Kandy: Muttiah Muralitharan returns to his home town to become Test cricket's most successful bowler, a feat Australia denied him but England are unlikely to prevent.
The spin wizard, 35, begins Sri Lanka's first Test against Michael Vaughan's men at the Asgiriya stadium here from Saturday needing five wickets to surpass retired Australian Shane Warne's world mark of 708.
Not even the Englishmen doubt Muralitharan will surpass Warne during the series, most likely at Kandy itself, marking a new high in the career of one of the most celebrated and controversial bowlers of the modern game.
Vaughan conceded Murali's record was a formality waiting to happen, while journalists travelling with the tourists are running a sweepstake on which English batsman will give him the landmark wicket.
It appears if the off-spinner is destined to reach the summit in this serene hill resort where he was born into a confectioner's family in 1972 and reached the 700-wicket mark in the last Test here against Bangladesh in July.
Murali, as he is popularly known, went to Australia for two Tests last month needing nine wickets to overtake Warne, but managed only four at the cost of 400 runs on wickets more suited to fast bowling.
The first Test against England was originally to be played in Galle, but was later shifted to Kandy because the tsunami-wrecked stadium in southern Galle was taking time to be rebuilt.
If records are any indication, Murali will be England's main threat in the three-Test series.
He has proved almost unplayable in his own country where his last 25 Tests have fetched an incredible 205 wickets - more than eight a match - and at an average of 16.03.
In those 25 Tests, he has taken five wickets in an innings 20 times and 10 wickets in a match on eight occasions.
Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene saluted his master spinner as the "best bowler in the world."
"It has been a privilege to play in the same team as Murali," Jayawardene told AFP.
"We will remember Murali not only for his record-breaking feats but also for the man he is. He remains as humble as before and is someone to be treasured for ever."
Murali, who made his Test debut in 1992, is keen as ever to grab wickets despite a string of injuries that once forced exasperated former team physio Alex Kontouris to describe him as a "bio-mechanical mess."
He said in a recent interview he wants to take 1,000 Test wickets and hopes to play for Sri Lanka till the 2011 limited-overs World Cup to be hosted in the Indian sub-continent.
"I want to achieve a little bit more because I am still hungry for wickets," Muralitharan said.
The bent-arm, open-chested bowling action, which drew loud protests in the cricketing world a decade ago, helps him spin the ball sharply both ways, even on unresponsive wickets.
The off-spinner was controversially called for throwing by Australian umpire Darrell Hair during Sri Lanka's tour Down Under in 1995.
Two years later, another Australian umpire, Ross Emerson, called Muralitharan during a one-day series there, prompting a bio-mechanical analysis of his bowling action at the University of Western Australia in Perth.
The International Cricket Council, however, cleared Muralitharan's action and his bowling action has since not been questioned by umpires.