Clash of the Titans

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

Who was the greater bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan or Shane Warne? 

Such questions are almost impossible to answer. This is obviously the case with cricketers from different generations: “Was Dennis Lillee better than Ray Lindwall?” Who can say? There is no such excuse here. Murali and Warne were close if not exact contemporaries; Warne made his Test debut in January 1992, Murali in August. Murali played on for 3 years after Warne’s retirement: Warne was three years older. 

Figures tell part of the story. Murali’s are astonishing: 800 Test wickets, 67 five wicket hauls and ten wickets in a match 22 times. (Only the legendary S F Barnes (at seven) has exceeded Murali’s average of six wickets per Test; no modern bowler comes close.) Warne comes second in each category, but it is hardly a photo finish: 708 Test wickets, 37 five-fors and ten ten-fors. Murali averaged 22.72 to Warne’s 25.41. Warne played 12 more Tests but delivered almost 4,000 fewer balls. 

It is often said that Warne was fortunate not to have to bowl against Australia who were undoubtedly the best team in the world for almost the whole of the relevant period. This would certainly seem to be borne out by Murali’s record against them. Against Australia he took 59 wickets in 13 Tests at an average of 36.06. But in Australia, in five matches, he took 12 wickets at a startling average of 75.41.

Interestingly, Warne’s record in Sri Lanka was scarcely inferior to Murali’s, in terms of average. Against Sri Lanka in 13 matches Warne took an extraordinary 132 wickets at 25.45. But in Sri Lanka, where he took 48 wickets in nine matches, his average fell to 20.45, compared to Murali’s average at home of 19.56. 

Warne’s record was better away than at home. In Australia he took 319 wickets at 26.39, compared to 362 wickets at 25.50 (he played three Tests on neutral territory). Murali was significantly more successful at home, where he took 493 wickets at 19.56, as opposed to 307 at 27.79. 

Curiously, both of these champions struggled in India. Murali took 40 wickets in 11 Tests at 45.45. Warne took 34 wickets in nine matches at 43.11. 

Each had an outstanding record against England, home and away. 

The real discrepancy, in terms of figures, comes at what might be termed the bottom of the Test league table. 

Murali played 11 Tests against Bangladesh, taking 89 wickets at 13.37. He played 14 Tests against Zimbabwe, taking 87 wickets at 16.46. 

Warne played twice against Bangladesh and once against Zimbabwe, taking a total of 17 wickets in the three matches. 

But of course it is not all about figures. Each was a matchwinner who contributed immensely to his country’s success. In a sense this was more obvious with Murali in that he was manifestly the leader of Sri Lanka’s attack. Charminda Vaas was an outstanding left arm swing bowler but otherwise there was a shortage of real quality until the emergence of the left arm spinner Rangana Herath and he did not really establish himself until Murali retired. Warne, on the other hand, was one member of a richly talented and varied attack that included, at different times, Glenn Mcgrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Tim May – Warne’s favourite spin bowling partner – and Stuart Macgill. 

This meant that Murali had a remarkable ability to dominate a Test match when conditions were favourable. Twice Murali took nine wickets in an innings; nobody else has done that, though of course England’s Jim Laker took 19 in a match against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956. 

Two performances were especially memorable. At The Oval in 1998 he took 16 wickets in a match which Sri Lanka won by ten wickets after England had made 445 in their first innings, having been put in by Arjuna Ranatunga. In that innings Murali took seven for 155 in 59.3 overs. Sri Lanka then made 591, Sanath Jayasuriya making an astonishing 213, and Aravinda da Silva 152. England were then bundled out for 181, Murali taking nine for 65 in 54.2 overs. After the event, Ranatunga explained his decision to put England in by saying it was the only way Sri Lanka could ensure victory; they could only have won batting first if England had been forced to follow on. 

A similar result, though in very different circumstances, occurred in the first Test against South Africa in Colombo in 2006. This was the match in which Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put on a world-record 624 for the third wicket. So the pitch at the Sinhalese Sports Club was not exactly unplayable. The visitors, batting first, made 169 (Murali four for 48). Sri Lanka made 756 for five. South Africa were batting again by the final session of the third day. At the end of the fourth day they were 311 for four, with captain Ashwell Prince on 60 and Mark Boucher on 38. Murali took four of the last six wickets on the final day, including Prince first thing for 61. He finished with six for 131 in 64 overs. 

Like all great performers, Murali had a sense of occasion. Before India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2010 he let it be known that he would retire from Test cricket after the first match in Galle. At that point he had 792 Test wickets. Sri Lanka batted first and made 520 for eight. But a day was lost to rain and if they were to beat India they were going to have to bowl them out twice in two days. Sri Lanka enforced the follow-on, Murali taking his 67th five-for, but India fought hard on the final day, especially Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. Murali and Lasith Malinga chipped away though, and 102 for two became 197 for seven, with Murali on 799 wickets. That final one took 24 overs but it was a famous victory. And Murali got a 21 -gun salute. 

