The man who has had the best in the world for breakfast ran into a brick wall in the shape of a slow, flat surface at one of his most favoured venues and remarkable application from India’s lower-order on the final day of the first Test.
Tantalisingly poised at 799 Test wickets – no one had even dreamed of 800, let alone getting close to it – the 37-year-old virtuoso spent an agonising 228 minutes and 141 deliveries waiting for number 800. The whole gamut of emotions must have run through his cluttered mind during that period, but outwardly, he was calm and composed, nary a sign of desperation on his face.
For all the focus on winning the match, it is unlikely that Kumar Sangakkara, and his team-mates, would not have thought about that 800th wicket. The entire stadium, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a brief while before lunch, willed the little big man on to his landmark achievement, but a bigger power kept holding him back. Suddenly, India were left with just one wicket, and Muralitharan still needed that one wicket to top 800. In the interim, VVS Laxman and Abhimanyu Mithun first, then Lasman and Ishant Sharma and finally Ishant and Pragyan Ojha, countered him with a broad sword and a big heart. The occasional aerial ball flew wide of outstretched hands, the odd optimistic leg before appeal met with no more than a wry smile from umpires Harper and Tucker. Sangakkara swung his main man around, from one end to the other and back to the first, then back to the second, as Sri Lanka pulled out all stops. No one needed to tell the other bowlers to attempt to winkle out the last batsman. Sri Lanka could embrace that tack for a brief while because they were so far ahead of the eight-ball, and were in no danger of having to settle for any result other than a victory.
That historic moment eventually occurred at 1.54 pm just when serious doubts were beginning to creep in on whether it was indeed not meant to be. Amidst mounting tension – wife Madhimalar all but chewed her nails out while four-and-a-half-year-old son Naren appeared blissfully unaware of the enormity of the moment – Muralitharan found an outside edge for the last time in Test cricket.
He couldn’t have hoped for a better pair of hands than Mahela Jayawardene’s to get under the Ojha prod. In 96 Tests, Jayawardene had taken 76 catches off Muralitharan’s bowling. Number 77 went safely into the soft cup, the stadium erupted and Muralitharan threw his arms heavenwards, joyous and relieved, ecstatic but also thankful that the examination was over. Forever.
“I was not at all emotional throughout the last week,” Muralitharan said later. “Frankly, I am happy it’s all over. Even last week, I trained hard to play this match and take it very seriously. God has given me everything. Eight wickets, victory, basically everything. This is one of the greatest moments in my life, retiring this way.”
Murali came to Galle needing eight wickets to touch 800. He left Galle secure in the knowledge that more than that, he had touched peoples and brought smiles. A true champion, if ever there was one.