Muralitharan 'better than Warne' - Kevin Pietersen

ANTIGUA - England batsman Kevin Pietersen believes Sri Lanka spinner Muttiah Muralitharan is the best bowler in the world and harder to face than Australian cricket great Shane Warne.

Pietersen, the world's top ranked one-day batsman, will face off-spinner Muralitharan on Wednesday when England clash with Sri Lanka in a World Cup Super Eights match in Antigua.

"Muralitharan is the hardest bowler in the world to face," Pietersen told reporters this morning. "Much harder (than Warne). He is a true great of the game.

"Murali spins the ball both ways whereas Warney you can sort of counteract."

Warne, who retired after Australia's 5-0 Ashes test whitewash over England in January, was known for his sledging but Pietersen said Muralitharan lets his bowling do the talking.

"Muralitharan just winds you up because he knows he is going to get you out. He just smiles and laughs. 'Silent assassin' I call him.

"He has so much talk with the cricket ball he doesn't have to say much," added Pietersen, who plays with Warne at English county side Hampshire and was good friends with him before a spat during the Ashes.

Warne holds the record for the most test wickets but Muralitharan, who has 674 victims, will easily surpass Warne's total of 708.

Pietersen said England had to win against Sri Lanka or world champions Australia on Sunday to have a realistic chance of reaching the semi-finals.

They have two points following Friday's win over Ireland and move on to Barbados for the rest of the Super Eights after the Australia clash.

"We haven't reached top gear, Wednesday the World Cup starts for England," the South-African born batsman said.

"It's a huge week for us. We can't leave Antigua on Monday with just two points. It'll be a great batting line-up when it's firing."


Why we love to love Sri Lanka

They have blended youth and experience, planning and flexibility, a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile. If Australia win the World Cup, the one-day game will move further into the laptop and towards power and fitness. If Sri Lanka win, it will be a triumph of spirit. The happy smile would have triumphed over the furrowed brow, writes Suresh Menon

In 1996, Sri Lanka crushed India’s dreams en route to winning the World Cup. Indian fans who tend to draw horns and provide tails and tridents to teams which beat their beloved heroes, somehow acknowledged Sri Lanka’s superiority.

It was as if they were saying, “If we can’t win, then you are our next choice.” A decade and a year later Sri Lanka throw India out of the World Cup, and except for some SMS jokes — which are more affectionate than vicious — nothing has changed.

Why do we love to love Sri Lanka?
The answer is — like Sri Lanka’s cricket — simplicity itself. A bunch of talented players come together as a team, with a heightened sense of their place in the scheme of things.

There are a couple of superstars, but they are focused on geeing up the team rather than calculating by how much a six or a wicket enhances their value in the endorsement market. As the team went out to field against the West Indies, the most animated pep talk came from Muttiah Muralitharan. He could so easily have cocooned himself, kept aloof. Yet here he was, as excited as a kid making his debut. It is a rare spirit.

The simplicity extends to their game too. There are only two types of batsmen — those who describe lovely arcs, usually over the boundary, and those whose batsmanship is made up of straight lines and high elbows. The bowlers have pace and cunning, or spin and cunning. And the wicket keeper is a weapon of mass destruction as he showed when he stumped Brian Lara off the medium pacer Chaminda Vaas or ran out batsmen by converting good throws into great ones.

Above all — and this, I think is the crux — this is a team which enjoys itself, and the players communicate that enjoyment to the spectators. There is something old-fashioned in the notion of enjoying the game. You are not supposed to in the post-modern era with its emphasis on winning and on calculating net run rates. But even Duckworth-Lewis smiles kindly on such teams as it did four years ago in South Africa.

Sri Lankans have raised their game to a level of simplicity that is startling. Coaches and laptop men have made cricket unnecessarily complicated, introducing elements that restrict the expression of personality. Luckily, batting such as Jayasuriya’s cannot be programmed in advance. Pitch the ball to him thrice in succession at the same spot and he will hit you to three different areas of the field. Like a master, he performs best when you call his form and class into question.

Likewise Muralitharan. He beat Chanderpaul every ball of a four-ball sequence with what looked like identical deliveries, but each did just enough to laugh at the batsman and skip out of range like a high-spirited child. The skill is impressive; the delight in exhibiting it even more so.

In a team of outstanding fielders — so Asian teams can field after all! — Dilshan Tillekeratne stands out, just as he stands out as a batsman. As a bowler he is a super sopper, drying up runs. It is easy to imagine that players feel someone will rise to the occasion, and therefore there are no crises. But to attribute to chance what is the result of hard work and professionalism is criminal.

For Sri Lankans are one of the most professional sides in the tournament, fully aware of what is expected of them, and fully geared to doing it with minimum fuss. But professionalism does not include being dour, or boring or pedantic. Sri Lanka have shown there is room for self-expression, for sheer enjoyment, for setting up unexpected challenges even under the umbrella of professionalism.

