Muralitharan: A Cricket Legend's Final Turn

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Eranga Jayawardena / AP

Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, right, shares a light moment with teammate Lasith Malinga during the third day of the first test cricket match between India and Sri Lanka in Galle, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, July 20, 2010.

Updated: July 22, 2010

One of the greatest final acts in sporting history is playing out in the cricket field of Galle, Sri Lanka: Local hero Muttiah Muralitharan, cricket's highest wicket-taker, is on course to end his storied career on Thursday by taking his 800th wicket in "test" matches (contests between national teams), a total long believed to be beyond any player's reach.

A "wicket" is the equivalent of an "out" in baseball: in test matches, each team can bat a maximum of two innings, with 10 outs per inning. But unlike baseball, where it's common for a single pitcher to pitch for an entire game, in cricket there are four or more bowlers in each side, which means the "wickets" are usually shared.

At the start of the five-day match in Galle, the odds against Muralitharan taking his career tally from 792 to 800 had seemed insurmountable. Getting eight batsmen out in one match is a difficult task for a bowler, akin to a hat-trick of goals in soccer or a complete-game shutout in baseball. It's harder still for a bowler at 38, past the age most cricketers have hung up their boots.

And to make the feat even more difficult, Sri Lanka's opponents are India, against whom Murali (as he is universally known) has historically struggled. The Indian team currently boasts cricket's most feared batting line-up, including Sachin Tendulkar, the sport's best-ever batsman.

Then, Mother Nature intervened to make Murali's task positively Herculean: The entire second day of the match was abandoned due to rain, thus reducing the time available to Murali as he made his final charge.

[UPDATE: He did it! Murali captured his 800th wicket — India's Pragyan Ojha — with the last ball of his career.]

For context, imagine Lionel Messi playing his final game at age 39, requiring 3 goals to take his career total to 2,000 — but that final game is against the best Italian defense, in the middle of a thunderstorm. Or Randy Johnson, in his final game, needing to beat the Yankees to get his 600th win.

But Murali's career has been all about making Herculean challenges look easy. After his team had batted their way to an unbeatable 520 runs, Murali took five wickets in India's first innings. Tens of thousands of fans at the stadium and a TV audience running to hundreds of millions were treated to the full range of Murali's skills: As a "spin" bowler, he can make the ball loop deceptively through the air and then turn sharply and at awkward angles upon bouncing, forcing the batsman into errors. When India batted a second time on Wednesday, he took the wicket of Yuvraj Singh. Two more to go.

India will go into the final day with five wickets standing. The odds now very look good that Murali will get the pair he needs.

Not that he cares: He has long said that statistics don't interest him. That's a cliché when uttered by most players, but Murali's sincerity is underlined by the fact he announced his retirement before the test even began, fully aware that he might not reach the 800 mark. "I don't believe in numbers — 800 is just a number everyone will forget once you retire," he said.

Even if he doesn't make it, Murali's place in cricket's pantheon is assured. His unorthodox bowling style — some early opponents thought he was cheating— and competitive spirit made him a nightmare for a generation of batsmen. He and Australia's Shane Warne lit up the sport in the early part of the decade as they raced each other for the title of greatest wicket-taker. Warne retired three years ago, on 708, and there are few bowlers in the game now who have a realistic shot at surpassing Murali.