Will the question mark ever vanish?

MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN'S achievement of becoming the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket has to be lauded. The fact that he is a spin bowler makes his feat even more special.

MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN'S achievement of becoming the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket has to be lauded. The fact that he is a spin bowler makes his feat even more special.

The Lankan bowler was only the second spinner to go past 500 Test wickets — Aussie leg-spin wizard Shane Warne had achieved the feat earlier — before surmounting Courtney Walsh's 519.

Over the years, he has been Sri Lanka's strike and stock bowler, often shouldering an enormous load, and remaining a source of much inspiration to a proud island nation as it evolved into a major force in the mid-90s.

However, even while celebrating a rare cricketing achievement, it must be remembered that Muralitharan has been unable to clear his name vis-a-vis his bowling action.

The International Cricket Council's (ICC) warning to the Lankan that unless he stopped bowling his contentious `doosra' he faced a one-year ban, has brought to light the seriousness with which cricket's governing body is looking at the issue.

On its part, the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) has advised Muralitharan against bowling the `doosra,' a ball which he gets to spin viciously away from the right-hander.

Recent tests on Muralitharan's action at the Perth-based University of Western Australia revealed that while delivering the `doosra' his arm, even after the remedial measures were taken, straightened by 10.2 degrees, which is over five degrees more than the ICC's permissible level for spinners.

Muralitharan would do well to heed the warning, for a ban would be an indelible blot on his career after much of it has been a tale of triumph of the spirit.

Indeed, he has battled against great odds from the very beginning. A deformity in his bowling hand meant Muralitharan could never straighten his arm completely.

Far from being demoralised, the Lankan learnt to operate with a combination of a bent arm and a highly dexterous wrist, getting the ball to do extraordinary things.

For someone who made his Test debut in '92, Muralitharan has been remarkably consistent. Beginning as a rather one-dimensional bowler with a big off-spinner and little else, the Lankan has, over the years, learnt plenty of tricks.

This is why, if he wisely chooses to desert the doosra, he will have other options such as the top-spinner, the flipper, the arm-ball, and the leg-break.

While his wicket-taking ability might be slightly diminished in the post `doosra' phase, he could remain a potent threat, still possessing enough variations to worry the batsmen. He also has the ability to bowl for long periods, without letting the pressure ease. This explains why he is able to run through sides even in the later stages of his spell.

At this phase of his cricketing journey, Muralitharan's wealth of experience certainly comes into play. It is not uncommon to watch him think a batsman out. At the same time, due to his bowling action coming under the scanner regularly, Muralitharan might never receive the universal recognition and credit that is usually reserved for a world record holder. Questions will always be asked, doubts will continue to persist, and this is a reality the Lankan will have to live with.

He is 32 now and has already indicated that he would continue till the 2007 World Cup, which suggests he has three more years to look forward to in Tests.

Muralitharan averages around six wickets a Test, has an impressive away record of 184 scalps in 37 Tests, with 14 five-wicket innings hauls and three ten-wicket match tallies (as on May 8, 2004). This includes a sensational 16 wickets at the Oval in 1998, where the England line-up was brushed aside.

At home, his display at Colombo's Sinhalese Sports Club Stadium in the decisive third Test against India in 2001, where he grabbed eight for 87 on a first day pitch, deserves to be ranked high since the performance was against a set of batsmen who handle spin exceptionally well.

In the days ahead, we might witness the world record changing hands often with Warne, presently on 517 Test wickets, breathing down Muralitharan's neck. The contest should be exciting.

Apart from his skills with the ball, Muralitharan has an essential quality in abundance — mental toughness. He has come through several moments of crisis in his career such as being `called' during Sri Lanka's tours of Australia in '95, and '99, and could accomplish a lot more than just survive on this occasion too.