Sunday, July 18, 2010

Murali vs Warne - Who is the best?

 In another week, one of the greatest spin bowlers in the history of cricket will retire from Test Cricket, bringing to end an era of titanic spin bowlers. If the 80s were marked by all-rounders, the 1990s and 2000s have been marked by brilliant spin bowlers - Warne, Muralitharan, Kumble, each with over 600 Test wickets. Of these, Warne and Murali have been statistically superior to Kumble, were able to spin the ball more and were more effective on varied wickets.


The shadow of chucking has always hovered over Muralitharan's career. It originated in Australia, and Umpire Emerson, who called him for throwing in Australia in the 1990s still claims that he throws. Darrell Hair , who also called Murali for chucking in Australia argues that when he called him, he was right, and that the law has since changed. Hair is partially right, in that bio-mechanical analysis has revealed that nearly all bowlers in cricket bend their elbows to a lesser or greater extent, and that the bowling law, which was revised after the chucking controversies of the 1950s, and came to define a legal delivery, rather than defining explicitly the illegal delivery, was flawed. A really good way to present this analysis to the cricket following public, especially the boorish, ignorant Australian fans who would yell "No Ball" everytime Murali ran up to bowl in that country, would have been to subject every top bowler - Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Kumble, Zaheer, Srinath, Gough etc etc to the very same bio-mechanical analysis that Murali underwent, and publish these results. I suspect that people would have been surprised by the results produced by some bowlers, especially McGrath and Gough. But this never happened, and Murali continued to be serially abused Down Under.

As a result, the Sri Lanka's most illustrious Tamil son has repeatedly had his quality questioned in influential circles. The sheer volume of Murali's wickets has bothered some people, who point to the large number of wickets that the Sri Lankan has taken against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (181 wickets in 26 Tests, Home and Away), as something that might count against Murali. I have excluded results against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the chart below, and the record shows that Murali at least holds his own against Warne.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Murali has been the more effective bowler. He takes an average 3.4 wickets per innings at 24.83 in Tests against Test opposition excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The corresponding figure for Warne is 2.6 wickets at 25.52. Murali takes a 5 wickets hauls once every 3.4 innings. The corresponding figure for Warne is 7.4 innings. Remember that Murali takes his Test wickets cheaper than Warne. The one area where Warne surpasses Murali is in their performance Away from home.

All of these statistical quirks can be explained by the relative strengths of the bowling attacks Murali and Warne played in. If you have a preference for sly leg breaks over more methodical off breaks, you may favor Warne. If you prefer sharp off-breaks, you may prefer Murali. Both Warne and Murali struggled in India, but both have troubled India on their home grounds. Both Warne and Murali hated bowling bad balls and I have watched both bowlers bowling for entire sessions without giving a batsman anything to cut. Murali was a more defensive bowler. He hated conceding boundaries, and often bowled with a deep-midwicket. Warne was more attacking. This might also be seen as indicative of their respective bowling attacks.

I hope Murali has a good match at Galle. It will be one of the great occasions in modern Test Match history. There have been only a handful of cricketers in Test Match History who belong in the same class as Muttiah Muralitharan. A man who almost single handedly improved Sri Lanka's fortunes in Test Cricket, and made them a force to be reckoned with. Would Sri Lanka have won at the Oval in 1998, even with the brilliant batting of de Silva and Jayasurya? Murali took 16 wickets in that game, including 9/52 in Englands second innings.

Muralitharan bowling in a Test Match has for over a decade been one of the great sights in cricket. It will be to Australia's eternal shame that they offered him their worst and not their best. But these little slights don't matter in the long run. Future historians and statisticians of the sport will look back at Murali's record with the same awe that is reserved today for Sydney Barnes and Don Bradman. Shane Warne revived leg spin bowling, but Muralitharan invented the Test Match victory for Sri Lanka.

Eight wickets? Even at the cost of an Indian defeat, I hope he gets them.

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