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Murali turns gamble into victory chance

By Peter Roebuck

30 August 1998

UPON the bony fingers, rotating wrist and quick wits with which Muttiah Muralitharan was blessed may depend the outcome of this afterthought of a match. England had thought themselves safe and cannot now be as sanguine. They must contend with Murali upon a wearing fifth-day pitch.

Alone among the bowlers he has managed to inconvenience the batsmen, and this upon a surface as flat as a Birmingham vowel. By Monday he will have runs upon the board and England on the defensive. Sri Lanka's exhilarating and skilful batting has given them a chance of securing an extraordinary victory.

Bowling from wide of the crease, an unusual angle, Murali's deliveries fell like a shot bird, spun sharply and bounced steeply enough to keep close fieldsmen alert. Bounce is the critical factor for otherwise edges will go to ground as swiftly as an alarmed badger. Batsmen were bowled through the gate and behind their pads and it took a lively and timely assault from John Crawley to spoil his figures.

The visitors may yet rue that telling last-wicket partnership. It is as well that Alan Mullally isn't playing, his footprints providing their hospitality. Just as well, too, that Sri Lanka's other top bowler, Chaminda Vaas, is absent. None the less Murali's work in the second innings will be fascinating to watch.

None of the home bowlers was remotely as resourceful. Indeed they seemed to lack any sign of lustre, at any rate until Darren Gough turned his attentions to the stumps in a characteristically energetic post-prandial contribution. Otherwise the bowling was ragged and ropey enough to provoke smiles Down Under and to suggest that England can prosper only upon pitches assisting their seam attack.

Gough began by testing Sanath Jayasuriya's back-foot game, or else his ability to avoid bumpers, depending upon your point of view. Dominic Cork produced as much swing as a hip-hop group while Angus Fraser found venom beyond his range. Overall England played like a team waiting upon autumn's relief. Sri Lanka have played like a team for whom this match is a great event.

Alas, Ian Salisbury was the worst of the lot, either bowling well outside off-stump or else down the leg-side. Presumably these tactics originated from the dressing room, where they ought to be left. Shane Warne also began in this style but soon learned to concentrate upon the blind spot around the batsman's toes.

In Salisbury's defence it must be said that he was operating mostly to a mixture of right and left-handers and to players adept against spin. Moreover he was given a long spell. Perhaps his captain was testing him as he had Ben Hollioake earlier. Certainly Alec Stewart was slow to ask his part-time spinners to lend a hand.

None the less Salisbury was dispatched square of the wicket and was easily swept and late cut, and these are bad signs. In truth he seemed beyond his class. A difference lies between sending the ball down and projecting it with intent. A spinner must rip the ball like a top from a bottle. He must also be able to sustain a spell against gifted batsmen on an unhelpful pitch.

Accordingly, the chief delight of an immensely enjoyable day lay in the confident batting of the visiting team. They had shown their hand by allowing their opponents to take first innings, a move at first mystifying that might prove a master stroke. Doubtless they realised England's dependence upon their pace men. Naturally they are also determined to perform well and believed the match could be lost only in its opening hours. Certainly they did not fear England's spinners. Most of all they are motivated by the desire to prove themselves worthy of regular visits. Happily a large crowd had gathered to join in the fun and to applaud their skills.

Even their lesser lights impressed; Marvan Atapattu with his neat and correct movements, Mahela Jayawardene with his youthful promise. But it was the great men of Sri Lankan cricket that took the day. Jayasuriya, the cricketing buccaneer, and Aravinda de Silva, previously rumbustious and now humble and settled.

Jayasuriya was magnificent. England could not contain him. In some respects he resembles Graeme Pollock for he, too, seems to grab the bat as much as hold it and he, too, waits ages for the ball before dispatching it with a plump of the bottom hand.

At first he relied upon cuts and blazing drives through cover. Soon he started to expand, sweeping and leg-cutting, he stroke-played against pace and spin. Only the on-drive was beyond him for he is not as fluent off his pads, a limitation that allowed England their brief periods of control.

Throughout Jayasuriya batted comfortably, hitting bad balls to the ropes and otherwise taking singles. Apart from a couple of swishes against Salisbury, he did not appear in danger. Nor did he seek to dominate or destroy, instead moving along like a river in full flow. England spread their field, vainly trying to protect the boundaries and idly waiting upon a rush of blood. Repeatedly fieldsmen found themselves condemned to hapless pursuit.

Meanwhile de Silva eased sweetly along, flicking off his pads and presenting the highest of elbows. England have a fight on their hands. Much may depend upon Murali.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 30 Aug1998 - 10:32