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Muttiah Muralitharan finally became Test cricket's most successful bowler on Monday, marking a new high for one of the most controversial players in the modern game.

The off-spinner bowled Paul Collingwood on the third morning of the first Test to claim his 709th wicket and surpass retired fellow spin great Shane Warne's world record tally of 708.

Bad weather in his home town of Kandy may have delayed the landmark after he took his 708th's wicket before tea on the second day, but the patient wait paid off for the prolific 35-year-old.

Muralitharan reached the record with his 61st five-wicket haul in an innings, already the highest by any bowler with Warne trailing a distant second with 37 such feats.

The Sri Lankan has also grabbed 10 or more wickets in a Test an incredible 20 times, double the Australian leg-spinner's second-placed tally of 10.

Muralitharan has taken only 116 Tests to get to 709 wickets. Warne's rich haul came after 145 matches before he announced his retirement after the fifth Test against England in Sydney in January.

Muralitharan's bent-arm action, the result of an elbow deformity since birth, helped him impart considerable turn and bounce even on the most placid wickets.

The unusual action caused heartburn in the cricket world, especially in Australia where umpires no-balled him for throwing and former prime minister John Howard once called him a "chucker."

The off-spinner was called the first time by Australian umpire Darrell Hair during Sri Lanka's tour Down Under in 1995.

Two years later, another Australian umpire, Ross Emerson, no-balled 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 even amended the law two years ago to allow a 15-degree flexibility in the bowling arm.

His action has not been questioned since by umpires, but critics remain, with former India captain and classical left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi labelling him a "javelin thrower."

It seemed Muralitharan was destined to reach the summit in this serene hill resort where he was born in a confectioner's family on April 17, 1972 and reached the 700-wicket mark in the last Test played 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 scheduled 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.

Murali has proved almost unplayable in his own country where his last 25 Tests fetched an incredible 205 wickets -- more than eight a match -- an at average of 16.03.

Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardene saluted his master spinner, saying Murali was not only "the best bowler in the world" but also the ideal team-mate.

"He is hungry for wickets but for him the team comes first," Jayawardene told AFP before the start of the first Test.

"At team meetings, he always talks about how to get the opposition out, how to win matches. It is always about the team, never about how we get another record.

"With that attitude, he will go on for a long, long time."

Murali, who made his Test debut in 1992, hopes to carry on 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.
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