Cricket: Lancashire secure magic of Muralitharan

LANCASHIRE HAVE confirmed the signing of Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan off-spinner, as their overseas player for next season. The 27-year-old bowler replaces Wasim Akram, the Pakistan all-rounder, who has been at the club since 1987 and has led them to both the NatWest Trophy and the AXA League title this season.

Muralitharan, who was pursued by two other counties, including Kent, has signed a one-season contract and will report to Old Trafford when Sri Lanka's World Cup commitments come to an end next summer. He will only be available to play half of Lancashire's Championship matches and two thirds of their one-day games and could be called away again at the end of the season for Sri Lanka's home Test series against Australia.

Wasim, meanwhile, has announced himself open to offers from other counties after Lancashire's decision: "If someone wanted to sign me for next year and the year 2000 then that would be great, but I don't want to hang around playing after that," he said. "I've had some fantastic times with Lancashire and I'm going to miss the place so much, the club, the dressing-room and being part of it all. I don't think I've got a single bad memory of my time here.

"I wanted to stay but they decided on Murali, which is fine by me, and if we can win our third trophy at the end of the season then that would be a dream come true.

"Muralitharan is one of the best off-spinners in the world and there is no doubt he's a match-winner. I think he will fit in well in the Lancashire dressing-room because he's very bubbly and he's always laughing," Wasim said.

Muralitharan produced one of the great performances in Test history earlier this month by claiming 16 wickets for 220 runs, the fifth-best figures of all time, to help Sri Lanka complete an emphatic 10-wicket victory over England at The Oval. He has taken 68 wickets in eight Tests this year - more than any other player.

Leicestershire's hopes of winning a second County Championship title in three years are being threatened by an injury to Alan Mullally their fast left-arm bowler - and the unpredictable English weather. Mullally, who will tour Australia this winter with England, could miss his side's penultimate game against bottom of the table Essex at Grace Road today with a calf strain. He will have a fitness test this morning before a decision is made. James Ormond is standing by.

Essex, champions in 1996, lead Surrey - who they face at The Oval in the final game of the season next week - by five points, with treble-chasing Lancashire three points back in third.

Rain and high winds are expected in the Leicester area over the next four days and the Leicestershire manager, Jack Birkenshaw, said: "It's becoming an exciting finish to the season but because of the weather forecast, things are very much in the lap of the Gods. Hopefully, we'll get a fortnight's decent weather for everyone and may the best team win.

"It's in our hands now and we've got to play like we can. Essex have got some useful players and they'll be looking to redeem themselves after losing the Sunday League. They certainly won't roll over."

At the Riverside, Durham take on Surrey with the 26-year-old Martin Saggers given his first appearance of the season. He takes over from Marc Symington, who made his Championship debut against Derbyshire, while Steve Harmison returns in place of Neil Killeen, who suffered a knee injury against Glamorgan on Sunday.

Gloucestershire are expected to keep faith with the side that defeated Northamptonshire inside two days as they aim to keep their faint Championship title hopes alive against Middlesex at Lord's today.

The Bristol club are in fourth place, 21 points behind Leicestershire, and their attack will be spearheaded by Courtney Walsh, who has 89 first- class wickets and is looking to take 100 in a season for the second time.

Yorkshire's Darren Gough will again be on the injured list as Dickie Bird umpires in his final first-class match when Warwickshire visit Headingley. Brian Lara, the visiting captain, is out of the game with an injured left knee, and is replaced by Trevor Penney.

Shane Warne, the Australian leg-spinner, hopes to be fit for the first Ashes Test against England in late November. He said the progression of his reconstructed shoulder was ahead of schedule.