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GALLE: Former Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga on Wednesday paid tribute to Australian great Shane Warne, saying the spinner found a place in the hearts of the island nation’s fans for coming to the country’s aid after the 2004 tsunami.

Sri Lanka paid tribute to the late Australian, who died aged 52 of a suspected heart attack in March, ahead of the first Test against Australia in Galle – a venue where Warne took his 500th Test wicket.

The wrist spinner won over the South Asian country on a relief tour to Galle following the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami.

“Everyone knows he has been a brilliant player, but especially after the tsunami he got very close to the Sri Lankan hearts,” Ranatunga told reporters.

“That was one reason why everyone was shattered when we heard the news.”

Warne helped raise more than $1 million to rebuild the Galle International Stadium after it was ruined by the tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people around the world – 31,000 of them in Sri Lanka.

Ranatunga, who had many on-field run-ins with Warne, said the Australian was “a wonderful player and a tough competitor”.

The left-handed batsman, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest cricket stars, led the team to the 1996 50-over World Cup title when they beat Australia by seven wickets in Lahore.

Ranatunga said he and his team learnt the art of sledging from the Australians and gave it back to them in full measure.

“When you travel to Australia they would be very tough, so we learnt from them,” said the 58-year-old. “Unfortunately for Australia I used that in the 1996 World Cup final.”

Ranatunga rated Warne as the biggest turner of the cricket ball among leg-spinners of his time, including India’s Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed of Pakistan.

Warne signed off his illustrious career with 708 Test wickets, second only to Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800.

“They enjoyed their success when they played against each other,” said Ranatunga of the rivalry between the two spin legends.

“Knowing Murali, I think he preferred to take one wicket more than Shane and I am sure that might have been the same (with Shane). I could get the best from Murali when we were playing Australia.”

Other former Sri Lankan cricket stars, including Aravinda de Silva, Muralitharan and Romesh Kaluwitharana, also came down to Galle to attend the tribute to Warne.

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