Like Tendulkar, Sri Lanka's Murali wants World Cup win as last hurrah

Ace spin bowler is confident Sri Lanka will repeat the hosts' heroics of 1996.

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COLOMBO // After helping launch Sri Lanka into the cricket elite with a surprising run at the 1996 World Cup, Muttiah Muralitharan wants to culminate his career by reclaiming the title.

The 38-year-old spinner, already the most prolific wicket-taker in Test and limited-overs international cricket, plans to retire after the World Cup, which is being co-hosted by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India and being staged in Asia for the first time since Sri Lanka's upset victory 15 years ago.

"The day we won the cup in 1996 was the happiest day - it is because of that our cricket has come this far," said Muralitharan, the only member from the '96 Sri Lanka squad who has been included for the 2011 tournament. "But, it's been 15 years since 1996 and we can't dwell in the past.

"The teams are different. You can never compare generations."

Even so, he does see a sequence emerging and hopes the progression continues.

"In 2003 we entered semis and in 2007 we entered finals. We had good teams but we could not win the cup," he said. "But this team I think we have a chance."

Muralitharan could end up being the leading wicket-taker in World Cups, too. Going into his fifth tournament, he already has 53 wickets in 31 World Cup matches - which puts him third on the list - and needs 19 to surpass Australia's Glenn McGrath in No 1 spot.

With Muralitharan still capable of extracting incredible spin, and with a strong batting line-up to back him, it's little wonder most locals consider this Sri Lanka's best chance to win the World Cup for the second time.

"I think every World Cup is a great opportunity to win it no matter where you play," captain Kumar Sangakkara said. "This one playing in our neck of the woods probably gives us a slighter edge than the other teams."

There are high expectations and the hype is unprecedented on this cricket-loving island. There are advertising billboards wishing the team luck and a huge cricket ball is being taken around the country for the people to imprint their palms to show solidarity with the players.

Sri Lanka's journey to the 1996 World Cup came with its highs and lows. The Sri Lankans had just ended an acrimonious tour to Australia during which a then emerging Muralitharan had been no-balled for throwing. Sri Lankans felt the Australian umpires were biased.

Then, only weeks before the World Cup was due to begin, separatist Tamil Tiger rebels drove a truck of explosives into the country's Central Bank killing and wounding hundreds of people. The blast prompted Australia and West Indies to forfeit their scheduled World Cup matches in Sri Lanka citing security concerns.

Even an exhibition match between Sri Lanka and a team combining Indian and Pakistani players, led by former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin, failed to convince Australia and West Indies it was safe to play in Colombo. The hosts picked up easy points from the forfeits and entered the quarter-finals unbeaten.

Having beaten England convincingly in the quarter-final, Sri Lanka entered the semi-finals as underdogs to India. This match, too, was awarded to Sri Lanka after Indian supporters threw bottles onto the oval and started a fire in the stands during the match.

Aravinda de Silva stole the show in the final with a memorable 107 not out, three wickets and two catches. Captain Arjuna Ranatunga scored the winning runs.

The tournament is also remembered for the pinch hitting by Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana which capitalised on the early field restrictions.

Sri Lanka were eliminated in the first round in the subsequent tournament in England in 1999, entered the semi-final and lost to Australia in 2003 and four years later entered the final and lost also to Australia. The 2007 World Cup final, though, is remembered more by Sri Lankans because it coincided with an air raid by the Tamil Tigers' in the capital as residents were glued to their television sets.

Sangakkara's team for this year's event is a mix of youth and experience and the selection was not without controversy with two stalwarts from the 1996 team, Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas, the fast bowler, being omitted.

Jayasuriya's former teammate and chief selector Aravinda de Silva said omitting the 444-match veteran was a difficult decision.

Sangakkara's squad includes seven specialist batsmen with the likes of former captain Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera.

Muralitharan leads the spin bowlers, supported by Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath, who will be playing his first World Cup despite representing Sri Lanka for 12 years.

Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Dilhara Fernando are specialist seamers supported by all-rounders Anjelo Mathews and Thisara Perera.

Sri Lanka's senior batsmen, Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan have combined for more than 800 one-day international caps. Among the bowlers, Muralitharan alone has more than 340 caps with Fernando having played 140 ODIs.

The one concern for the hosts is that they barely know their own pitches.

Two World Cup venues at Pallekelle in central Sri Lanka and Suriyawewa in the south are new grounds, while the pitch at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo has been relaid. With construction well behind schedule, there has been little chance to play on these pitches.

A three-match limited-overs series between Sri Lanka and West Indies had to be shifted elsewhere because the work was not completed on time.

"There is no point in us being concerned about that because our mental approach has to be, regardless of getting an experience on the wickets, there is a World Cup to be played and played well," Sangakkara said.