Fans who started watching cricket in the ‘90s know what a great time it was for spin bowling, with Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, and Anil Kumble ruling the roost. To be a successful batter, you had to be a brilliant player of spin and a mere watch-through of stats wouldn’t probably give one the picture of how devastating the three were because of the batters who were facing them – Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Aravinda De Silva, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting – all exceptional players of spin. Players who wouldn’t read spin off the surface, but off fingers of champion bowlers.
The Tri-Wizard Tournament
While Warne was a genius leg-spinner who could probably make the ball spin even on glass, Muralitharan was a master off-spinner who was a wrist-spinner, a surprise in the world of off-spinners. Kumble, on the other hand, was never a big spinner of the cricket ball. His perseverance, his accuracy, and his brilliant use of speed and bounce took him to a great height. One wouldn’t get all 10 wickets in a Test innings for nothing. However, Kumble himself feels he shouldn’t have ever been compared to Muralitharan and Warne, who were too talented to be placed with him in the same bracket.
Let us take a quick look at their Test records. Kumble has 619 Test wickets at an average of 29.65 and a strike rate of 65.9. Muralitharan, the highest wicket taker of all times, has 800 wickets at an average of 22.72 with an astounding strike rate of 55. Shane Warne got himself 708 wickets at an average of 25.41 at a strike rate of 57.4.
Show Down Under
As records go, Murali is a champion to say the least. However, there are certain things that would make Warne a special case. And on top the list of the reasons would be their show in Australia itself.
Anil Kumble’s average in Australia is more than 37, and Muralitharan’s is surprisingly high at 75.41! On the other hand, Warne has 319 wickets in Australia, at an astounding average of 26.39, the greatest number of all times in terms of spin bowling in Australia.
Yes, Warne was bowling in his home turf but this home is not very welcoming, is it?
Considered to be cricket’s most difficult testing grounds, Australian pitches were a spin bowler’s worst dreams come true. The fast, hard pitches didn’t turn, dust was brushed off easily. These were the favourite hunting grounds of the Lillees and Thomsons, the McGraths and Lees.
One, however, needs to consider the weaker all-over bowling Sri Lanka and India had and the great batting lineup Australia boasted of. The Aussie batters were successful all around the world and the pressure their pace battery put in made Warne’s task a tad easier. Warne’s India numbers are not at all good though, thanks to batters like Sidhu, Tendulkar, Azharuddin, and Ganguly who were great users of feet. Warne has a very unlikely average of 43.11 in India. His other high average is in the West Indies, at 39.64, where Lara often took him to the cleaners.
The Secret: Variations
Warne realised pretty early in his career that if he had to compete or even survive in bowling conditions like those of Australia, he had to develop variations. A lot of variations. This was another reason why the master spinner was so successful in England as well, his average being 21.94 in England. Of course, Muralitharan was even more successful in England (average 19.2), had subtle variations, a brilliant top spinner and a googly. Murali was more accurate as well. Kumble, in his own way, would play with the seam. Warne, in his heyday, however, had at least five distinct variations in his kitty. Thus, if he wanted, every ball in an over could be different.
While he had a fantastic leg break to begin with, he had a top spinner that would go straight and get a steeper bounce, the famed wrong ‘un that would spin the other way, the lethal flipper that would go flatter and skid, and the slider that he developed much later in his career. It has to be kept in mind that Warne bowled these with minimum change in his grip and only a very close watcher of his hand might have a chance to read his variations. With his excellent wristwork, Warne could bring out turn on any dead track.
More important was Warne’s game with the drift he generated. Even the keenest of batters would be beaten in the air itself, before the ball even landed.
Kumble himself described Warne in a Sportstar interview: “He (Warne) is amazing. He has all the variations a leg-spinner can think of and his accuracy is too much. It is the most important and most difficult thing for a leg-spinner. For me, I am not an orthodox leg-spinner, accuracy is not difficult to attain.” Kumble also said that he would like to develop his leg spin even more.
Warne and Muralitharan had more of a rivalry, probably because of how umpires repeatedly called out Murali’s actions, more often than not against Australia. Warne himself said about Murali, “I admired him from a distance and when we played against each other we always tried to outdo each other,” as quoted by ESPN.in. The smiling Sri Lankan assassin, however, remembers Warne in a fonder way. It was Warne’s early days in 1992 and he was touring Sri Lanka. Muralitharan was watching the game as a reserve. Sri Lanka had been controlling the match but then the rookie Victorian took the last 3 Lankan wickets without conceding a run. Sri Lanka lost the match by 16 runs.
It was through numerous performances like this that Shane Warne revived the art of leg spin when it was almost dead across the world. For all the Rashid Khans of today’s T20 world, there was one Shane Keith Warne. Murali and Kumble would remember. So would fans.