33; both missed the first Test due to various reasons, and both returned remarkably similar figures in the second: Vaas bowled 37 overs, and managed meagre returns of 1 for 124; Pollock bowled two fewer overs and got a solitary wicket for 112 (though more than just the figures, what was a telling sign of Pollock's decline was to see him resort to offspin after being tonked over his head for six by Sanath Jayasuriya). With the bat, though, both had more success, indicating perhaps the direction in which both their careers might be headed - Pollock scored 71 runs in the match to Vaas's 68, with each getting to a half-century.
In the most recent four Tests - including the tour to England earlier this year and the Test against South Africa - Vaas only has a tally of six wickets at 64.83, but generally over the last couple of years his bowling has been fairly incisive. Easily the more alarming decline has been Pollock's - in his last 15 Tests the bowling average has ballooned to 37, more than one-and-a-half times his career average, which itself has gone up from 21.79 to 23.42 during this period. While he took a wicket every 56 balls in his first 87 matches, in his last 15 that figure is a less-than-distinguished 82, with no five-wicket hauls. Pollock's career summary in his last 15 Tests also reveals one other shocking number - an overseas average of 73, with a strike rate of a wicket every 141 balls.
Vaas's recent numbers, on the other hand, stand up to scrutiny much better - the batting average touches 30, while with the ball too he has been a handful, averaging 25.44 with a strike rate which is ten balls lesser than his career stat. (Click here for Vaas's career summary over his last 15 Tests.)
It's also interesting to compare the numbers of Vaas and Pollock with the performances of the great allrounders of the past in their last few matches. Among the four great ones in the 1980s, Ian Botham was easily the one with the most undistinguished last 15 matches: both his batting and his bowling stats dipped to far below their usual normal. Kapil Dev became a less potent force with the ball towards the end, taking only 30 wickets in his last 15 matches, but he still managed a bowling average of 29.33. However, the number of overs he bowled per Test came down drastically from 36 in his first 116 matches, to just 27 in his last 15. Imran Khan's hardly bowled much in his sunset days, but became a giant of a batsman, averaging nearly 73, while Richard Hadlee's skills with both ball and bat remained virtually untarnished with age. And the greatest of them all, Garry Sobers, averaged more than 50 with the bat and less than 30 with the ball in his last 15 Tests. You can't argue with numbers like those.
A half-century of hundreds
The other veteran bowler in the Sri Lankan side, though, has been wheeling away over after over, and adding bucketfuls of wickets to his tally every match. With his 12-wicket haul in the second Test, Murali equalled his own record of taking ten or more wickets in four consecutive Tests. However, had he conceded three more runs in the second innings, Murali would have achieved another first - he would have become the first bowler in the history of Test cricket to concede 100 or more runs in an innings 50 times. Murali has so far taken 175 wickets in the 49 innings in which he has gone for more than 100, with only Anil Kumble anywhere close to him. In fact other than Murali, only three other bowlers - Kumble, Shane Warne and Botham - have had a three-figure number in their runs column more than 30 times. The table below gives the top eight, and it's interesting that Danish Kaneria already has 26 such instances in 39 Tests - that's as many as Abdul Qadir managed in his entire career - and the ratio of Tests to 100-plus innings is far lesser than any other bowler who has given away more than 100 at least 16 times.