Sri Lanka hope a fully fit Muttiah Muralitharan can spark another match-winning performance against England in tomorrow’s World Cup quarter-finals.
The 38-year-old, who will retire from international cricket after the tournament, is all set to play a lead role for the co-hosts at R. Premadasa stadium.
Muralitharan, who has a world record of 530 one-day wickets, injured his hamstring during Sri Lanka’s impressive 112-run win over New Zealand last week, but has since recovered and is gearing up for another big match.
The wily off-spinner is the only survivor of Sri Lanka’s historic five-wicket win over England in the 1996 quarter-final — one of Sri Lanka’s two wins over their opponents in eight World Cup matches.
Muralitharan took two wickets in that match in Faisalabad before Sri Lanka went on to capture their only World Cup title.
Captain Kumar Sangakkara hopes Muralitharan will play another lead role.
“Murali needs to play. This is his last World Cup and he wins a lot of matches for us. He needs to have the freedom to do as he pleases. He needs to bowl and get wickets for us,” Sangakkara said.
Besides Muralitharan, fellow spinner Ajantha Mendis could still be a mystery for England against whom he has played just once.
Sling action paceman Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Angelo Mathews form a formidable pace attack that is adept at exploiting home conditions.
Sangakkara — top scorer in the tournament with 363 runs — Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Upul Tharanga have all hit centuries.
In Jonathan Trott — the second highest run-getter with 336 — and captain Andrew Strauss (329), England have two quality batsmen, but their bowling has been a weak link in their see-saw World Cup.
The Ashes winners, who have yet to win the World Cup, opened the tournament with a tied match against India, lost to both Ireland and Bangladesh, but still beat South Africa to qualify for the last eight.
With Graeme Swann (12 wickets) and James Tredwell, who took a match-winning four wickets in the decisive Group B win over the West Indies, England have two quality spinners.
“If we do progress in this tournament, we’ve got to be a lot better than we have been. We’re not going to hide from that,” Strauss said.
England have suffered a stream of injuries in the tournament having seen ace batsman Kevin Pietersen (hernia), pacemen Stuart Broad (side strain) and Ajmal Shahzad (hamstring) forced out.
They have also dropped paceman James Anderson and batting all-rounder Paul Collingwood after both struggled with their form.
Anderson has managed just four wickets, while Collingwood has scored only 61 runs.
Also, all-rounder Michael Yardy has quit the World Cup suffering from depression just days before the quarter-final.
The 30-year-old Sussex left-hander, who played in three matches at the tournament, said he felt he had no option but to return home.
“Leaving at this stage of a World Cup campaign was a very difficult decision to make, but I felt that it was the only sensible option for me and I wanted to be honest about the reason behind that decision,” he said. “I would like to wish the squad all the very best ahead of the game on Saturday.”
He was not set to feature in the quarter-final in any event, having been omitted from the team. Yardy’s condition appeared reminiscent of the problem that forced former England opener Marcus Trescothick to retire from international cricket.
The winner of Sri Lanka-England quarter-final will meet the winner of South Africa-New Zealand clash in the first semi-final in Colombo on Tuesday.
Pakistan will meet the winner of India-Australia match in the second semi-final in Mohali on Wednesday.
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