Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan is eyeing a fairy-tale finish to his magnificent career at this month’s One Day World Cup. The wizard off-spinner announced in January that the 10th edition of the quadrennial competition, to be co-hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from 19 February, would mark his final international appearance.
Bowled over: Muttiah Muralitharan during a practice session on Sunday at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) Cricket Ground in Colombo.
Muralitharan, 39, is the highest wicket taker in Tests and One Day cricket and played a key role in Sri Lanka’s 1996 triumph—the previous occasion the World Cup was held in the subcontinent.
Eleven years later, he finished as the second highest wicket taker behind Australian pace bowler Glenn McGrath in the 2007 edition with 23 wickets and was instrumental in paving the way for his team’s entry into the final, which they lost.
“It will be a little bit sad to say goodbye, but I have a chance to go on a high if we can win,” says Muralitharan, son of a confectioner from Kandy. “The time is right to go as we have some quality young spinners now ready to take over.”
The master spinner has often shown that he is a man for the big occasion, especially on the slow, low pitches of the subcontinent. In August, Muralitharan grabbed eight wickets in his final Test against India, which took him to the milestone of 800 wickets.
“I have had some difficult times, but I have been fortunate to play cricket for Sri Lanka for so long and it is a life that I have really loved,” says Muralitharan, whose rise as one of the game’s greatest spinners paralleled Sri Lanka’s emergence as a world force in cricket.
Muralitharan’s bowling action has been the subject of a rumbling controversy—at first glance it appears to break the fundamental rule of bowling, the obligation to deliver the ball without bending and then straightening the arm. However, his action was cleared by the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing body, which agreed on a maximum allowance of 15 degrees for both pace and spin bowlers.
“I’ll look back with no regrets knowing I gave one hundred per cent all the time,” Muralitharan says.
Sri Lanka start as favourites along with India owing to their familiarity with the conditions. Ranked third in the world, they displayed spectacular form in One Day cricket in 2010. The team won three triangular series, defeated Australia in Australia for the first time in a One Day series, reached the final of the Asia Cup (losing to India) and the semi-finals in the Twenty20 World Cup (losing to England).
Expectations are high in the cricket-crazy island country, which is hoping for a repeat of its 1996 success. “I have played so many years with lots of expectation on my shoulders, so I am used to it now,” the spinner says. “The team is also used to it. We are lucky to be playing in front of our own supporters.”
Sri Lanka are pooled with Pakistan, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, Zimbabwe and top-ranked Australia and will play five of their six group matches at home. “We have a good chance if we play well,” Muralitharan says. “Any of the top five or six teams can win against each other on the day.
“(Adam) Gilchrist played an amazing innings and we were a bit unlucky with the weather in West Indies,” he says, recollecting the Australian wicketkeeper-batsman’s century in the 2007 final. “We need our batsmen to hit form. If they score the runs then we have a strong bowling attack,” he says of Sri Lanka’s chances in the competition.
While Muralitharan is definitely playing his last major international tournament, three other greats will also be playing possibly their last World Cup. India’s Sachin Tendulkar, Australian Ricky Ponting and South African Jacques Kallis are unlikely to last till the 2015 World Cup. The Sri Lankan knows exactly what it feels like, having played against all of them.
“They are all great players and it will be sad for them and their fans to say farewell,” Muralitharan says. “But all three have more cricket left in them. They are great cricketers and it has been a privilege playing against them.”
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