THE man who will almost certainly usurp Shane Warne as Test cricket's most prolific wicket-taker, Muttiah Muralitharan, has paid tribute to the Australian leg spinner on the eve of his retirement announcement.
Speaking to the Herald last night from New Zealand, where he is on tour with the Sri Lankan team, Muralitharan set aside his differences with Warne to describe his long-time foe as "a great" of the game, who was capable of playing for several more years.
Muralitharan lies just 25 wickets behind Warne on the Test wicket-taking list, and will presumably overtake him sometime next year. The pair have an extensive history of off-field tensions, with Warne critical of the Sri Lankan's action and Muralitharan not always complimentary of his adversary's demeanour.
"I have been watching as much of the Ashes as I can, and he is still bowling beautifully," Muralitharan, 34, said. "I always said that whichever one of us played the longest would get the record. We have not talked a lot since he came to Sri Lanka to help [with tsunami-related charities]. I would not say we are close, but we say hello.
"He is one of the great bowlers. From what I have seen, his leg spinner is as good as ever, but I think he has been having some trouble with the straighter deliveries. But he should always be respected, because he is a great bowler."
Warne's career is expected to end where it began - at the Sydney Cricket Ground. In that time, the leg spinner has transformed from a portly unknown to a streamlined legend of the game, rated among the five greatest cricketers of all time by Wisden.
Warne will hold a press conference at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at midday today, where he will announce his retirement from Test cricket. He announced his retirement from one-day internationals prior to the 2003 World Cup, but failed a drug test prior to the tournament, ensuring he played no part in Australia's triumph in South Africa.
The Herald understands Warne will join Channel Nine's commentary team after retiring from Test cricket, the network for which he worked during his 12-month drugs ban. Warne has not been employed by Nine since the late Kerry Packer terminated his contract last year after a series of off-field dramas. The network, though, is keen to negotiate a new contract.
Warne has been contemplating retirement for some time, but gave no warning of his impending announcement to the majority of his teammates after Australia's Ashes-clinching triumph in Perth this week. He did, however, discuss his intentions with senior team officials, preparing them for the news that Australian cricket has long been dreading.
As hard as the news will be to digest for Australian cricket fans, the timing of Warne's announcement should come as little surprise. With Australia not scheduled to play a Test match between the forthcoming Sydney Test and the start of next summer, Warne had little to keep himself motivated.
Moreover, Warne will now leave the game with the Ashes in his keep, and with 700 wickets to his name. Currently stationed on 699 wickets, Warne will presumably become the first man to reach 700 at his home venue, the MCG, before a crowd of up to 100,000.
Any concerns that interest would wane in the current Ashes series because of Australia's clinical victory after three Tests have now been safely allayed.