SPORT

Muralitharan mesmerises England again

Sri Lanka 331 & 99 for five

England 235

GALLE Dec. 4. Galle International Stadium is too mundane a name for a Test ground: sounding like an airport, lacking in romance. Never mind. The old Esplanade ground must surely soon be the Muttiah Muralitharan Stadium, renamed for the man who has turned it into a place that excites the imagination, that has great deeds in its history and a standing alongside Old Trafford and Eden Gardens and even Lord's.

The greatest spinner of his age was at it again today, returning seven for 47 and making it impossible to visualise a way in which this Test can end in anything but a Sri Lankan victory. It was the best return in his nine Tests here, stretched his tally to 67 wickets and reduced England's batsmen to fumbling, foot-fast and feeble searchers after the ball as it sizzled and buzzed and gyrated around their ankles.

A slog by the late order batsmen brought 56 runs and a half respectable total of 235, leaving England trailing by 96 in the first innings and 195 when Sri Lanka reached 99 for five at the end of day three. At least one England batsman has to perform incredibly well to rescue this match.

Of course, it is no surprise that Muralitharan has written his name large on this match.

His innings of 39 and his 10-5-15-2 on Wednesday all gave evidence that he is far from an ageing maestro and that his torque on the ball is as great as ever. We even disappeared into the encyclopaedia to look at the story of Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition torturer, to see if he had hurt his victims as much as Muralitharan, but it seems unlikely. Torquemada had the decency to send the unfortunates who confessed their sins to the stake.

Murali returns to give them another dose of death by 1,000 edged cuts in the following Test. He began, incredibly, by dropping Mark Butcher off his own bowling. Graham Thorpe should have been given out when he steered the ball to slip but a cloud of dust that arose as he edged the ball may have been responsible for umpire Daryl Harper making his obvious error.

Murali ended his first spell at 8-5-3-0 and it was not until Thorpe was lbw to Chaminda Vaas that Murali was rushed back at the Fort End and England showed just how mesmerised it has been by his name alone.

Thorpe was out in the 52nd over at 142, and in the next 17 overs to lunch only 22 runs were scored while three more wickets fell. Paul Collingwood will not forget his debut innings in a hurry. He had only a single to show for 10 nervy deliveries before he was snapped up at slip.

Andrew Flintoff batted as if he had been threatened with early to bed and no supper if he played a rash shot and went timidly lbw; the wicketkeeper Chris Read was scoreless after 10 balls before he was taken at short leg. All the work of Murali who was calling the shots as much as any general under siege in the Fort.

Butcher should have done more to break loose but he was committed to defence long before the tail began with Reid at No. 7 and it was not until he had gone caught at the wicket off Jayasuriya that the rustic swipes of Giles and Richard Johnson brought sixes and a little cheer to the Barmy Army types who made up most of the small crowd.

Jayasuriya walloped three successive off-side fours from Matthew Hoggard's second over but was caught — at the third attempt — by Marcus Trescothick at slip off Giles in the sixth over at 26. Kumar Sangakkara was run out while Gareth Batty had Marvan Atapattu stumped and Hashan Tillekeratne lbw in the space of three overs.

Batty is not as controversial as Murali but he celebrates with a roar. If he ever takes seven in an overseas Test innings they will know back in his native Bradford long before the television pictures appear.

A second juggling catch by Trescothick dismissed Thilan Samaraweera and reduced Sri Lanka to 85 for five, but by the close Sri Lanka held a clear advantage.

How many runs will Murali allow in the fourth innings? It is the only remaining question in an utterly predictable match.

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