Stephen Brenkley: Spinner played with passion and panache but it's as well for the game that he's gone

A fierce opponent, his eyes often appeared to be on stalks, but he enjoyed his work despite the exhaustive tests he was put through because of his action
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The Independent Online

So it was that for the 77th time in Test matches, Mahela Jayawardena took a catch off Muttiah Muralitharan yesterday. What a fielder-bowler combination it has been, usually involving Jayawardena crouching low, the predator at slip, waiting for the edge that would eventually be induced by the man weaving spells and creating dreams at the other end.

But no more. When, after 15 overs of tailend defiance Pragyan Ojha, the India left-arm spinner, could resist no more, that was that. Murali had taken his tally of wickets to an unprecedented 800 and walked off into the Galle sunset, having taken a wicket with his last ball in Test cricket. Shortly afterwards, Sri Lanka had confirmed a thumping 10-wicket win.

India can comfort themselves with the thought that in the rest of the series they will not be confronted with Murali. Nobody in Test cricket will be again. In the immediate aftermath of the victory as Murali was being feted by what appeared to be the entire population of Galle, South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, posted a message on Twitter.

He spoke for a generation of batsmen: "Murali, 800 Test wickets!!! Brilliant. Great Test career and a really good man. Glad I don't have to face him in Test cricket again."

Smith neatly made the point that not only was Muralitharan the most prodigious Test bowler in history but also played the game with unalloyed joy.

Fierce opponent though he was, his eyes often appearing to be on stalks, it was always evident that he enjoyed his work. When India's ninth wicket yesterday fell to a run out Murali too was running out of opportunities to reach the 800 landmark. But he merely smiled at the umpire.

As Test cricket stands now it is difficult to see his record being surpassed. He is 92 wickets ahead of Shane Warne, the man in second place, 181 in front of Anil Kumble in third. Of those still playing, Makhaya Ntini (only just) has 390, Harbhajan Singh 355. It might not last for ever but nobody alive now is likely to know.

Murali deserves this on many grounds. On the occasions when he was not carrying the Sri Lankan attack, he was the Sri Lankan attack. Until the last couple of years, when his potency diminished slightly and a grudging acceptance crept in, he constantly had to bowl in the face of doubts about his action. He bowled most of the overs, took most of the wickets for his country, his body was under constant duress.

The great and the good paid homage to him yesterday. Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of the ICC, went to Galle to see history being made and to accord respect to a great cricketer. Yet it is as well he has gone and cricket would do well to ensure that his like is never seen again.

Throughout the game for 15 years all conversations about Murali have dwelt on his legitimacy. Most former and many current players would say that he threw, paying scant attention to the scientific testing that put him well within the 15 degree of latitude now allowed to the elbow.

Those tests were exhaustive and it is testimony to Murali's strength of character that he kept going and remained so effective. But his action never looked as if it was pukka – corkscrew wrist, genetically bent elbow – and while the professional circuit publicly adjusted, it never displayed much private doubt.

Were another Murali – and the beaches and streets of Sri Lanka are still full of youngsters who throw rather than bowl the ball – to emerge now, he would be headed off at the pass, 15 degrees of flexion or not. Murali graced Test cricket but Test cricket for many confused reasons will be relieved that he has departed.