The class of Warne

S. DINAKAR

V. V. KRISHNAN

DURING a period when Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble have also left their footprints on the path to cricketing immortality, is Shane Warne the greatest spinner of his time?

Test cricket's first 600-wicket man is still spinning his way to glory, bamboozling the batsmen with his prodigious turn, stifling them with his control, and sending them on the long walk back. The Australian's leg-spin — timeless, sublime, and ethereal — elevates the contest to a rarefied level. Those leg-spinners adorned with tantalising flight and turn, the fizzy top-spinners and flippers, and the odd wrong 'un, can get the line-ups into a hopeless tangle.

Yet, does he score over Muralitharan and Kumble, two exceptional performers, who too, like Warne have scripted stirring comebacks from shoulder surgeries?

Warne's strengths are immense. For a leg-spinner cast in the classical mould, he bowls with remarkable accuracy and the pressure builds on the batsman.

While he can always get his leg-spinners to turn alarmingly, it is where he pitches the ball — around the right-hander's leg and middle stumps — that makes those deliveries extremely effective; this is reflected in the number of his victims caught behind or at slip.

Warne imparts so much side-spin that it is often suicidal to strike him against the break. And when he bowls the top-spinner, it sizzles with over-spin; the extra bounce he extracts has often spelt doom for the batsmen.

Leg-spin apart, the flipper is the most potent weapon in the Warne armoury. The cleverly disguised ball, pitched short of a length, would skid off the surface and crash into the batsman's pads or stumps. If the batsman shaped for a cut, he would invariably be consumed.

However, is Warne depending less on his flipper after getting his shoulder mended? Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, the gifted leg-spinner who wore the India cap in the 80s, believes so. "We have hardly seen this delivery from him during the ongoing Ashes series. He uses the thumb and the middle finger to send down this delivery and it puts a lot of stress on his shoulder. The flipper provided additional dimension to his bowling."

The flipper also opened up more possibilities for Warne's leg-spinner as Sivaramakrishnan points out. "You see, the delivery fizzed through low from short of a good length and the batsmen drawn on to the front foot to counter the flipper, became vulnerable against a well-pitched leg-break."

Warne's bowling the `slider' — a leg-break with a wobbly seam that skids off the surface — more these days, but this delivery is not nearly as destructive as his trademark flipper.

The absence of a potent googly will be held against Warne. This also makes him less effective against the southpaws for the delivery leaving the batsman is always a bigger threat.

There have been times when Warne has got the ball jumping at the left-handers off the rough from round the wicket — unlike the right-handers they do not have the luxury of indulging in pad play — but an effective wrong `un might have made him a complete bowler.

However, Warne is someone who has made the most of his ability. Here it would be interesting to glimpse at the methods of Pakistan's Mushtaq Ahmed, a leggie from the 90s with an often vicious wrong 'un, but a rather ordinary leg-spinner which some said was the direct result of playing in a surfeit of ODIs, where the delivery spinning away from the batsmen could go for runs. Warne's bowling revolves on his leg-breaks in all forms of cricket and, importantly, he backs himself to succeed.

Given that he can drift the ball away from the right-hander and spin it across the left-hander's off-stump, Muralitharan, perhaps, is more versatile. Though off-spinners conventionally prefer bowling at left-handers, the Lankan, according to his own admission, is more comfortable operating against the right-handers.

The reasons are not hard to find. It is against the right-handers that Muralitharan is able to bring into view his entire range of skills, including the doosra, while the southpaws can play him like a normal but big-spinning off-spinner.

Importantly, both Warne and Muralitharan can achieve drift, and can get the ball to hang in the air, which makes them effective even on placid tracks where it is essential to beat the batsmen in flight.

In Warne's favour is the fact that his bowling action, unlike that of Muralitharan, has never come under scrutiny. It is the delivery that provides the cutting edge to his bowling — the doosra — that also put a question mark over Muralitharan's action; the ICC settling for the 15 degree flexion rule for all bowlers could help the Lankan's case though.

Warne's aggression wins for him key duels during the crunch. The Aussie once told The Sportstar, "I like it when they come after me."

If the batsman is indecisive — pushing and prodding — then he becomes an easy prey for Warne, with the slip, the short-leg, and the silly point looming large. The Indians have fared well against Warne because they used their feet and milked him down the ground.

