The first Test of the latest three-match series between the sub-continental neighbours will be the last time Muttiah Muralitharan will grace Test cricket. The 38-year-old virtuoso, international cricket’s leading wicket-taker with 792 wickets and a towering personality as much for his deeds on the park as off it, has one final target to aim for – the unthinkable figure of 800 Test wickets.
The festoons and banners around the Galle International stadium, put up by curator and former Test spinner Jayananda Warnaweera, as well as the celebration of a wonderful career that Sri Lanka Cricket has planned over the next five days, could have served as potential distractions for Kumar Sangakkara and his men. The Lankan skipper, however, made it clear that his team would take the occasion in its stride, enjoying the moment but determined not to lose focus of the ultimate objective.
Sri Lanka and India have done battle so often in the recent past that there is very little the teams don’t know about each other. Their third three-Test series in as many years will, therefore, be a battle of attrition as much as anything else, though Sri Lanka will begin with a distinct edge over the number one Test team not only because of their formidable home record. India’s recently acquired status as excellent travellers will face its sternest test in a while, given the lightness of their bowling attack. The six specialist bowlers in the party between them have a combined experience of 130 Tests, two fewer than Muralitharan’s 132!
Take out Harbhajan Singh’s 83 Test appearances, and it merely reiterates the enormity of the task that lies ahead of an attack missing Zaheer Khan and S Sreesanth through injury. Some good news filtered through on Saturday, Harbhajan having recovered almost fully from the flu that kept him out of the practice game.
Sri Lanka are a batting machine at home. Tillakaratne Dilshan typifies their aggressive intent, the biggest singular batting threat because of his potential for bruising damage; Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun, all set for his Test debut, will have their hands full if Dilshan gets off to a start.
In direct contrast to their bowling, India’s batting is in exceptionally secure hands, the disasters of 2008 a distant memory now. The mystery spin of Ajantha Mendis had unsettled the middle-order so much then that neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Sourav Ganguly topped 100 runs for the series. There is no place for the 26-wicket man this time, at least for the first Test; Muralitharan, who played second fiddle in that series despite picking up 23 wickets, will most likely have Rangana Herath for company as he seeks the eight wickets that will allow him to finish with a whopping 800 Test scalps!
Tendulkar, who hasn’t played a competitive game since the final of IPL III on April 26, comes into this match with four hundreds in as many Tests this calendar year. As ever, his preparations have been impeccable, not unlike his illustrious middle-order colleagues Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, who both too will be determined to atone for a less than impressive run here in 2008.
India’s best batsmen on that tour were their daredevil openers, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag. The felicity with which Gambhir handled the twin threats of Muralitharan and Mendis was matched by the ferocity of Sehwag’s onslaught in the second Test here, his unbeaten double hundred in the first innings the cornerstone around which India built their series-levelling win.
Both carried that form into the home series against the Lankans late last year, but will this time have to contend with the pace and variations of Lasith Malinga, set for a return to Test cricket for the first time since December 2007.
No one, though, can snatch the spotlight away from Muralitharan, entertainer par excellence determined to make his swansong a memorable one.