In our next instalment of Cricket Conversations, we debate who was better amongst the two great spinners of this era – Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed

Shubhartho Ghosh, a self-confessed lover and follower of Australian cricket, argues in favour of Warne while Nikhil Narain of Impact Index makes his case for Muralitharan.

Nikhil Narain

Nikhil Narain: All numbers, conventional or Impact, overwhelmingly suggest that Muralitharan is second to none in Test cricket history. Conventionally, 800 wickets in 230 Test innings at an average of 22.72 and strike rate of 55. On every parameter, he betters Warne who picked up 708 wickets in 273 innings at 25.41 apiece and a strike rate of 57.4.

Muralitharan is also the highest impact bowler of all time. And by some margin. He has an 18% higher impact than Warne who is at number four with Lillee and Marshall in between. He betters Warne on all individual impact parameters as well.

Muralitharan is in short, The Bradman of Test bowling.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: Yes. These numbers are a bit overwhelming but a high percentage of Muralitharan’s wickets came against weak opposition. Doesn’t that take away from his overall glory? Out of his 800 career wickets as many as 176 (more than 20%) came against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (in just 25 Tests). This has not only boosted his overall wickets tally but his bowling average and strike rate too.

In comparison, Warne played just three Tests against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in which he picked 17 wickets.

So Muralitharan for all practical purposes has 800-176 = 624 significant wickets while Warne has 708-17 = 691 such wickets.

I am sure Muralitharan’s impact also gets a boost by his numbers against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Nikhil Narain: A good point. However, even if we do not consider the performances against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Muralitharan still averages 24.87 while Warne 25.40. His bowling average in winning matches (17.9) against all nations (except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) is also superior to Warne’s (22.94).

Also, Warne’s Bowling Impact goes up by barely 2% if performances against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are excluded. However, interestingly, the jump in Muralitharan’s Bowling Impact is a significant 9%. This is because performances against weaker opposition are given lower impact values. Muralitharan played a fifth of his career matches against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and thus excluding them the difference between his and Warne’s Bowling Impact actually goes up to 25%.

Also, just because these 176 wickets are of Bangladeshi and Zimbabwe batsmen, it does not imply they are all insignificant. Shakib-Al-Hasan’s wicket from Bangladesh is more significant than the wicket of a James Anderson from England.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: Ok. But won’t you concede that the chances of a collective collapse of a weak Bangladesh or Zimbabwe side against Muralitharan’s bowling are much higher?

 

Nikhil Narain
: Yes. That is true. Out of the 25 Tests Muralitharan played against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, only on 4 occasions did he face a competitive side. So he did benefit from playing against weak opposition.

 

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: Can you dwell a bit more on some of the individual parameters?

 

 

Nikhil Narain: Muralitharan took a higher proportion of top/middle order wickets (Top/Middle Order Wickets Tally Impact) and was more restrictive ( Economy Impact ). He produced a high impact performance on 45 occasions in 128 Tests. Warne produced 41 such performances in 147 Tests. Muralitharan was also more consistent with a failure rate of 16% as compared to Warne’s 23%. Just so you know, an impact of less than 1 in a match constitutes a failure.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: This Top/Middle Order Wickets Tally Impact you talk about is a result of the more opportunities Muralitharan got to bowl at the top order of the opposition. Also, isn’t Muralitharan’s higher frequency of high impact performances directly linked with this? With Sri Lanka facing a dearth of quality fast bowlers, it was really only Vaas who made some inroads with the new ball. Muralitharan was introduced early into the attack and he continued to occupy an end for the better part of the innings. So, Muralitharan benefited from being part of a weak bowling line-up.

Australia had a world class opening bowling pair right through Warne’s career – McDermott, Hughes, McGrath, Lee, Gillespie and he was brought into the attack later in the innings when more often than not the top order had already been removed. What I am implying is Warne had a lesser chance to have a crack at the entire batting line up as compared to Muralitharan. In your parlance he shared his impact with the other great bowlers in the Australian side. I won’t be surprised if Warne has a high share of lower-order wickets in his career?

Nikhil Narain: Yes, you are right about Warne’s large proportion of lower-order wickets. Both, McDermott, who played 35 Tests with Warne between 1992-1996 and McGrath, his great new ball contemporary, took a higher share of top/middle order wickets than Warne. The leg-spinner in turn had a much higher proportion of lower order wickets. This in turn would mean that the value of wickets he got is comparatively lower to Muralitharan who had the whole opposition side exposed to him and this is one of the reasons why the off-spinner had a higher frequency of high impact performances.

But there is a flip side to this. Muralitharan’s case is similar to Lara’s. Lara, in the second half of his career, was part of an average and sometimes poor West Indian Test team. But while we glorify Lara’s achievements and hail his performances for standing out in a weak team, we try and play down Muralitharan’s.

Muralitharan toiled from one end and stood out in a team where there was mediocrity all around with the ball. To motivate himself and to maintain those high standards showed his calibre and character. Yes, he got more opportunities but that also meant extra burden. The onus to perform was on him. That was not the case with Warne as Australia had other bowling greats amongst their ranks. So Warne could bowl with a certain freedom. Muralitharan could not.

One must also remember that Warne benefited from the pressure created by the fast bowlers from the other end. He could set more attacking fields and always be on the offensive.

Murali_vs_Warne
Muttiah Muralitharan & Shane Warne: Part of strikingly different bowling attacks.

 

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: Consistency , again, has to be seen in the context of the different arts they mastered. Leg-spin is a more difficult art to control involving wrist, arm and fingers. So whereas you can run through a side you can also have a terrible day with the ball, bowling half-trackers when everything goes wrong. Off-spinners, generally are in control and more consistent.

