Sri Lanka celebrate Muttiah Muralitharan's dismissal of Ian Salisbury

127 for 8: Murali gets rid of Ian Salisbury in England's second innings

© PA Photos/Getty Images

I Was There

'The next time we visited England, they were giving us three-Test series'

Twenty years ago, Murali and Co were invited to play just the one Test in England. They made sure no one would forget the slight

Interviews by Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Two years after Sri Lanka won the World Cup, they were still only invited for a one-off Test in England. At the back end of the 1998 English summer, the teams played at The Oval, which would throw up an unexpected result, heralding a new acceptance of Sri Lanka as a Test power, while confirming Muttiah Muralitharan as one of the finest spinners of his era. Six players who took part in the match, and Sri Lanka coach Roy Dias, reminisce about the game.

Darren Gough, England fast bowler: We'd just played a five-Test series against South Africa. We'd won it after being 1-0 down, and everybody celebrated. We were all mentally and physically drained. I remember when we got told we were playing at The Oval against Sri Lanka, and we thought we could have played them anywhere in the country except The Oval, which was more likely to suit them than anywhere else.

Mark Butcher, England opener: The series against South Africa was the first five-match series we'd won for 13 years, or something like that. This match wasn't unwelcome exactly, but everyone had already done their celebrating. This wasn't the main event. And that wasn't us being high-minded. We knew that the Sri Lankans were fantastic players. Aravinda de Silva had scored millions of runs in county cricket. Sanath Jayasuriya had flogged England one-day teams over the years.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka opener: I think they thought that giving us even one Test was a waste of their time. When we played aggressively, I think there was a perception that we were batsmen who just thrashed and smashed the ball like a crazy person with no brain. But it wasn't like that for us.

"It wasn't a spin-friendly wicket. I used to turn it a lot, but any other spinner didn't turn it much on that wicket. It was flat - if you score 445 and 590, how can it be spin-friendly?" Muttiah Muralitharan

Clearly eager to prove themselves in England, and in the longest format, Sri Lanka had undertaken a long build-up to the Test, playing no fewer than five multi-day matches against counties. By the time the Test rolled around, they had big wins under their belt and had substantial confidence in their game.

Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka batsman: There was basically a county tour for us. That was part of our preparation those days - playing as many four-day games as possible. Some of the county teams were very strong teams. But when we got to the Test, it was in the latter part of the summer, and that probably helped us because the wickets were flat. The England camp wasn't very happy.

Butcher: I don't remember there being any meetings about the Sri Lankan players before the match. The main focus really was about what we found for the Oval pitch in the two days before. It was very dry, and I knew that would be the case. That was my home ground and pitches were pretty dry and worn down south in that summer.

Gough: We got complacent. We thought we had done all the hard work. We had beaten a good South African side - arguably the best team in the world alongside Australia. And we thought we'd turn up against Sri Lanka and get a win. But they were a very, very good side in that period. They had done well against us in one-day cricket. After that World Cup quarter-final in Faisalabad where Jayasuriya smashed it, I always knew it was going to be difficult. But we thought we had enough in us in the Test format.

Although everyone agreed the Oval track looked as if it was full of runs, Arjuna Ranatunga won the toss and, incredibly, chose to bowl first.

Butcher: We couldn't figure out for the life of us why he wanted us to bat first. It became clear later on. But at the time we were ecstatic.

Steve James:

Steve James: "The day before the game and my wife still hadn't gone into labour. She said: 'You have to go. You can't miss playing for England.'" © Getty Images

Roy Dias, Sri Lanka coach: The decision to bowl first was a collective one. We knew Murali was our No. 1 weapon if we were to get 20 wickets. We had a very strong batting line-up. Ultimately we thought, okay, this is the only Test we're going to play in England and we want to win. So we took that chance. If our batsmen scored heavily in the first innings, we wanted to give Murali some time to rest in between innings, rather than worry about imposing a follow-on. That's the confidence we had in our batting lineup, which was very experienced.

Gough: When we saw we'd lost the toss, the bowlers just thought: "Here we go again, another 100 overs in the field." Then we found out we were batting and the bowlers jumped up and down.

England batted well, as expected, with Graeme Hick making 107 and John Crawley 156 not out. But for one England batsman, the night following the first day of the Test was to be truly momentous.

