COLOMBO // Like the popular guest who does not want to leave the party, Muttiah Muralitharan keeps prolonging his stay at the World Cup.
Knowing that his international career will end whenever he bows out of the World Cup, the 38-year-old Muralitharan ignored a painful hamstring strain to take two wickets in Sri Lanka's 10-wicket demolition of England in Saturday's quarter-final.
Muralitharan's Test career has already ended, and he announced in advance his retirement from all international cricket after the World Cup, which Sri Lanka is co-hosting with India and Bangladesh.
He is now two victories from a second World Cup title, more than enough motivation to try and ensure he is fit for today's semi-final against New Zealand.
A win today would propel Sri Lanka into the April 2 final at Mumbai, a fitting stage for a larger than life character.
A youngster no longer, Muralitharan was limping badly at the end of his spell on Saturday. He picked up a hamstring injury in a group game but teammates insist he will make it through to the end.
"I think Murali is going to be OK," Kumar Sangakkara, the captain, said. "It happens, he's had a tough couple of weeks so hopefully we'll have him 100 per cent for our next game."
Muralitharan had a fairy tale farewell to Tests, picking up his 800th and match-winning wicket against India with the last ball of his career. He searched for hours for the wicket that would make him the first bowler to take 800 Test wickets and finally rode on the shoulders of his teammates out of the ground when he achieved it last July.
His colleagues at the World Cup have said that they want to win the cup a tribute to a man who has carried Sri Lanka's bowling burden for more than two decades.
Born to a confectionery businessman from Kandy, Muralitharan first became known to local cricket followers as a schoolboy who turned the ball square and he soon took big strides in inter-school cricket, the cradle of the sport in Sri Lanka.
In 1991, he took a long-standing record for the highest number of wickets in a school season and his first-class career started with Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. His sole ambition at the time was to play at least one Test match for Sri Lanka.
That break came in 1992 when Muralitharan made his debut against Australia, giving a glimpse of his prodigious talent with some amazing deliveries, especially a ball to Tom Moody.
Muralitharan pitched one of his flighted off-breaks wide outside the off stump and Moody left the ball - only to find it turning in sharply to hit the stumps.
It was not long, though, before a mild arm deformity caused suspicion over his bowling action and an international stir.
His seemingly bent arm and a strong wrist rotation caught the eye of Darrell Hair, the Australian umpire, who called the Sri Lankan spinner for "chucking" - or bowling with an illegal action - during a Test match at Melbourne in 1995.
Devastated, Muralitharan considered quitting cricket and going into the family business, or even switching to bowl leg spin. But after careful scientific analysis ordered by the International Cricket Council (ICC), it was determined that his bent arm caused an optical illusion of throwing and he was cleared to continue bowling in international cricket. But the controversy did not end there.
He was called for throwing again by Ross Emerson, another Australian umpire, in 1999, prompting Arjuna Ranatunga, the then Sri Lanka captain, to threaten to take his team off the field in protest. In yet another case, Muralitharan's revolutionary "doosra", a ball that spins away from the right-handed batsman, was reported to be suspicious.
But extensive tests with Australian biomechanical experts and the ICC's decision to revise rules related to the degree to which a bowler can bend his arm cleared Muralitharan's action.
But no controversy could overshadow his phenomenal achievements. He has a record 532 wickets in 348 one-day internationals, including 10 five-wicket hauls. His 800 Test wickets came at 22 runs per wicket and he took 10 wickets in a match 10 times. He is the only surviving member from the 1996 team that won Sri Lanka their only World Cup.
Besides cricket, Muralitharan has been a rare unifying factor in a country that has suffered from a 25-year civil war that killed at least 80,000 people.
Born to an ethnic Tamil family, Muralitharan has stood out as a goodwill ambassador between majority ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils who both love and admire him. His contribution in rebuilding lives after the 2004 tsunami disaster has been widely praised.