Roger Harper, the West Indies coach and former Test offspinner, was unequivocal in his praise for Muttiah Muralitharan: "There is no doubt in my mind he is the best spinner in the world. Just look at his statistics."

In two victorious Tests against the West Indies Murali took 21 wickets at 14.52. At Kandy he equalled one Test record and set another. His ninth 10-wicket haul matched Richard Hadlee's tally in Tests. By taking 10 or more wickets in a match for the fourth consecutive Test he surpassed Clarrie Grimmett, whose last three Tests in 1935-36 were all 10-wicket matches.

West Indies arrived for their first tour of Sri Lanka in eight years full of hope after their successful African adventure under their new-ish captain, Carl Hooper. Four weeks later the mood was dark after another overseas failure, soured by anger at a crucial umpiring decision in the second Test at Kandy.

Sri Lanka won convincingly in Galle and Kandy despite a dramatic return to form by Brian Lara who slotted back into the team with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. Batting with all his old class and a newly found application, he made scores of 178, 40, 74 and 45.

His duel with Murali was the highlight of the first two Tests. While his colleagues pushed and prodded haplessly, Lara found the delicate balance between calculated risk and studied patience. But time and again his dismissal triggered a lower-order collapse. During their first innings at Kandy the lower order collapsed around Lara, who was last man out for 74, as Chaminda Vaas showed off his recently acquired ability to swing the old ball. Then, on a thrilling final day, Lara's unfortunate dismissal paved the way for Sri Lanka's series-clinching victory with 16 minutes to spare.

Sri Lanka set the West Indies a target of 322 in 83 overs, a cautious declaration provoked by the memory of three consecutive defeats in Kandy. Lara marshalled the middle order well until two balls after tea when he clipped a delivery from Niroshan Bandaratilleke to leg. Hashan Tillekeratne took what appeared to be a sharp catch at short leg. Umpire Gamini Silva raised his finger and a shocked Lara stood his ground before trudging slowly off the field. TV replays showed the ball had been played into the ground. The cricket from then on was unbearably tense. West Indies went into the final hour with four wickets standing. The visitors' balcony was deserted apart from a fuming Ricky Skerritt, the manager.

With less than 45 minutes left and the light fading fast, Murali forced the door ajar. Merv Dillon jabbed too late at a yorker; Marlon Samuels was given out as he stretched across his stumps; Pedro Collins was bowled through the gate and Colin Stuart was caught in the headlights by a top-spinner.

While the Sri Lankans whooped, the West Indies management whined about the Lara dismissal. Their misfortunes didn't end there. Shivnarine Chanderpaul pulled out of the tour with a back injury and Reon King withdrew with a hernia. Then Dillon, their strike bowler, pulled up with a mystery chest injury in his third over at Kandy. It got worse when his replacement, Colin Stuart, was harshly debarred from bowling for the rest of the innings after he sent down two beamers in his first three balls.

But these are not excuses because, except for the resurgent Lara, the West Indians were - like so many before them - no match for Murali.