Steve James, England opener: Mike Atherton was due to play in this Test, to open with Butcher, so I was at home in Wales. My wife was pregnant and the day before the game - Wednesday - her water broke. We went to the hospital in Cardiff. Sometime during the afternoon I got a message to say that my county team, Glamorgan, had phoned the hospital and that I had to phone them back immediately. My wife said: "Maybe you're getting a call-up for England again." I'd had a late call-up against South Africa that summer. I played one Test and then was dropped again.

So I returned the call, and they said that Mike Atherton's back had gone, and they wanted me to go up to The Oval. It was about 8 o'clock that night, the day before the game, and my wife still hadn't gone into labour. She said: "You have to go. You can't miss playing for England." So I just went to the game and batted the next morning. I had got about 30-odd and was caught and bowled by Murali after lunch. Then the chairman of selectors said: "Why don't you go back to Cardiff?"

I missed the last session and went back. I was at the hospital all night, and my daughter was born at 20 minutes to five the next morning. I gave her a cuddle and got straight back on the train. I got back just before play started. We batted till tea that day, so I slept most of that time, then went in to field. Arjuna very kindly got a bottle of champagne and presented it to me at lunch on one of the days, to say congratulations on the birth, which was a nice touch. I knew a few of the Sri Lankan lads because I'd been on an A team tour there.

"There was a perception that we were batsmen who just thrashed and smashed the ball like a crazy person with no brain. But it wasn't like that for us" Sanath Jayasuriya

Gough: We got 445 in the first innings, and to be honest, we thought the game was over. If you get 445 in the first innings and bat more than 150 overs, you don't expect to lose. Hick and Crawley had batted beautifully, and they were our best players of spin in that team. Crawley was very stylish.

Muttiah Muralitharan: They batted slowly. Nobody could take many wickets because in the first innings the pitch was so flat. I was bowling at one end and getting a few wickets here and there. It was not that successful a first innings, even though I got seven wickets.

Gough: What we used to do against Murali - in one-day cricket as well - is just to get what you can against him, and score off the other bowlers. Don't take any unnecessary risks. To be fair, he went for only 2.5 runs an over across 60 overs - which is a lot of overs. They probably underbowled some of the others. Even Jayasuriya and [Kumar] Dharmasena could have been bowled. But then it shows how strong and fit Murali was, really. He never looked like he was tired. But for even a spinner, that amount of overs was a big ask.

Sri Lanka lost Marvan Atapattu before stumps on the second day, and Jayawardene early on the third morning. A 143-run stand between Jayasuriya and de Silva formed the guts of Sri Lanka's reply. Jayasuriya had special motivation in this match - he had been called "just a slogger" by England during the 1996 World Cup, and he was desperate to prove his Test credentials. He smoked 213 off 278 balls.

Jayasuriya: I wasn't among the runs in England, leading up to the Test. My form was up and down and I was worried. But the captain, vice-captain, management and coaches gave me so much confidence that I thought: "Yeah, I can get out of this rut." What England had said - about me being a slogger - gave me strength. We played good cricket, and we played clean shots. If something starts in this part of the world [subcontinent], the way they look at it is a little different. But after a while, when they repeat what we were doing, it's suddenly a good thing. We shouldn't take that too much to heart. Our job is just to hit the ball in a way that will hurt them.


Jayasuriya: "What England had said - about me being a slogger - gave me strength. We played good cricket, and we played clean shots. Our job is just to hit the ball in a way that will hurt them" © Getty Images

Gough: I always fancied getting Jayasuriya out caught in the slip area, but it was such a good pitch - I think it was now at its best, for their innings. I remember it being a hot, hot few days. The attack had bowled a lot of overs over the summer. And because of the state of our spin options, we knew the seamers had to knock them over. Spin was always going to be our downfall, really. Ian Salisbury, who bowled legspin, had a disappointing summer, and although he was a good bowler, he just lacked confidence. He was under pressure straightaway - he had just seen Murali get seven wickets. He was also playing at home, because he played for Surrey. The pressure was too much.

Butcher: Batting aggressively was their reputation. They forced the opposition to bowl as much seam at them as possible, and the ball was going all over the place. It was carnage.

