So close, once again. Murali shredded England with 8 for 70, narrowly avoiding his first ten-wicket haul in an innings
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Before the players stepped out onto Lord's for the first Test of the series, England were expected to brush past Sri Lanka with the minimum of fuss. It was to be their undoing. Muttiah Muralitharan was always likely to stand in their way, but the carnage he would cause was disastrously underestimated. Muralitharan has produced spells of spellbinding brilliance throughout his long career, but his 8 for 70 against England this week aptly demonstrated a bowler whose hunger for wickets is seemingly limitless.
Unsurprisingly, Murali has been, well, unsurprising. His 24 wickets, at the skimpy average of 16.87, are what we've come to expect from a man who thrives on bowling, thrives on statistics and thrives on taking wickets. To a man, in the third and final Test at Trent Bridge, no England batsman had the faintest idea of how to play him - and this is a team whose ability in playing spin has improved beyond recognition from the rabbit-like lunges batsmen vainly employed during the wilderness years of the 1990s.
The lunge has been replaced with the forward press (© Duncan Fletcher), a marginally more successful movement to combat Shane Warne, but not Murali, whose unorthodoxy remains his most potent weapon. He was simply too wily, too accurate, too good and, quite honestly, he ought to have taken all ten wickets in England's second innings in the third Test. He certainly deserved to. His mesmerising length, and the doosra - which he now bowls with unerring accuracy - an aspect of his game that has taken years of practice and perfecting - has helped elevate him to 635 Test wickets, as astonishing a feat in the modern game as is imaginable.
It hasn't been an easy path for him, or Sri Lanka. When he spun a 16-wicket web around England in 1998, handing Sri Lanka a famous victory (then only their second outside Asia), the murky cloud of suspicion still loomed over his bowling action. "I know I am not a cheat," he insisted. "It has been medically proved that I am not chucking. I don't care what anyone says now." That defiance has spurred him onto heights - and past records - not dreamed of by any other player in history. Most pleasing of all has been the golden silence of his once outraged critics who now acknowledge his genius, not his elbow. What a great irony that Darrel Hair, the man who seven times 'called' him for chucking in the Boxing Day Test against Australia in 1995, umpired the Trent Bridge Test, quite possibly Murali's last in England.
In fact, the adjective genius was twice used this series; once for Kevin Pietersen following twin-hundreds of brazen audacity and, after Murali's maestro performance on Monday. Yet, while Pietersen's elevation to deity is a touch premature, albeit a delicious prospect for England, Murali has reigned supreme for years. Indeed, the pair were the series' must-watch act among two teams whose remaining 10 players often fluffed their lines. Yet while both players possess an unorthodoxy which marvels the crowd as much as it confuses the opposition, it was Muralitharan who ended on top of the world; even the itchy-feet of Pietersen couldn't dampen Murali's threat.
His captain, Mahela Jayawardene, said in the post-match conference that he feels "very honoured to play with him in the side", a sentiment that I think everyone would agree with.
What you may not know
1 Despite being Sri Lanka's leading wicket-taker, and evidently a player who lives for the sport, Murali has hinted to his faithful fans that instead of progressing into commentary or coaching after retirement from the game, he will return to his family and biscuits in Kandy, where his father, Sinnasami, still runs the Lucky Land factory.
2 His career Test average of 22.10 runs per wicket is remarkable enough, yet he has now taken 1158 first-class wickets at the obscenely low rate of just 18.91.
What they say
Asked about Murali's participation on Sri Lanka's next tour of England in 2010, Jayawardene said: "It all depends what he wants to do. But the way he's bowling he could probably walk to the crease and pick up wickets." Nasser Hussain, on the other hand, was rather less glowing in his praise. "You've got to make it tough [for him]. No freebies ... target him. Break a finger if you want. That'll stop him getting ten wickets." However, after Murali's series-levelling performance, Hussain said of him: "There is no shame in being bowled out by a genius."
What he says
"It was one of the best [performances] after The Oval match [in 1998]. It is not easy against England, the wicket helped. The batsmen coming in were very hard. I was celebrating all the wickets we can take. I had already taken seven and I was happy at the time."
What the future holds
Anything he wants. He has the ability and drive to take 1000 Test wickets, and another couple of hundred one-day wickets to add to his current tally of 414. He has twice taken nine wickets in an innings, and has snaffled eight on three other occasions. Surely, eventually, he'll join Anil Kumble and Jim Laker in taking 10 wickets in an innings?
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo