Cricket: Muralitharan hits 800 mark in sweetest finish
FROM a quick peek at yesterday's scorecard, you might imagine that Muttiah Muralitharan's progress to 800 Test wickets had been smooth, fated, inevitable.
But sport rarely serves up freebies, and the truth is that Muralitharan was only inches away from ending his career on the bathetic total of 799. Not just once, either. Anticlimax threatened on three separate occasions.
Muralitharan had started the final day of his final Test match just two wickets away from this extraordinary landmark -- a landmark that Shane Warne believes no one will ever conquer again. And when he had Harbhajan Singh lbw, in the fifth over of the day, the summit was only a single step away.
But that was the point when things started to go wrong. Test debutant Abhimanyu Mithun hung around for nearly an hour before planting his pad in front of a lethal yorker from Lasith Malinga. VVS Laxman, the old maestro, ran himself out with a dozy single.
Suddenly India were nine down, and while victory for Sri Lanka appeared a formality, the great Murali soap opera stood in danger of ending on a bum note. A total of 799, like Don Bradman's final Test average of 99.94, would have gone down as a job left unfinished.
The final-wicket partnership, between Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha, was slow and anxious. After a quarter of an hour or so, Muralitharan himself came within a couple of inches of running Ojha out, but his throw flew just wide.
What a conclusion that would have been: the great man stranded by his own dead-eyed accuracy.
Two more heart-stopping moments remained: the first when Tillakaratne Dilshan came close to having Sharma stumped; and the second when Ojha popped an almost-catch back to Rangana Herath.
Then, finally, after 54 minutes of agony, the tension resolved itself.
Another of Muralitharan's sizzling off-breaks bit and took the edge of Ojha's bat; Mahela Jayawardene, perhaps the safest slip fielder in world cricket, darted to his left to claim the catch.
The sound of fireworks rang out around the Galle International Stadium, while Muralitharan's family -- his parents, wife and four-year-old son -- danced in celebration.
"Getting to 800 was not as important as winning the match," said Muralitharan after his side's 10-wicket win, after his team-mates carried him off the field. "By God's grace, both things happened which made it the greatest day of my life."
It was a typically modest reaction from a man who, despite his mind-boggling achievements, has a smaller ego than many less successful cricketers.
This is unlikely to be the conclusion of Muralitharan's international career. He says he is available for next year's World Cup, if the selectors want him. Yet the fairytale ending has already been achieved, and the poignant drama of yesterday's events could hardly be improved upon. It would be neater -- maybe even sweeter -- if the road stopped here.
Elsewhere, Ricky Ponting became the second man to reach 12,000 test runs in leading a gritty Australian fightback on the second day of the second test against Pakistan. Ponting steered his team to 136 for two at the close, just 34 runs behind Pakistan, who bowled out the Australians for 88 on the first day at Headingley. (© Daily Telegraph, London)