Warne never got a 21-gun salute. But he had any number of famous victories and he specialised in memorable moments. That is ironic in a way in that, like all the best spinners, the great asset of these two bowlers was patience. Murali was unlucky in respect of one quirk of the international fixture list: Sri Lanka have never played a Test series comprising more than three matches. Warne played many five-match series, especially against England of course, but also against South Africa, India and the West Indies. In that context his special brand of magic was allowed to develop, particularly recognisably when it came to a batsman over whom he had a special hold, such as the South African Darryl Cullinan. 

His single most memorable moment came near the beginning, his first ball in Ashes cricket. It is hard to believe that there is anyone reading this who hasn’t watched The Ball of The Century half a dozen times. It never ceases to amaze: the drift, the sharp turn, Mike Gatting’s protective lunge forward, his look of consternation as the awful truth dawned on him. 

It was a seismic moment not just for that 1993 series but for a decade and a half. England were in thrall to Warne from that point on. Even when Australia lost, which wasn’t often, he sort of won. In the fabulous series of 2005, which England won two-one, Warne took 40 wickets at 19.92. 

His most remarkable performance came at the end of his career, in his final series, also against England, at home in 2006-07. 

Australia had got off to their customarily good start with a commanding win at Brisbane. England, however, fought back strongly in the second Test at Adelaide, making 551 for six before Andrew Flintoff declared. Warne took one for 167 in 53 overs. Australia made 513. England closed the fourth day on 59 for one. 

Most people thought it was bound to be a draw. Former Australian captain Ian Chappell didn’t exactly disagree. But he did say that only one side could win – Australia, because they had Warne. 

Chappell’s prescience was borne out. Warne won the match. England were bowled out for 129 and Australia won by six wickets. Warne took four for 49 in 32 overs. 

It is an obvious point, but worth making nonetheless, that a bowler doesn’t need to take eight wickets in an innings, or even six, or five, to win a match. Warne’s dominance of England in this strangely agonising innings – their 129 occupied 73 overs – was complete and unchallenged. The critical moment was the dismissal of Kevin Pietersen, bowled by a massive leg break for two; he had made 158 in the first innings. Equally significant was the innings of Paul Collingwood, double centurion in the first innings; he made 22 not out in three and a quarter hours, epitomising England’s impotence in the face of Warne’s genius. 

Murali and Warne each had problems; well, Warne had lots of them, Murali had one. With Warne it was all off-field stuff – allegations of contact with an Indian bookmaker, ham-fistedly covered up by the Australian cricket authorities; taking an unauthorised substance, which led to a one-year ban from the game; and endless stories in the press about his tempestuous personal life – but all this had an on-field impact in that it can be no coincidence that Warne, who has an exceptional feel for cricket’s tactical side, never captioned his country. 

For Murali, it was an on-field issue. In 1995-96 he was no-balled for throwing by Australian umpire Darrell Hair during the Boxing Day Test. It happened again in Australia in 1998-99, during a one-day tournament involving England as well as Australia and Sri Lanka, but he had been effectively cleared by then. In fact his unique and extraordinary action was born out of a congenital deformity in his elbow and upper arm, and it was physically impossible for him to bowl in any other way. That didn’t stop the whispers, and in a way Murali didn’t help himself by developing a “doosra” in the second half of his career, which made him more potent than ever but hardly silenced the criticisms of his action. (Some noted critics were of the view that it was impossible for anyone to bowl the doosra legally,) By this time more advanced testing methods had revealed that a number of bowlers utilised a degree of flex in their actions and revised guidelines about the allowable degree of flex removed any real doubt about the legality of Murali’s action. It is one of the truly remarkable things about him that he remained throughout his career one of the most cheerful, zestful and positive of cricketers: “a wild-eyed smiling assassin”, as David Gower called him. 

Technically, they were both masterful. Warne, as a wrist spinner, had all the variations. When he was younger his googly and especially his flipper were wonderfully disguised weapons. His dismissal of Alec Stewart with a flipper at Brisbane in 1994-95 is another of those balls that deserves to be watched again and again. His big leg break remained a vital weapon to the end: serious shoulder and finger injuries restricted his use of the other variations. The strain Warne put on his body was immense, remarkable for a “slow” bowler. By the end of his career his brain was almost more important than his body. He would think and intimidate batsmen out, barely turning the ball. Throughout his career, the level of control, for a wrist spinner, was astonishing. 

This was equally true of Murali. He was an off-spinner but even before he developed his doosra he was hardly an orthodox one. Subtle changes of grip and a remarkably supple wrist enabled him to impart a startling amount of spin even before he developed the doosra. He had two off breaks and a top spinner, and the degree of consternation he caused among batsmen equalled anything achieved by Warne. 

Cricket isn’t just about numbers. It isn’t just about winning and losing; Christopher Martin-Jenkins called Murali the greatest of all match-winners. It isn’t all about technical ability. What gives it is endless appeal is the sense of theatre, the duel between batsman and bowler across that 22-yard strip of turf. Warne was a master at commanding this particular stage. It was partly his run-up, starting with that measured, almost threatening walk. But it was the whole package. 

The game has produced brilliantly attacking stroke makers, and thrillingly fast bowlers. But Shane Warne was the most compulsively watchable of all cricketers.

Bill Ricquier

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