The great art of spin was lost and dying with the ouster of Abdul Qadir. Gone were the days of Tiger O'Reilly and the great Indian spin attacks. Then, gloriously, out of nowhere, the modern brigade came with a bang. With the advent of Shane Warne, spin got it's mojo back, and then Muttiah Muralitharan completed the renaissance. We were gifted by a second wave of two great spinners, and we have been very fortunate indeed as they have turned out to be the two best of all time.
I won't be making a list here. It seems rather futile in the sense that spinners are the most difficult to rank in my opinion. Perhaps I am mistaken, but that might only be because I do not have the knowledge set required to make all the essential arguments here.
If asked for a rough opinion, I would rate
- Bill O'Reilly
- Clarrie Grimmett
- Hedley Verity
- Subhash Gupte
- Erapalli Prasanna
- Anil Kumble
- Abdul Qadir
- Bishan Singh Bedi
- Wilfred Rhodes
- Jim Laker
- Derek Underwood as the great spin bowlers from all ages.
Grimmett was the base on which the great Australian side functioned. Verity was outstanding as a left arm bowler. Gupte is regarded by Sobers as the best leggie ever. O'Reilly has similar claims with a brilliant record. Prasanna was a classical off spinner, with plenty of flight and guile. Kumble was quicker through the air, relying on bounce and pace for wickets. He is the third highest wicket taker in history, clearly putting him up there. Qadir again was a class act for Pakistan. Bedi was, some say, the most aesthetically pleasing, using a beautiful action and lots of flight to deceive the batsmen. Rhodes' first class record is impossibly good, with 4200 wickets at 16 apiece. Wow! Laker, too, had a fantastic record, and of course that 19 wicket extravaganza to his name. Ritchie Benaud, Chandrashekhar, and Saqlain Mushtaq miss out.
So what I will do here is talk about Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, the greatest leg spinner and off spinner of all time. Hope you forgive me and enjoy it.
That Shane Warne, along with Tendulkar and Lara, was the most beautiful thing about the 90s is plain fact. That Warne is in the top 10 players of all time is to state the obvious. That he bowled the most marvelous spells of wide, soaring, brilliant leg breaks is the reason we cherish him so much. From his first Ashes delivery, Warne announced to the world that he would be taking over the mantle from the great Windies 'Pace Quartet'. And he has passed them all perhaps.
To watch as Warne carefully plans each ball of each spell in an attempt to fox the batsman is as joyful as watching Barcelona play every small pass one after the other before netting the ball past the keeper. Warne against England was extraordinary, and did much to enhance the stature of the Ashes in the years that they lacked great superstars. Not until the arrival of Glen McGrath and Ricky Ponting did anyone look to be anywhere near the class of Warne in the great rivalry.
From 1993-97, Warne produced the most spellbinding bowling saga of spin history. The plump boy with the grinning face took much of the world's heart away. The only slight blemish on his record has been his performance against India. A real match-winner. A man of all seasons. The zenith of classical leg spin bowling. For in spite of his unique deliveries, Warne really just perfected the art of classical leg spin more than anything else. Yes, the flippers, zooters, googlies were all used well and honed with time, but his greatest strength really was the stock leg break which was exceedingly accurate.
To return from the drug ban and to perform at the level he did in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 was indeed remarkable. He held the world record for most wickets until Murali caught up. He took 96 wickets in a calendar year in 2006, still a record. The wonder-boy from Australia has been included in every great XI team made by most experts, and is considered by many to be the best spinner in history. Suffice to say, were it not for Murali and O'Reilly, there would be little doubt.
As good as Warne was, Murali's bowling as well as his numbers are extraordinary. He and Wasim Akram are easily the best ODI bowlers of all time. In tests, Murali began his incredible ascent from 1996-97, it could be said. It was no small thing for a boy from Kandy to attract the attention of selectors hitherto convinced that Colombo was their country's cricketing stronghold. It's no small thing for a skinny kid determined to bowl fast to switch to spin and to triumph. It is no small thing for a Tamil to prosper in a time of turmoil and torment and trouble. Nor is it a small thing to become the first great cricketer that your country has produced, to help it to lift a World Cup, to win a series in England, and to remain humble through it all.
At his best, Murali has often been unplayable, and always spiffing dangerous. An extraordinary turner of the ball, he extracts a lot of juice from the cricket surface. His wild swingers have entered the bat-pad gap of many unwitting willow wielders. The bulk of Murali's magic was to be found in his exceptional fingers, wrist and arm, and his naturally different shoulder. His performances against every team all over the world have been quite superlative for these years. The only exception being his record in Australia.
Over the years, Murali has provided some bamboozling spells to run through many a batting line up. In total, Murali has 67 five-wicket hauls. Yes, 67!! Warne's second with 37. An issue is that Sri Lanka got very few test appearances compared to India, Australia and England and that is a huge shame. To illustrate my point, Murali played a total of just 56 tests between his debut in Aug 1992 and Dec 2000 and not too many more in the next decade. We should have seen a lot more of the bowling virtuoso.
It was in 21st century that Murali rose as the most dangerous bowler in the world as Sri Lanka became more prominent on the test scene. He took 568 test wickets @ 20.92 in the decade. Playing his best cricket when his side needed him became such a habit with this diminutive genius that it was not considered something out of the ordinary. Hats off!
Some Conversation on Both
Murali has taken 800 wickets in 230 innings @ 22.72 at a strike rate of 55, while Warne took 708 wickets in 273 innings @ 25.41 at a strike rate of 57.4.
Some say that Australia had better bowlers alongside Warne to take wickets, so he had lesser opportunities. On the other hand, it has been shown that having a good supporting cast can also make it much easier for bowlers to take wickets. It also means that Murali had to take more top order wickets than Warne did.
The thing is that before Murali's emergence as a great bowler, Warne had been placed on a pedestal so high by the cricketing fraternity, it was difficult to undo it. It was not without reason, of course. Then came the controversy with Murali's action. It took a few years to clear the matter up. For the record, his action is clean, and he does not chuck. He just has a naturally different shoulder which moves incredibly fast to give him what he requires. He even modified his doosra on the advice of ICC. He was still as effective.
Another myth is that Murali's wickets came majorly from the minnows. But even if you remove those wickets, he has a better record than Warne in terms of averages and strike rate. At the same time, Warne took a lot of wickets against England, who are poor players of spin, while Murali did not get to play a lot of matches against England, and anyway his average against them is better than Warne's. Murali's record against India too is much better than Warne's.
I would also take this moment to say that Warne's drug test failure at the 2003 WC does not lessen his stature, nor does it constitute as a real black mark against his character. But I really do wonder what would have happened had Murali been involved in something like that. Would the cricketing world have been as benevolent towards him? Maybe. Maybe not.
Warne is beautiful to watch and the master of leg spin. Many feel that leg spin is more enjoyable to watch than off spin; I am not one of them. In fact, sometimes I think that Murali's magic balls are not taken notice of as such. His turner to get Butcher bowled out was similar to Warne's ball of the century in many ways.
To rank them is, to say the least, a challenge. Warne is a wonderful performer on the field, always gives his best and uses every trick in the book. Murali is slightly more modest, and reserved in his showmanship, though no lesser a competitor, not even by an inch. In terms of quality of bowling, too, there is little to separate the two greats. In the end though, the result must appear in the form of wickets on the field. In that respect, Murali outdoes Warne.
For me, Murali is the best of all time. Ahead of Warne and everybody else.