They have blended youth and experience, planning and flexibility, a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile. If Australia win the World Cup (they must worry they have peaked too early), the one-day game will move further into the laptop and towards power and fitness. If Sri Lanka win, it will be a triumph of spirit. The happy smile would have triumphed over the furrowed brow.

It is not difficult to love a team which tempers professionalism with spontaneity and moors high-spiritedness to effectiveness.

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The secret of Lankan cricket's good health

here are a variety of reasons for Sri Lankan cricket's excellent health. The players, selectors, administrators, coaches, and above all, the fans, have contributed to it. But there is an unseen factor which needs recognition, namely, Sri Lankan culture, especially the culture of the majority community, the Sinhalese.

The Sinhalese are, quintessentially, outdoor people. They not only love sports but give it a high status. Come Sunday or any holiday, rural boys would hold cross-country bicycle races. And unlike their counterparts in India, Sinhalese middle class parents do not deride their children's participation in sports as a waste of time. Job recruiters attach high value to sporting achievements. There is, thus, an incentive to play, and play hard, from an early age.

Sri Lanka may be a new comer to international cricket, but it has been an ardent cricketing nation for over a century. However, till the late 1980s, cricket was an elite game, restricted to the high class English medium schools in Colombo and Kandy – a cultural badge of a social class rather than a serious competitive sport.

Sea change

But Arjuna Ranatunga's ascendancy as captain in 1988 brought about a sea change. "Arjuna" as he is known, provided an innovative and aggressive leadership. He had a passion for promoting new talent, no matter where they came from. He boosted players' morale by standing up for those who had been treated unjustly, no matter who the tormentor was.

"Arjuna was dictating terms at that time. He did a lot for cricketers from outside Colombo. He brought in Sanath Jayasuiriya from Matara in the deep south, and gave him accommodation in his house in Colombo so that he could concentrate on the game," recalled Mahendra Ratnaweera, a senior cricket journalist.

Under the new conditions, the Sri Lankan team kept improving and grabbed the World Cup in 1996 – an event which ushered in a new epoch in Sri Lankan cricket.

"The cricket board prospered with sponsors coming in, and ad revenue increasing steeply. The game became popular in the outstations (small towns and rural areas). Money began to be spent on promoting the game in the schools, provinces and remote areas. And players were beginning to emerge from the outlying areas," Ratnaweera said.

In an innovative scheme, established players were made to play for their home districts so that the standard of cricket in the outback improved.

And outstation players helped improve cricket in their own way. "They had a hunger for the game. Playing for the country was something very big for the small town boys. They worked hard also because they had few other preoccupations, unlike the ones from Colombo's elite schools who were into studies and computers," noted Sidath Wettimuny, who scored Sri Lanka's first Test century in the series against Pakistan in 1981-82.

"In the last ten years, Sri Lankan cricket boards have not been afraid of using new talent, regardless of where they come from. That is why we have the likes of Lasith Malinga and Chamara Silva today," Wettimuny said.

Fostering professionalism

With the board getting richer, it entered into contracts with promising players to enable them to be full time players. This helped the growth of professionalism and commitment to the game.

"Under this system, the players practiced every day from 7.30 am to 12.30 pm, and in the evening they went for workouts," Ratnaweera said.

In contrast to Indian cricket, the Sri Lankan coaching and selection systems have given primary importance to fielding. "If a player is not a good fielder, he will have no place in a Sri Lankan team," said Wettimuny, a selector himself.

Sri Lanka has also had the advantage of having good Australian coaches like Dav Whatmore, John Dyson, Bruce Yardley and now, Tom Moody, who, to a man, have emphasised the importance of fielding.

The Sri Lankan team has the needed variety, and selectors routinely insist on having a "balanced" side. "Marwan Attapattu is a very good player, but he has had to stay out because he is not required in the team now. His inclusion will have upset the balance there," pointed out former ace batsman, Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Role of the board

Sri Lankan cricket boards have much to be proud of in fostering the game, but they have also been a hotbed of politics.

Board presidents have faced allegations of misappropriation. Elections have been challenged and annulled. And too many people (1400), including those from non-playing clubs, are involved in electing the President.

"But till date, board politics and conflicts have not had an adverse effect on the game," Wettimuny said.

"So long as the administrators do not interfere with the players, and players do not interfere with the administrators, it is fine," chipped in Kaluwitharana.

No demigods

Sri Lankan cricketers are well paid, but cricket is not as commercialised as it is in India. "This is probably because the market here is much smaller than it is in India," explained Wettimuny.

But above all, the players in Sri Lanka are not demigods. Perhaps due to Buddhism, which discourages the growth of cults and hero worship, the players, however successful, are not deified.

And the media here act as watchdogs, and not as advertising agencies, which manufacture demigods and raise the stakes beyond human endurance.

"The fans should look at cricket as a game and not as war. India is one of the best sides in the world, but the pressure from the fans had crippled the team. I am glad I am not an Indian cricketer," said Kaluwithrarana with relief.
(courtesy Hindustan Times)