Off-spinner finds England's fertile land ideal for making hay

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The Independent Online

He has been the scourge of most Test nations who have faced him, but Muttiah Muralitharan has found England to be fertile ground in his ceaseless hunt for victims. It was perfectly proper that the Sri Lanka off-spinner should claim his 100th first-class five-wicket haul in this Test here yesterday.

Rather like Australia's leg-spinner Shane Warne, Muralitharan has accumulated more Test wickets against England than against any other country.

To date the tally stands at 96, which is dwarfed in comparison with Warne's incredible 172 wickets against the same opponents, but it is impressive all the same. And anyway Warne has needed 31 Tests to accumulate his vast collection, Muralitharan has reached his total in just 14 matches, and at a superior average.

England now have the unenviable record of being twice among Sri Lanka's three victories away from the sub-continent, New Zealand were the first victims in 1995, then came England's first defeat, at The Oval in 1998.

That was the occasion when Muralitharan claimed match figures of 16 for 220, which put him at fifth in the all-time list of match hauls. The 34-year-old son of a Tamil hill country confectioner has courted controversy with his action, particularly with his "doosra" - which turns away from right-handed batsman.

On each of the four occasions that he has been called for "chucking" he has subsequently been cleared. The first umpire to call him was the Australian Darrell Hair, who did so on no fewer than seven occasions in the Boxing Day Test between Australia and Sri Lanka at Melbourne in 1995.

Hair did not stand in any other matches involving the tourists for the rest of that season. Remarkably, the Australian official was standing in this Test having stood in the previous one at Edgbaston and there has been not so much as a flicker of suspicion from the 53-year-old umpire.

There were to be more questions and numerous bio-mechanical tests after subsequent calls by another Australian umpire, Ross Emerson, in 1998-1999 and most recently by International Cricket Council match referee, Chris Broad, in 2004. But the ICC finally changed their rules on the angle of flexion allowed in the bowling arm, raising it from five degrees to 15 degrees and Murali was free to challenge Warne for a place in cricket history.

Right now the Australian leads the way in the all-time Test wicket-taking list with 685, but this series has lifted Murali's total to 635, and with a two-year advantage over Warne there is every likelihood of the genial Sri Lankan overhauling his great spinning rival before his career is over.

Moment of the Day

The cheers were ironic, but they would have been music to Monty Panesar's ears. The batting of England's left-arm spinner has received almost as much criticism as his fielding, but he showed he is no mug with the willow when he swept Muttiah Muralitharan over deep midwicket for six before one sweep too many resulted in an lbw success for Sanath Jayasuriya.

Shot of the Day

England did not play many, but Andrew Strauss was responsible for most of the good ones. In an effort to mess Chaminda Vaas's length up Strauss batted out of his crease and it brought him rewards after surviving a call for leg before early on from Vaas. In one over Strauss cut and drove Vaas for four. The best shot was the drive which raced to the extra cover boundary.

Ball of the Day

Marcus Trescothick would have been telling himself not to play back to Muttiah Muralitharan's doosra but, on 31, he did and perished, dealing a blow to England's excellent start. Murali's unique bowling action makes his doosra very hard to pick up and the ball that dismissed Trescothick turned in to him sharply and knocked back his off-stump. From this point on Murali took total control.

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