Jayasuriya: It wasn't senseless hitting. We respected the better spells, and we were cautious around the breaks, very keen to hang on to our wicket. And it wasn't all easy. The bounce was a bit hard to gauge on that pitch, so I put the pull shot away. But the pull was Aravinda's strength, so he kept on doing that. There was a long boundary on one side, so I thought it would be tough to clear. At those times I just scored a single and handed it over to Aravinda. Gough also tried to swing it into my pads a few times, but I was able to keep those balls out.

After Jayasuriya's blitz had left Sri Lanka 328 for 3, de Silva and Ranatunga combined for a further 122 runs, de Silva eventually making 152, and Ranatunga 51. The pair took Sri Lanka into the lead before the tail added more quick runs to get to a total of 591 - 146 runs in front.

Gough: The seamers got a little bit of reverse swing in the middle, but then Aravinda was such an unbelievable player. I had played against him while he was playing for Kent, and he was one of the best I've ever bowled against. He just used to get the ball so fine down the leg side. When it was reversing I thought I'd go for the lbw, and he just kept getting enough bat on it to go fine of fine leg.

"The crowd were very enthralled with the way that Sri Lanka played. We kind of felt: 'Did we really need that after the summer we had?'" Mark Butcher

Jayasuriya: Aravinda aiya - foo! What a batsman. The same ball he can either score a single or a four. Sri Lanka has never had a batsman with ability like that, and we probably never will.

Gough: With Ranatunga, he likes to walk between the wickets, so we always used to try to make him run. We'd talk to him about food sometimes, and it's always nice to see someone bigger than you on the field. He got a fifty as well, but I took him out, and took out Hashan Tillakaratne pretty much instantly. But I think Murali's quick 30 was the final nail. I found Murali frustrating. He never used to fancy batting against me, because I bowled the ball at a decent pace, but he'd always back away and middle it. I used to watch him coming in and think: "That's a wicket." And suddenly he's hitting fours. It was ridiculous. He had such a good eye for someone who didn't enjoy batting.

With little over four sessions left in the game, England went back in to bat, with a draw seeming like the best possible result for them. The rest of the match was the Murali show. He took 9 for 65 in second the innings. His 16 for 220 from the match would remain his best figures across his 133-Test career

Jayawardene: The Arjuna and Murali relationship was very good. That was the time that Murali got called and then was cleared and was bowling well again. Those days Murali would do pretty much everything Arjuna asked him to do, in the sense of field settings and bowling. Murali was still learning the trade, though it did help that he had come and played for Kent. He was quite subdued in those days, though that changed completely not long after that.

Murali: Before the end of the fourth day, we had about one hour to bowl at them, and the key thing was that we got two wickets. The only team that could lose was England. But even then it wasn't a spin-friendly wicket. I used to turn it a lot, but any other spinner didn't turn it much on that wicket. It was flat - if you score 445 and 590, how can it be spin-friendly? There wasn't much deterioration.

Dias: Instead of trying to attack Murali, England were very tentative. Murali wanted the players to go after him. But when he realised they weren't taking any chances, we had to crowd the batsmen and try to make them go for the big hits.

Butcher: All I remember from that second innings was pushing forward to balls that kept drifting in and pitching outside my leg stump, and I kept missing them. It happened five or six times. I kept pushing forward to balls that I thought were pitching outside leg, and I missed them by feet. They felt like half-volleys as well, because they dipped so sharply. You can hear the ball fizzing down, and Sri Lanka were always making a godawful racket around the bat.

I don't know how long it was. It felt like a lifetime. I thought: "What the hell am I going to do? I want nothing to do with this." So I ran down, and one got hit over Jayasuriya's head at short extra cover. Then I thought: "Okay, that might work." I tried it again and I got stumped by two and a half metres. I kind of walked off and thought, "Oh, well." There was a lot of "oh, well" about the whole game, really. We just thought, "What do you do?"

Mark Butcher on Sri Lanka:

Mark Butcher on Sri Lanka: "If you're captained by someone who is a visionary, the idea that you'd send a team in to bat first knowing that you would score fast enough to go past them - that's genius level" © PA Photos

Jayawardene: I was at short leg or silly mid-off throughout, and even in the first innings, watching Murali from that close was something special. The second innings was just magical. You can hear the revs he puts on the balls, and then the spin, once it pitched, was exceptional. I remember Mark Butcher's dismissal. He had come down the pitch and hit one over extra cover, and everyone around the bat clapped and told him what a brave shot that was. Then he ran at Murali, passing me, and got stumped. He was actually so far out of the crease that it was practically a run-out.

