Muralitharan prepares to escape England's shackles

While England hum and haw over which spinner they select as cover for Ashley Giles and Gareth Batty during December's Test series in Sri Lanka, Muttiah Muralitharan has set himself the target of taking 650 Test wickets before he retires from the game. Cricket's leading spin bowler has so far claimed 459 scalps in his 82 Tests and is 60 wickets away from Courtney Walsh's world record of 519.

Equalling Walsh's tally during Sri Lanka's three-Test series against England is out of Muralitharan's reach but the master off-spinner will be hoping to move closer to Shane Warne, who is the second highest wicket-taker in the game with 491.

"Last time England played [me] well," Muralitharan said, "but the time will come for me again. I will do the damage. I am bowling really well at the moment and am prepared for anything this time. I would be happy taking 650 wickets before I retire and if I keep playing for another five years I think I could achieve those kinds of figures."

England, however, have not been a team that Muralitharan has had a lot of success against recently. Nobody - especially those like myself who were playing in the game - will forget his 16-wicket haul at The Oval in 1998, but in the four Tests since then he has taken only 22 wickets against England at an average of 33.

Negating a bowler of this stature in such a way is something England's batsmen can be proud of, and it is the main reason why they won 2-1 here in 2001 and then beat Sri Lanka 2-0 at home in 2002.

However, the greatest credit for this achievement should go to Duncan Fletcher. Since taking over as England's coach in 1999, he has helped each of England's batsmen become more accomplished players of spin bowling. Through working with Fletcher the likes of Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain now use a technique known as "the press".

There is nothing particularly complicated about it but it is based around the idea of the batsman moving into position early so that, should the ball be deflected on to the pad from the bat, it does not fly at a catchable height to the close fielders. If executed correctly this technique allows the ball to hit a soft, stationary pad and die at the feet of the batsman.

Muralitharan has still been taking wickets but his strike-rate - balls bowled per wicket taken - against England has been 99, which compares with a career figure of 60. And it will be how well England cope with Muralitharan during the next five weeks which decides what frame of mind Vaughan's side return home in for Christmas.

In an effort to alter this trend Muralitharan has been trying to add further variations to his repertoire. News of this will not come as a surprise to England because Warne, the legendary Australian leg-spinner, has started every Ashes campaign since his first in 1993 by stating that he has developed a new "mystery" ball.

"You always need to get better," Muralitharan said. "I want to prove myself and get more wickets against England. Last time [Graham] Thorpe played well and won the battles, but this time I will make sure I win all the battles. I have been working particularly hard on drifting the ball recently and that makes it harder for batsmen to get into the right position. The top-spinner that moves away from the right-hander is also coming on really well at the moment - it's going like a leg-spinner."

If all this was not enough potentially to flummox England's batsmen - possibly intentionally - Muralitharan is also working on a back-spinner. This he says, "will make it harder for batsmen to pad me away". However, this may not be a delivery they have to worry about this winter because it is taking the little master longer than expected to perfect.

England have a warm up match against Sri Lanka A today before their first encounter with Murali in the first of three one-day internationals, on Tuesday.

The one-dayer in Dambulla will be the first game played under lights at the ground. Vaughan and co will be hoping they are bright enough to see what is taking place 22 yards away.

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