Island Cricket

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Muralitharan on the brink of history

Muttiah Muralitharan moved level with Shane Warne on 708 wickets as he bowled Sri Lanka back into the first Test at Kandy. He claimed the first four England batsmen to fall on the second day as they lost 5 for 78 and drew level with Warne when he removed Ravi Bopara. But he was forced to wait for his crowning moment as rain, which had threatened during the morning, moved across the ground and wiped out the final three hours of play.

It was a wonderful spell from Muralitharan - which brought the same number of wickets as he claimed during two Tests in Australia - after he was introduced into the attack for the eighth over of the day. With so few runs to play with it was a surprise he wasn't used from the start, but Mahela Jayawardene had a curious day as captain. However, once he was into the action there was no getting the ball away from him as his elastic wrist got to work.

As Ian Bell and Michael Vaughan added 107, England were continuing their dominance from the opening day and replays, plus Vaughan's reaction, suggested Muralitharan was fortunate with the scalp that got him going. But like Warne, his arch rival and the man who took the record off him in 2004, he gets wickets with his presence alone. The smell of success was all he needed to start homing in and the close fielders grew more excited by the moment. Bell, after playing elegantly for his 83, chipped to short midwicket where Chamara Silva held a sharp chance to his left.

The main contest then unfolded with Muralitharan taking on Kevin Pietersen. The pitch didn't allow for Pietersen's natural free-flowing stroke play and he batted with extra caution either side of lunch, but one moment highlighted why this was such an anticipated duel. With Muralitharan probing from around the wicket against a packed leg-side field, Pietersen executed a powerful reverse sweep through backward point which rekindled memories of his onslaught at Edgbaston in 2006. But conditions were in Muralitharan's favour and the reverse sweep was just the second boundary he conceded.

Pietersen was conscious about not offering too much bat when playing defensively, but this increased the danger when the ball pitched in line with the stumps and this brought his downfall. Muralitharan landed a ball on middle which struck the pad plumb in front, and this decision didn't offer Aleem Dar any second thoughts.

The pre-series fears about England's batting depth were supported as the complexion of the match changed in a flash. Bopara, who had been compact for 21 balls on debut, feathered an edge down the leg side and the crowd began chanting for the hometown hero. Every ball which followed involved a huge sense of anticipation, and Matt Prior came within a couple of inches of handing Muralitharan the record with a catch to short leg.

When the next wicket didn't fall to Muralitharan it felt like an inconvenience as Prior flicked Dilhara Fernando to midwicket. But regardless of the importance of Murali's record to him and Sri Lankan cricket there is a Test match being played and each wicket, whoever claimed it, brought the home side further back into the contest. The quick bowlers had been a disappointment during the morning session as England made good progress, mainly through the confident Bell, and Lasith Malinga continued to be wayward. However, Fernando finally offered Muralitharan some support and his five overs before the wicket cost nine runs. Prior's failure increased the heat on him - 30 runs in his last five Test innings - and exposed England's long tail to Muralitharan. He couldn't quite claim his place at the top of pile before the clouds descended, but he is on the brink of history and this time it will be a long time before anyone catches him.

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