James began the final day's play not out on 20, with the captain, Alec Stewart, for company. Neither could make it through the first 20 overs, however, and England began to slip quickly.

James: The ball was turning absolutely square by that stage. It was just a massive challenge trying to survive. I was trying to get ones to get down the other end for Murali. He and Arjuna were quite clever with his field placements as well. They had a few men halfway back, which took away a few of the get-out-of-jail shots.

Dias: The only guy batting okay against Murali was Stewart. We were thinking that if we can get Alec out, then Murali will get the wickets of the other batsmen. Luckily for us, we had our 12th man, Upul Chandana, take the field because Aravinda had to come in to use the loo. Upul was fielding at short midwicket I think, and Alec was trying to run to the striker's end, and Upul just swooped on the ball and threw down the one stump he had to aim at. It was a tremendous piece of fielding.

Gough: I batted okay in that second innings, actually - facing 133 balls. Sri Lankans are pretty small, but some serious noise comes out of them on the cricket field. They are a tough team to play against. I enjoyed the battle every single time.

Delivering a further 54.2 overs in the second innings, Murali eventually took the last English wicket, and Sri Lanka were set 36 for victory - a target they reached inside seven overs thanks to more disdainful hitting from Jayasuriya. One of the two sixes in his 17-ball stay remains much admired in Sri Lankan batting folklore.

"Sri Lankans are pretty small, but some serious noise comes out of them on the cricket field. They are a tough team to play against. I enjoyed the battle every single time" Darren Gough

Dias: One of the most amazing shots anyone saw on that field was Sanath Jayasuriya hitting Angus Fraser for six over point, where he was up two feet above the ground when he made contact.

Jayawardene: He was mid-air when he played a cut and he hit it for a six. That summed up that Test. That's how aggressive we were with both bat and ball.

At some point in the Test, England's coach, David Lloyd, had cast aspersions on Murali's action during an end-of-day press conference - a comment for which he was later reprimanded by his board. Sri Lanka, though, were by now accustomed to controversies surrounding Murali.

Butcher: I don't think there was a single bloke in that side that thought [Murali's action] was okay. If you asked that question to anyone who played against Murali prior to the testing, with all the problems he had in Australia, I don't think there were many professional cricketers out there who thought that what he was doing was strictly legal. I'm not having a go at him; I love him - we see each other all the time. But there was always that niggling undertone - that you can't do that. At the time, there would have been frustration. Hopefully now, with the passing of time, everybody is a lot more accepting.

James: There were a few complaints about the pitch maybe being too suited to the opposition rather than to us. People also probably didn't understand the mechanics of Murali's action and how it worked. I remember the first time I played him, we couldn't believe what he was bowling because it was so unusual.

Murali: You can't stop people from talking. I wasn't annoyed at all. I know David Lloyd very well. People have their own ways of thinking. [But] if you really want to nail someone, you have to prove that.

Murali's 16 for 220 at The Oval remained his best match figures over his career

Murali's 16 for 220 at The Oval remained his best match figures over his career © PA Photos/Getty Images

Butcher: I found Sanath at the end of the game and asked him: "How do you bat against that?" And he said: "Padding, padding, padding, cut." Next time I played against Murali at Lancashire, I did just that and it was brilliant. But that was before he had the one that went the other way. Up until that point I didn't have the faintest idea what you were supposed to do against guys like that. I think the crowd in particular were very enthralled with the way that Sri Lanka played. The batting was so attacking, and Murali was bowling so well with fielders around the bat. They loved it. We kind of felt: "Did we really need that after the summer we had?"

Murali: For us this Test changed a lot, because suddenly next time we visited England, we were getting three-Test series. For me personally also, it helped me get a contract with Lancashire.

Butcher: I learned a hell of a lot from that Test, about the way you can play the game in different conditions, and about the potential a team has. If you're captained by someone who is a visionary - the idea that you'd send a team in to bat first knowing that you would score fast enough to go past them, that's genius level. That's as long as you have a team that carries it off. That's not something that you would consider doing as an English captain.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf