Focus will be on Murali

When Muttiah Muralitharan goes beyond Shane Warne’s 708 Test wickets, the accomplishment will make his island nation happy for years to come, writes Ted Corbett.

I will happily lead the cheers as Muttiah Muralitharan walks on to his home ground at the start of the first Test against England in Kandy next month (December 1-5).

By that time Murali will have either gone past the record of 708 wickets set by Shane Warne or be about to. It would be a rough gesture anyway to thumb his nose at the Australians who have given him such a hard time in the last few years, but Murali i s a bigger man than that.

He will believe that there is no better place to go to the top of the tree than the town where he first saw the light of day, with his own folk watching and those who love him most cheering from the stands.

Even if Murali has already reached 709 victims the first sight of him as he walks out with Sri Lanka will be a wonderful moment as the crowd pay tribute to his achievement.

How he has obtained more than 700 Test wickets is still open to debate, but to be the first cricketer to go beyond 710 wickets will be a major accomplishment and one that will make the island nation happy for years to come.

Serendipity does not come better than this.

Their cricketers have won the World Cup, Sanath Jayasuriya has scored 340 in one innings and, perhaps most tellingly of all, they have cocked a snook at those imperious, arrogant Australians by their fighting spirit.

But this will be the supreme moment, the first time they have had a hero with a record that will not be passed for a decade, one worth a statue or two, one of whom they can claim “there has never been another like him.”

It is all true too.

Murali is unique, blessed with a shoulder, wrist and hand so flexible and so strong that he can apparently turn it into a corkscrew.

I wish he did not send the ball down the pitch in a way that mocks the very expression “bowler”. He does not bowl the ball. He twists it and turns it with an arm as straight as a boomerang; our 17th century inventors of the game did not intend the ball to be sent 18 yards in that manner.

Still, I now accept that there have been many changes in the style of delivery since the ball was propelled as if the player were using a lawn bowl and that we must accept Murali as the 21st century version of a bowler in a game that has withstood all sorts of changes in playing methods and difficulties with old-fashioned laws.

In the last 200 years we have had the shoulder high arm, the arm that brushes the ear, the ball that comes from the back of the hand, the side of the hand, the front of the hand.

I would prefer it came from a straight arm; ICC have ruled that every bowler throws to some degree or the other and I accept that too, although it is an offence to the conservative, traditional cricket mind that is part of the make-up of anyone who has regarded the game with respect for so many years.

I am mollified — as I have always been from the first moment I saw Murali 10 years ago — by the sight of his magic. The dip, the turn, the flight have always been up his sleeve; latterly he has come to make the ball turn from the leg; and won many flattering mimics, the true sign of a genius at work, although none of them are fit to carry his bag to the ground.

Perhaps I should take further consolation from the fact that all geniuses are controversial and particularly at this game.

Don Bradman with his unusual grip — thank heavens no coach sought to change him — Wasim Akram off such a short run, Sonny Ramadhin, who admitted to a friend of mine a few years ago that he knew he threw his leg break, Douglas Jardine, determined to use Bodyline come what may. All these cricketers and too many more to count have added to the wealth of colour that is part of cricket’s distinction by their bloody-mindedness, their eccentricity and their membership of the awkward brigade.

Some of these masters of oddity have led the grand total of Test victims before Murali’s day. I went to a dinner recently in honour of Fred Trueman, a working class hero in the days when the very idea was anathema to his bosses and heard a thousand tales of his wit and wonderful bowling. (You would be shocked to know how many poems were recited to his place in the firmament.)

I will only tell one such tale. He played early in his career against a weak university side. One batsman left with his stumps broken and as the next man walked down the pavilion steps Trueman bellowed at him: “Don’t shut the gate. You’ll need it again in a minute.”

So it proved. I told a tale or two as well and admitted that such was his stature when I first met him that I and my pals were frightened of him. And that was standing at a bar not facing him from what must have seemed an eyeball-to-eyeball distance at 20 yards.

Oh, and this thought is almost by the way, England will want to have its say during the series.

They will have Michael Vaughan back as captain and we will have to keep a sharp watch on his form for he is clearly at a stage in his career that is either in need of a few big scores or, just possible, means he is coming to the end of his Test career.

Steve Harmison will make his return too although he has been as prone to accident and illness during his successful training stint in South Africa to remind us that he is frail as well as big.

Matthew Hoggard, whose daily walks with his dogs rather than a hour on a stationary bike are the source of his continued good health, will also be there although now that England appear to have two good spinners — Monty Panesar, turning from the leg and Graeme Swann turning to the legside — there may not be much room for seam bowlers.

Neither Panesar nor Swann is yet the new Murali but they have style and flight and the ability to beat the batsman off the pitch and it will be fascinating to make the comparison.

By the time we return to England for Christmas there is no doubt the world that spins will have a much different look, even though Murali will still lead the way.