CRICKET tours to Zimbabwe by Asian subcontinent teams have never been short of lasting memories.
Next week Sri Lanka return to Zimbabwe for the first time in four years for five One-Day International (ODI) matches and a first-class fixture. Unlike in the past when teams came to Zimbabwe solely to play cricket, Sri Lanka are one of the teams these days that go out of their way to explore and win friends, making them favourites with the Zimbabwean public.
The Sri Lankansâ€™ last tour here in 2004, under Marvan Attapatu, is notable for the boycott and subsequent exodus of 15 senior Zimbabwe players over differences with the Zimbabwe Cricket board.
The biggest attraction of any Sri Lankan visit, the great off-spinner â€” Muttiah Muralitharan â€” will thankfully, be part of that Zimbabwe tour again. Murali â€” as he is affectionately known by millions of fans throughout the world â€” is a living legend of the game despite previous question marks over his bowling action.
He is Test cricketâ€™s leading wicket-taker, and in 2002 was rated by the respected Wisden Cricketerâ€™ Almanack as the worldâ€™s greatest ever Test bowler.
Muralitharanâ€™s inclusion in the Zimbabwe tour squad is a relief to his local fans after his omission from an ODI tour of West Indies earlier this year led to speculation that he may be mulling concentrating on Test cricket only. Were that the case, the great man would not be coming to Zimbabwe because the African side is currently in Test exile.
I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Murali during the Sri Lankansâ€™ last visit in 2004. As a man, he struck me with his great humility and laidback personality, which belies his cult hero status. His tremendous success in an illustrious career spanning 16 years shrink that of many egotistical sportsmen, some Zimbabweans included, into total irrelevance. But that is the mark of a champion – there is a fine line between a true sporting icon and aspirants.
A very compassionate person too, Murali has a passion for helping people, and is currently an ambassador for the United Nations World Food Programme.
Zimbabwe has been a happy hunting ground for Muralitharan. He first broke his Test wicket-taking record in this country. He surpassed West Indian Courtney Walshâ€™s record of 519 Test wickets in 2004, taking along a Zimbabwean into the history books as Mluleki Nkala became his 520th victim.
Murali held the record until Australian great Shane Warne claimed it five months later. He however reclaimed it against England in December 2007. With Warne now retired, Murali is garnering an amazing feat of 1 000 Test wickets before he retires! His critics however point out that he took more wickets because unlike Warne, he played more Tests against substandard opponents – Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Even so, being recognised by the old enemy has been one the biggest compliments Murali has received: Warne, possibly the finest leg-spinner of all time, said he believed Murali would reach the milestone before he retires.
Muraliâ€™s ODI feats against Zimbabwe include five, four-wicket hauls. The last one, a 5/23, was on the 2004 tour.
On that tour, Murali, an aggressive lower-order batsman, hit a six on the back foot, not only into Harare Sports Clubâ€™s Keg & Maiden sports bar, but, in fact, straight into a glass panel holding a souvenir cricket shirt. He left it in pieces.
He however sat out the record 9-wicket defeat of Zimbabwe in the third ODI in Harare in which the Asians bowled out the locals for a record lowest total of 35 runs.
The team arriving in Harare next week will contain four survivors from that 2004 tour, including Muralitharan. One of them, pace bowler Farveez Maharoof, made his debut in that demolishment of Zimbabwe. Fielding at long off, directly in front of a noisy corner of Harare Sports Club, Maharoof found himself being re-christened Marufu by a jolly local band of spectators occupying that stand.
The other returnee to these shores, captain Mahela Jayawardene, himself another charismatic cricketer, made his debut against Zimbabwe in Sri Lanka back in 1998. He hit the winning runs in that match.
The fourth survivor is wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara.
Apart from the four veterans, the Sri Lanka selectors have named a young, highly talented side. The most notable of the youth brigade is the exiting, versatile spin bowler, Ajantha Mendis, voted Emerging Player of the Year for 2008 at the ICC Awards in September.
The Zimbabwe team will be wary of his twin-spin threat with his senior partner, Muralitharan.
Cricket fans will join me in welcoming back Murali and the Sri Lanka team to Zimbabwe, a country with which he has a great affiliation.
By Enock Muchinjo