KARACHI // Despite the endless platitudes served to him over the course of his record-breaking career, Muttiah Muralitharan is still commendably humble. The off-spinner is ever active in charity work, having raised considerable funds for tsunami victims as well as cancer sufferers in Sri Lanka. He also remains modest to a fault.
Yet even he must realise that humility occasionally comes across as false modesty. "I love this game," he said during the Asia Cup last week, while musing on his chances of breaking Wasim Akram's one-day international wickets record. "I want to play on, but it will depend on my fitness and how I contribute to the team's performance." The fitness aspect of that statement is understandable: at 36, Muralitharan's rubberised joints are becoming ever more rigid.
But doubting his contribution to the team's cause? For much of the time since playing his first Test against Australia in 1992, Muralitharan has carried his team's performance single-handedly - at least on the bowling front. To consider a bowling attack without him is like imagining Dubai without cranes - you know it is going to happen one day, but it still seems impossible. Yet his words already seem to have been strangely prophetic. The world's most prolific bowler was relegated to a bit-part role for much of the Asia Cup, due to the emergence of the mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis.
On Sunday, when Mendis returned an incredible 6-13 to turn the final against India, Muralitharan spent most of his time meandering around the outfield unnoticed. Mendis was just seven years old when Muralitharan first stepped on to the international scene, and he has a long way to go before emulating his feats. "Murali is a different class altogether," said Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lanka captain. "I don't think we should forget him."
Sri Lanka will host India for three Test matches and five one-day internationals starting late this month, and Jayawardene is looking forward to letting loose his new dynamic duo. He thinks Mendis's presence will only serve to make Muralitharan an even more potent threat. He added: "Mendis will come to the party, I'm sure. "It will be good to have another spinner who can support Murali. Over the years, he missed a good quality spinner to support him. There will be a lot of pressure taken off him, so I think he will relax and take more wickets."