It is really hotting up

IT is most certainly the contest of the decade. It's the Muralitharan magic versus the Warne wizardry stakes and the plum is the label of "The greatest spinner ever to play Test cricket.''

IT is most certainly the contest of the decade. It's the Muralitharan magic versus the Warne wizardry stakes and the plum is the label of "The greatest spinner ever to play Test cricket.''

The two tweakers are, in a sense, in the starting blocks for one of the most intense races in cricket's history. Shane Warne, the leg-spinner from Australia and Muttiah Muralitharan, the off-spinner from Sri Lanka are jointly perched on a pedestal having an equal number of Test wickets.

Warne, at the conclusion of the recent series against Sri Lanka in Australia came abreast of Muralitharan and for the moment shares the record of the most number of Test match wickets. From here on, the contest has taken a serious turn and who will ultimately emerge as the highest wicket taker of all time is the question.

The statistics of number of Tests played, the numbers of overs bowled and strike rate will matter little as at the end of the day, the bowler in the highest number in the wickets column will be hailed the champion.

The career paths of the two cricketers have run a similar course. Both began playing Test cricket in 1992, though Warne had a head start of around eight months.

It was only after the two spinners' bounty of wickets crossed the 400 mark that the competition began to intensify. The Test match at Galle where they played together in 2003-2004 was a fierce contest to see which spinner would scale the 500-wicket peak first.

Warne and Muralitharan were level on 496 wickets each at one stage before Warne plugged through and topped the magical figure first.

The two spinners are prodigious turners of the ball. Warne baits his victims with a wide repertoire of deliveries. He varies his line, length and bounce and has the best of batsmen floundering.

Some of his wicket-taking deliveries are nothing short of the magic as Mike Gatting will testify. Warne's mastery over the art of leg spin is unrivalled and even the worst of his detractors is forced to stand up and applaud his wizardry.

Murali is far more direct. He goes for the jugular with a piercing thrust. Many of his wickets are earned with the ball fizzing off the pitch spitefully. His efforts are aggressive enough to hasten a batsman's dismissal with a knock-out punch.

While Warne's shenanigans (nexus with bookies, phone sex, diuretics to mention a few) have made news around the world, the only controversy Murali has faced is what is made out to be his suspect bowling action.

No cricketer in the game's history has been subjected to such scrutiny (camera and biomechanical tests) and such blasphemy.

He has been a fighter on the field and off the pitch has steered clear of any controversy. To his credit, Murali has recently been appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. That he has been able to shrug off such diatribes and continue to play with a high morale is praiseworthy.

The stage is now set for an absorbing contest. Every Test match figuring Australia or Sri Lanka will be followed with keen interest. Every wicket either of the bowlers take will be counted by the other. The classic clash is well and truly on.

But the contest has not been without rancour and a tinge of envy on the part of Warne. He needlessly made some disparaging remarks at the post match press conference in Cairns at the end of the second Test against Sri Lanka. Warne said that Murali earned most of his victims on `doctored' pitches.

He also said that while Murali had no opposition from bowlers at the other end, he himself had to compete with the likes of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie. Trueman too was similarly uncharitable when his tally was surpassed by Lance Gibbs. Trueman muttered that Gibbs had bought most of his wickets.

Warne would do well to recall the controversy about who was the first atop Mount Everest. While the world speculated whether it was Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hillary, the two men refused to be drawn into the debate. The dignity and the respect for each other that these two mountaineers displayed needs to be emulated. After all there is no record in the history of sport that cannot be surpassed.

Freddie Trueman, Lance Gibbs, Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Courtney Walsh and Muttiah Muralitharan have all been at the pinnacle of this bowling landmark and no one can hold on to the record forever. They can at best savour the triumph and endear the moment while it lasts.

And so the cricket world watches with bated breath. Who will the winner be? Warne or Murali? What will the final tally be? 600 or more? Those answers only time will tell, for the race has only just begun.