MUMBAI // The most prolific accumulator of runs and the most accomplished taker of wickets in the history of international cricket will face each other for the last time in the game's five-day arena when the third and final Test between India and Sri Lanka gets under way here tomorrow.
But, by the time the match is completed, the historic - and potentially riveting - final encounter between Sachin Tendulkar and Mutiah Muralitharan may have taken a back seat to another momentous cricket occasion: if India win, they will top the world Test rankings for the first time. After playing 432 Tests, the first of them against England in 1932, India, who recorded their 100th victory when they thrashed Sri Lanka by an innings and 144 runs in last week's second Test in Kanpur, are third in the rankings and need only to win in Mumbai to leapfrog ahead of their opponents and South Africa.
Climbing to the top spot would undoubtedly represent a major milestone in Indian cricket, but their captain, MS Dhoni, has tried to play down the significance, warning his players to concentrate on the match and forget about the rankings. "It will be an added responsibility," he said. "Becoming the number one side is not important, we've got to maintain our performance level." India's chances of beating the Sri Lankans have already suffered a blow with in-form opener Gautam Gambhir, the world's top-ranked batsman, pulling out of the match to attend his sister's wedding.
The left-handed Gambhir has played a significant role for India in the series, scoring centuries in each of the first two Tests and sharing in a 233-run opening stand with fellow centurion Virender Sehwag in Kanpur. He is expected to be replaced by Murali Vijay, an exciting but inexperienced batsmen who played his only test against Australia last year. Batsmen have dominated the series so far with 10 centuries in the two Tests, although India's medium-pacer Shanthakumaran Sreesanth gave the seam bowlers some hope with a five-wicket haul in the first innings in Kanpur.
Although they cannot win the series, the Sri Lankans are eyeing their own slice of history and are pinning their hopes on a return to wicket-taking form by Muralitharan. They have never won a Test on Indian soil and the performance of their great spinner, the leading wicket-taker in Tests and one-day internationals, remains a real cause of concern. He has taken just five wickets at a cost of 396 runs and has said he may retire before the 2011 World Cup.
"I am 37 years old and I can't bowl as much because I get tired after 15-16 overs. But I will try and play a little bit of one-day cricket - that's only 10 overs to bowl," he said. "If I find everything is not going well I might retire from both forms of the game before the World Cup. "Everything depends on how much my body can take. In Test cricket it's a little bit harder because I have always been a threat to other sides [but] at the moment it's not looking like that because others are playing me well. I think I made the right decision to retire from Test cricket at the end of the West Indies series next year."