Nikhil Narain: Leg-spin is certainly the more difficult of the two arts but then it is also the more rewarding one. Leg-spinners have historically been used as the attacking option by captains which in turn has given them more opportunities to pick wickets. Off-spinners, on the other hand, have been used more as a restrictive option.

Having said that, yes, it is easier for an off-spinner to give a consistent performance regularly as compared to a leggie and in that light, Warne’s failure rate of 23% (the third-best for a spinner in Test history after Muralitharan and Kumble – one an off-spinner and the other essentially a top-spinner) is exceptional.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: Is there a measure for determining who the greater match-winner was?

 

 

Nikhil Narain: Impact Index attaches more importance to a series rather than a match. We believe that the most important quality in a player is his ability to rise and perform in the big matches. Here we define a series-defining performance ( SD ) as a high impact performance in a match which helps the respective team to win or draw level the series. Muralitharan had 10 such SDs in fewer Tests (129) as compared to Warne who has 8 in 145 Tests.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: But Muralitharan actually played more Test series (61) than Warne (46). This is because Sri Lanka played a number of two-match and three-match series in contrast with Australia who played a number of four-Test and five-Test series. So Warne’s frequency (series played-wise) of producing an SD is actually slighter better than Muralitharan’s.

Nikhil Narain
: Yes. That is a good observation. But then Muralitharan played a number of series against weak Zimbabwe and Bangladesh teams for which we do not award SDs.

 

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: Ok. Fair enough. Could you give me a country-wise break up of these SDs? I am sure most of Muralitharan’s SDs were in spin-friendly conditions in Sri Lanka while that would not be the case with Warne.

 

Nikhil Narain: Yes, out of Muralitharan’s 10 SDs, 7 were in Sri Lanka, 2 in New Zealand and 1 in England. But barring Australia and India, he had a very high impact in every other nation. And it was the poor performance of the team which led him down. He narrowly missed out on a series-levelling SD performance against the West Indies in 1997 when in the second Test at St. Vincent (trailing 0-1 in the two-match series), Sri Lanka, set 269, ended up with 233 for 8. Similarly, he gave high impact performances in South Africa in two of his three tours there (1997-98 and 2000-01) but the team still lost. So one cannot fault Muralitharan for the failure of his teammates.

Warne had 2 SDs at home, 3 in England and 1 each in Sri Lanka, South Africa and the UAE. No doubt that this is a better all-round record but it is as much because of his own skill and exploits as being a part of an all-conquering side which won all over the world.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: A special mention for Warne’s performance against SL in 2004 after a one year break from competitive cricket due to the banned substance ban. In my view exceptional and remarkable. Even more praiseworthy because Sri Lanka has been a graveyard for leg-spinners, with Warne an extraordinary exception. Leg-spinners other than Warne have averaged 45 there.

Nikhil Narain
: Yes. 5-116 and 5-43 in the first Test at Galle, 5-65 and 5-90 in Kandy and 2-115 and 4-92 in Colombo helping Australia sweep the series 3-0. He was the highest impact player of the series.

 

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed: Muralitharan’s numbers also get a boost from playing a majority 73 of his 134 Tests at home. He picked up 493 wickets at 19.56 apiece. His average drops to 28 outside Sri Lanka. Warne, on the other hand, has a more balanced Home and Away record (average of 26.39 and 25.5). Furthermore, Muralitharan played a staggering 97 Tests in the subcontinent. 612 of his career wickets came in these spinner-friendly pitches and conditions. Warne only played 25 Tests in the subcontinent and picked up 127 wickets.

Nikhil Narain: Muralitharan is the highest impact bowler in home conditions in the history of Test cricket – a legacy which needs to be celebrated and a testimony of his greatness. One tends to romanticize an English fast bowler doing well in England in helpful conditions but look down upon the performances of subcontinent spinners (Kumble and Muralitharan being prime examples) in conditions suited to slow bowling? Isn’t this unfair and being biased?

Also, one must remember that Australian pitches have been conducive to leg-spin bowling and Warne did benefit from that.

Sri Lanka were also considered as a less lucrative touring team and as such did not travel much to the major Test playing nations.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: Didn’t Warne enthrall the spectators and cricket pundits alike by the sheer magic of his bowling – that beautiful action and didn’t he give the dying art of leg-spin a new life?

 

Nikhil Narain: Warne had a larger than life presence, was flamboyant and never shy of exchanging a verbal exchange with the batsmen in the middle. Thus he had a personality which made him popular on and off the field.

Muralitharan on the other hand, was quiet and reserved and thus never enjoyed the limelight the way Warne did.

The scores of articles on Warne’s beautiful bowling action are nothing but pure Romanticism. While, undoubtedly, he was great to watch, visual pleasure needs to be kept out of analysis which has to be based only on hard numbers.

Also, cricket pundits have traditionally ignored Sri Lanka (and Pakistan post the retirement of Wasim and Waqar) and tend to focus on Australia, England, India and South Africa more in Test cricket.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: Wasn’t Muralitharan’s reported action a black mark undermining his greatness? Didn’t he play victim and get the rules bent?

 

Nikhil Narain: On the contrary, allowing himself to scrutiny and then coming out absolutely clean and continuing to maintain the high standards, speaks volumes of his character and ability. In fact, he was the highest impact bowler in the world during the course of the period his action underwent multiple tests (1996-2004). He transformed a born deformity in his arm into an advantage.

Shubhartho Ghosh -compressed
: One thing you will have to concede. Warne’s delivery to Gatting in the Ashes Test at Manchester in 1993 remains the Ball of the Century.

 

Nikhil Narain

: Yes, of the previous Century! Have a look at Mark Butcher being cleaned up by Muralitharan in the first innings of the second Test in Birmingham in 2002.

 

 

 

Illustrations: Vasim Maner