Cricket: Muralitharan the magnificent

England 445 and 181 Sri Lanka 591 and 37-0 Sri Lanka win by 10 wickets: Test match: Sri Lanka's 16-wicket off-spinner in `a different league' as rout of England rewrites the record books

MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN, Sri Lanka's freakish off-spinner, yesterday bowled his way into the history books and his team to a 10-wicket victory. In dismissing England for 181 with figures of 9 for 65, Murali finished with match figures of 16 for 220, the fifth best bowling analysis of all time and the best ever at The Oval, beating the efforts of the Demon Spofforth, who took 14 for 90 in 1882.

Considering the barbs slung at him over the legitimacy of his unusual action - raised again by innuendo via England's coach, David Lloyd - the achievement was simply gargantuan. Certainly the off-spinner himself thought so, and he was quick to ask the umpire, David Shepherd, for the ball, which he immediately placed in a plastic wrapper for preservation.

There is a saying in Muralitharan's home town that roughly translates: "When you take the kid from Kandy, he takes candy from the kids." England may not have played like spoilt children but Lloyd certainly has. People have always had their suspicions over the bowling actions of others, but when you are coming to a sorry end, it is wise enough to keep them to yourself. Lloyd may find himself up before his own Board.

Alec Stewart, disappointed after the euphoria over the series win against South Africa was more gracious over the feat. "I play here for Surrey with Saqlain Mushtaq, who is a magnificent bowler," he said. "But this bloke is in a different league."

What makes him unique among finger spinners is the speed and flexibility of his wrist. If his action looks suspect it is because he has a deformed elbow, a feature which runs in the family. It is set at 11 degrees and is unable to straighten. Mainly it is the wrist though that allows him to get massive rotation on the ball, a gift that allows him to produce a lethal combination of spin, bounce and dip.

Relying so heavily on one man can have its problems, though. As Murali's fingers tired, England looked as if they might save the match after Mark Ramprakash and Darren Gough added 53 for the ninth wicket.

Yet as memories of Old Trafford loomed, Murali had Ramprakash well taken at short leg off bat and pad for 42, a vigil that lasted just over four hours. With Gough bowled round his legs sweeping an over later, the issue was settled with England only 35 on. Sanath Jayasuriya and Marven Atapattu took only five overs to knock them off.

Other milestones were set as well, though they all seemed to belong to Murali. For instance, when he removed Dominic Cork, he reached 200 wickets, 68 of them this year. As this is his 42nd Test, he is taking them at the same rate as Shane Warne.

As expected, Sri Lanka began the final day by bowling Murali from the Vauxhall End, where he immediately extracted some turn. Having successfully negotiated him the previous evening, Stewart and Steve James looked comfortable. James' survival was not down to his technique. Planting your foot early and playing round your front foot is no way to play an off-spinner turning the ball several feet, and James finally perished at silly point, caught off pad and bat.

Stewart not always at his best starting against spin, was in fact batting with great aplomb. Quick to use his feet whenever he could, it was ironically his lack of speed out of the blocks, that brought his downfall after Ramprakash called him through for a quick single. Turning the ball to square leg, Ramprakash set off for what looked like a sharp but comfortable single. Unfortunately for the England captain, the substitute, Upul Chandana, had other ideas. A swift one-handed pick up was followed by an even more impressive throw. With a single stump to aim at, Chandana's direct hit found Stewart desperately telescoped bat 18 inches short.

Faultless or not, no man feels entirely guilt-free after running out his captain and the incident sent Ramprakash, 12 at the time, into rigor mortis. When lunch was taken an hour later he had moved to 16, although the significance was somewhat overshadowed by John Crawley's dismissal, bowled by Murali through the gate, just moments earlier.

First ball after lunch and England's prognosis worsened further as Ben Hollioake, shuffling hesistantly, was lbw first ball. But if replays showed there was a suspicion of bat, there was no doubt about the dismissal that befell Dominic Cork. Sweeping at Murali, he was brilliantly caught by Romesh Kaluwitharana diving full stretch to his left after the ball popped up off his glove.

A few balls later, Ian Salisbury was lbw for the third duck of the innings. Playing back, England's leg-spinner was beaten by one that spun back sharply. If he had an excuse it was that he had not managed to turn one half that distance and he clearly was not expecting it.

The same could be said about England, who, after scoring 445 in their first innings, were beaten comfortably. Brilliantly though Muralitharan bowled, England's biggest failing was to allow Sri Lanka to score at four an over, without breaking sweat.

Henry Blofeld,

More cricket, page 19

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