/ 27 April 2007

More than just cricket for Sri Lanka

Muttiah Muralitharan hopes that a Sri Lanka victory in Saturday’s World Cup final against champions Australia can help heal the war wounds of his strife-torn country.

The star off-spinner, one of three survivors from the team that beat Australia in the 1996 final, said a victory would be a timely boost as violence on the island escalates between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Muralitharan, who has taken 23 wickets at this tournament compared with his seven in 1996, said: ”It helps all the country rather than anything else. We have all nationalities in our team and peace as well because we get together and play.

”We are going through a bad situation in our country but this could achieve something different.”

During Sri Lanka’s semifinal win against New Zealand in Jamaica on Tuesday, there was a temporary ceasefire in Sri Lanka and no attacks were reported on either side.

The hope is that Saturday’s final will also see a suspension of hostilities with the island, despite the time difference, set to come to a standstill as fans gather round TV sets and radios to follow their heroes’ progress.

Sri Lanka’s cricket team has been hailed as an example of how religious and racial differences can be put to one side for a common purpose in the ethnically divided country.

Murali himself is a Tamil Hindu, opening batsman Sanath Jayasuriya a Sinhala Buddhist, pace bowler Farveez Maharoof a Muslim, batsman Russel Arnold a Tamil Catholic and left-arm quick Chaminda Vaas a Sinhala Catholic.

Rebels in Sri Lanka have been fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority in a bloody war that has claimed more than 60 000 lives since 1972.

Meanwhile, the 35-year-old Muralitharan also believes victory on Saturday would cap his stunning and colourful career.

”This will be the biggest moment in my life,” Murali said.

”I had moments in 1996, I was very young and I didn’t know much about it. Now I know about what it takes to win a World Cup.

”This may be my last World Cup so if we can win it will be the greatest moment in my life rather than my individual records,” added Muralitharan, who is set to line up alongside fellow 1996 winners Jayasuriya and Vaas at Kensington Oval on Saturday.

However, the entire team face a daunting task if they are to stop Australia, unbeaten at the World Cup since 1999, from winning a third straight title, but Murali said the team’s batsmen could hold the key to success.

”We have batsmen of the calibre of Jayasuriya, [Mahela] Jayawardene, [Kumar] Sangakkara, and [Upul] Tharanga,” he said.

”If they click, the way we played in England, we had total domination [Sri Lanka whitewashed their hosts 5-0 in a one-day series last year] and I only played in two matches.

”If our batsmen get set we will be more dangerous than any other team in the world because we can play more shots than any other players.”

And he said Sri Lanka’s professional pride was just as strong as Australia’s.

”We have to win, that’s the motivation. If you want to keep your job, you have to perform,” Murali, closing in on Wasim Akram’s record of 502 one-day wickets, said. — Sapa-AFP