Shell-shocked SA regroup after Murali assault

Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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Colombo:South Africa tried to unravel the mystery that has confounded the cricket world for years - how to stop Muttiah Muralitharan from taking wickets.

The search drew a blank although Proteas' coach Mickey Arthur insisted his batsmen had started to play the Sri Lankan spin wizard "better and better."

Arthur's comment came after Muralitharan completed a match haul of 10-172 on Monday to send South Africa crashing to an innings and 153-run defeat in the first Test at the Sinhalese sports club ground.

Arthur conceded that the 34-year-old off-spinner was the "best bowler in the world" but remained confident his team will fight back when the second and final Test starts at the Sara Oval here on Friday.

"Murali is the best bowler in the world, there is no doubt about it," said Arthur. "Our guys have played him a lot, we have developed game plans against him and the guys know what he offers.

"We have started to play him better and better but in these conditions he is just phenomenal."

Muralitharan's 17th 10-wicket haul gave him 645 wickets in 107 Tests, second in the all-time list behind Australian Shane Warne's record tally of 685 in 140 matches.

The South Africans were amazed Muralitharan sent down 64 overs in energy-sapping conditions in the second innings, finishing with 6-131 after taking 4-41 in the first innings.

"It was the slowest wicket I have come across in a long time but the guy just went on and on," Arthur said on Tuesday. "He just loves to bowl and take wickets.

"I am convinced Australia and Sri Lanka are the toughest tours in world cricket at the moment. It's not easy for even a moment."

South Africa can take heart from the fact they held out for 157.2 overs in the second innings to score 434 after collapsing for a meagre 169 on the opening day.

Sri Lanka piled up 756-5 declared with captain Mahela Jayawardene making the fourth-highest Test score of 374 after sharing a world record partnership of 624 with Kumar Sangakkara (287) for the third wicket.

Stand-in captain Ashwell Prince insisted all was not lost for his team.

"It's not the idea situation, but we have improved," he said. "We can't win the series any more, but we can draw it and bounce back after this defeat.

"The longer the game went on, the better the bowlers started to bowl and the batsmen adapted to the conditions very well in the second innings.

"It's the 169 in the first innings that cost us dearly. We have done some tough talking about that performance. The pitch could not be blamed for even a single wicket we lost.

"There was hardly any sideways movement, nor uneven bounce. The guys threw away their wickets."

Veteran all-rounder Shaun Pollock, South Africa's most successful Test bowler with 394 wickets, will return for the second Test after missing the first following the birth of his second daughter.

That will partly compensate for the absence of regular captain Graeme Smith and all-rounder Jacques Kallis, who both stayed home to recover from injuries.

"We lost 250 Test caps with the loss of Smith, Kallis and Pollock in the first Test. That is a lot of experience," said Arthur. "At least one of them will be back for the second Test and that's a big plus point."

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