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Murali close to milestone

GALLE, July 21 – Hosts Sri Lanka were well-placed to win the first Test against India after spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan wreaked havoc in his final match on Wednesday.The world’s leading wicket-taker grabbed 5-63 in the first innings as India were forced to follow on after being shot out for 276 on the fourth day in reply to Sri Lanka’s 520-8 declared.

Sling-arm fast bowler Lasith Malinga then claimed three wickets to leave the tourists’ second innings tottering at 181-5 at stumps, still 63 runs away from avoiding an innings defeat.

India, the top-ranked Test side, lost 12 wickets during the day on a wicket that took only slow turn at the Galle International Stadium.

Muralitharan, who dismissed Yuvraj Singh with the last ball of the day, will return for his final day in Test cricket on Thursday two short of the 800-wicket mark as Sri Lanka press for the lead in the three-match series.

Batting superstar Sachin Tendulkar hit a defiant 84, sharing a third-wicket partnership of 119 with Rahul Dravid (44) after India were reduced to 42-2.

But Malinga, gaining appreciable reverse swing in the final hour, removed the veteran pair in the space of six deliveries to leave the hosts on top.

Dravid was caught at backward short-leg by Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara, while Tendulkar was trapped leg-before with a fiery yorker.

Malinga had earlier removed Gautam Gambhir with the third delivery of the innings after dismissing the left-handed opener with the second ball in the first innings.

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Gambhir’s opening partner Virender Sehwag, who scored 109 in the first innings, hit a breezy 31 off 30 balls in the second knock before being superbly caught at gully by Mahela Jayawardene.

It was the 67th time Muralitharan, 38, had claimed five wickets or more in a Test innings, way ahead of second-placed Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne, who managed the feat on 37 occasions.

The off-spinner followed up the dismissal of Tendulkar for eight on Tuesday with four more scalps in the first innings.

Muralitharan broke a 74-run stand for the sixth wicket between Yuvraj and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni (33) by bowling the Indian captain with a ball that turned in sharply.

Muralitharan struck again in his next over, forcing Yuvraj (52) to edge a catch to first slip and returned after lunch to remove tailenders Pragyan Ojha and Abhimanyu Mithun.

Earlier, India lost the overnight pair of Sehwag and VVS Laxman to reckless batting within the first hour of play to slide from 140-3 at stumps on Tuesday to 178-5.

Sehwag, starting the day on 85, reached his 20th Test century before he slashed at a wide ball from Welegedara, edging an easy catch to lone slip Tharanga Paranavitana.

Laxman had made 22 when he top-edged a hook off Malinga to Tillakaratne Dilshan at square-leg.

The entire second day’s play had been washed out and 22 overs were lost on the first day due to heavy rain, but Wednesday’s play began under clear blue skies.

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