Murali's feat in truncated match

The second Test between Sri Lanka and New Zealand threw up some interesting moments.

IT is no surprise when it pours in Kandy during a Test match. This pretty town in the Lankan hill country once again received rain in buckets, ruling out play in the first five sessions.

Yet, despite the valuable time lost, the second Test between Sri Lanka and New Zealand threw up some interesting moments. In the end, Sri Lanka needed 191 in 38 overs to sneak out a 1-0 win in the two-Test series. However, the host refused to go for it.

Sri Lanka finished at 72 for one, which meant the two-Test series ended with neither side being able to force a victory. New Zealand remains at No. 3 in the ICC Test ratings, behind Australia and South Africa, while Sri Lanka continues at No. 4.

The Kiwis, normally resilient, were in distinct danger of suffering a shocking setback, when they slumped to 139 for seven in the second innings, losing six wickets for 54 runs in the morning session.

The New Zealanders had resumed at a seemingly safe 92 for one on the fifth morning. Then things began to go wrong. Opener Mark Richardson (55), once again adhering to the basics and having a fine series, fell to paceman Prabath Nissanka, edging to `keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Skipper Stephen Fleming was caught behind off off-spinner Kumara Dharmasena for 33, and then New Zealand lost wickets in a heap. The seemingly dead match had come alive, and the Kiwis were now fighting for survival.

The upbeat Lankans, however, met firm resistance from wicket-keeper batsman Robbie Hart and off-spinner Paul Wiseman.

The two, in a pressure situation, defied the Lankan bowling for close to two hours, adding 40, but more importantly, cutting into valuable time.

Even so, a target of 191 in 38 overs was distinctly possible. However, there are no restrictions on the number of overs that a bowler can send down in Tests, a skipper can have the field he wants, a `wide' is judged by a different yardstick and a paceman can bowl two bouncers in an over.

Sri Lanka could have thrown caution to the winds, and gone for it. However, there was some assistance for the bowlers from the Asgiriya pitch, and the home batsmen were in no mood to take risks.

From a personal point of view the match was memorable for off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan, who became only the third bowler in Test history, after Courtney Walsh (519) and Shane Warne (491) to reach 450 Test wickets.

Given his ability to gobble up batsmen, Muralitharan has a wonderful chance to go beyond the Australian leg-spinner over the next few months. Warne, serving a one-year ban for drug abuse, can only watch helplessly.

Muralitharan had been going through a rough phase, considering his own high standards. He was originally left out of the Sri Lankan squad for the ODI tournament in Sharjah that followed the World Cup.

The selectors said the off-spinner was recovering from injury, but Muralitharan declared himself completely fit. He was drafted into the Sharjah-bound squad, putting an end to a heated debate in the Lankan cricketing fraternity about his initial omission.

At the Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy, some of Muralitharan's old tricks with the ball were on view again, as New Zealand, that had grabbed a seven-run lead in the first innings, was bundled out for 183 on the final day.

Muralitharan's figures told the story — 39-18-49-5. All the elements of the off-spinner's bowling in Test cricket were on display. Muralitharan sent down long spells, was miserly, and picked up wickets.

He was in front of his home crowd — he is an extremely popular man in Sri Lanka, more so in Kandy — and did get the ball to spin and bounce, straighten and drift. Murali was always at the batsmen, not providing them any respite.

The 30-year-old bowler now has the most five-wicket hauls — 37 — by any bowler in Test history, leaving behind the Kiwi pace bowling legend, Sir Richard Hadlee. This is another statistic that reveals the off-spinner's ability to run through sides.

Muralitharan had a less profitable time in the first Test at the P. Saravanamuthu Stadium, where Kiwi captain Stephen Fleming frustrated him no end before finishing at an unbeaten 274 in the first essay.

The Lankan, so used to bamboozling the opposition at home, was seen through a lot more easily than in the past, and there were some who asked — Is Murali losing his old magic?

It is in this context that Muralitharan's eight for 139 in Kandy, in particular his display in the second innings, assumes importance.

There was a warm hug for Muralitharan from Chaminda Vaas when the off-spinner had Daryl Tuffey caught in the deep, his fifth scalp. It was a very special moment, for both Muralitharan and Vaas have played a huge role in determining Sri Lanka's cricketing fortunes over the last 10 years.

Muralitharan may have been struggling with injuries over the past 12 months, but he, at 30, is still young, and has a lot more to offer Lankan cricket. He aspires to become the first bowler in Tests to break the 600-wicket barrier, and it would take a brave man to bet against this match-winner.

The Kandy Test will also be remembered for a bloody collision between Daniel Vettori and Marvan Atapattu, when the Lankan ran the Kiwi out. Vettori had played some spanking strokes in a defiant 55, but the mishap left him with an ankle injury.

Atapattu, who had been involved in a similar incident with West Indian superstar Brian Lara in 2001, that resulted in the Trinidadian dislocating his shoulder, suffered cuts and bruises on his face. He came out to bat at the fall of the seventh Lankan wicket, but retired hurt soon, after making a couple of runs.

Winning the toss, the Kiwis had got off to a disastrous start, being reduced to 11 for three before Mark Richardson, a gritty, determined southpaw steadied the Kiwi boat somewhat along with Scott Styris (32).

Richardson departed for 55, but the Kiwi scoreboard still made unhappy reading at 109 for five. However, a maiden half-century by all-rounder Jacob Oram (74), who has settled into the side extremely well, and Vettori's breezy 55 ensured that New Zealand would cross 300.

The tall Oram's knock consumed 179 balls, and was dotted with 15 boundaries. And Vettori, a handy left-hander down the order, took the fight to the Lankan bowlers, finding the boundaries with ease, before that `run-in' with Atapattu.

The Sri Lankan reply was dominated by two knocks. Former captain Sanath Jayasuriya's strokeful 82, an ominous sign for Lanka's opponents ahead of the ODI triangular series, and skipper Hashan Tillekeratne's 93. The two left-handers are contrasting in their methods, with Tillekeratne, more of the tenacious kind, lacking the flamboyance of Jayasuriya.

However, Tillekeratne brings with him a lot of solidity to the middle-order and his 232-ball knock in Kandy that followed his 144 runs in Colombo, confirms that the southpaw has not lost his heart for a battle. For New Zealand, off-spinner Paul Wiseman, shouldering the burden in the absence of the injured Vettori, scalped four as the Kiwis managed a seven-run lead.

Wiseman would go on to produce a timely effort with the bat later. For a truncated match, the Test at Kandy had its share of thrilling moments. A pity, though, that the series was drawn.