Anil Kumble.-V. GANESAN

In fact, Warne's record against India, which reads 43 wickets in 14 Tests at 42.18, is rather ordinary. Whenever the Indian batsmen have been positive, they have succeeded against the Australian.

In India, Warne has 34 Test scalps in nine matches at 43.11, which again does not present him as match-winner in the land of spin. Muralitharan, with 51 wickets in 12 Tests at 32.94, has fared much better while bowling at the Indians. The reason could be that Muralitharan's bowling is more suited to the surfaces where the ball `grips' for the spinners.

Paradoxically for a spinner, Warne is not exactly comfortable on such pitches. Says Sivaramakrishnan, "On these tracks, he is at a disadvantage because he spins the ball so much away from the bat. Since the turn is slow, he ends up providing width to the batsmen. Since he can extract turn on any pitch, he requires a bit of pace and bounce in the wicket."

Due to a combination of Muralitharan's bent arm and out of the ordinary wrist, the batsmen have to contend with deliveries coming out of the hand from various heights; consequently, Murali can get the delivery to bounce or skid through.

The Lankan can turn them sharply on any surface, and, as his career progressed, has evolved into a spinner extraordinaire. From being largely one-dimensional, with a huge off-spinner and little else, he now possesses a wrong `un, a flipper and can bring about subtle variations in his flight, speed, extent of turn, apart from using the crease cleverly, and tirelessly send down long spells.

Not unlike Warne, Muralitharan's fitness levels and exuberance are such that it is virtually impossible to keep him out of a game for long periods; following a barren stint he can come back hard.

Where Warne has evolved as a bowler is in controlling the extent of his turn, which is absolutely crucial for a spinner in adapting to the various pitches.

Warne scores over countryman Stuart MacGill, a formidable leg-spinner, with his consistency. While MacGill is prone to bowling at least one delivery lacking in length and direction every over, Warne possesses exemplary control over his craft, and the pressure seldom eases on the batsmen. This is precisely the reason why Warne and lanky paceman Glenn McGrath combine so well; they are attacking bowlers, but give very little away.

There is another essential difference between Warne and MacGill, as Sivaramakrishnan points out. Warne mixes both side-spin and over-spin, while MacGill, whose action is rather roundarmish, tends to rely on side-spin. As a result, Warne achieves more bounce.

Kumble's methods are rather unique for a leg-spinner. He is quicker through the air and the bounce that he extracts — the combination of his height and high-arm action is a factor here — provides another dimension to his bowling. Different spinners depend on different methods and for Kumble, it is essentially lift, coupled with an element of turn. He is not a big spinner, but his tactics work.

The Indian's rhythm is a key element of his bowling, and when he runs in well, all the other aspects of his bowling are likely to fall in place. On a pitch with double bounce, he is a distinct threat since the batsmen play for the natural lift and find the ball shooting through.

If Warne and Muralitharan strike by spinning the ball, Kumble's precision, with the close-in cordon in place, makes the batsmen sweat. Since his basics are strong, and his heart large, the Karnataka cricketer keeps coming back.

Kumble operated with exceptional intelligence Down Under in 2003-04, bowling to a straighter set field, and varying his pace and mixing up the wrong `un, the top-spinner and the leg-break, apart from using the crease cleverly, to often leave the batsman flummoxed. His unrelenting accuracy means it is never easy for the batsmen to free their arms against him.

It's not possible to compare Kumble with Warne because they are different leg-spinners. Kumble has the edge over Warne on slower wickets, since he will not provide the batsman room to launch into horizontal bat strokes. But then, on a placid wicket, Warne could carry with him more possibilities since, unlike Kumble, he has a better chance of defeating the batsman in the air.

Let's not forget for a moment Warne's ability to shift his line adeptly without straying in either length or direction. He is constantly probing, looking for chinks, and it is as much a contest of mind as skill.

Among the younger breed of spinners, Pakistan's Danish Kaneria bristles with promise. When buzzing, he can extract sharp leg-spin, has a useful googly and a top-spinner in his repertoire and is undaunted by reputations. He needs to flight the ball more to discover the in-drift — there are times when he tends to push the ball — and has to avoid straying down the right-hander's leg-stump.

The Karachi-based Kaneria is only 24 — spinners generally peak around 30 — bowls with a lot of heart and passion, but would have to temper his aggression.

The man who made his debut against England in 2000-2001, has been a match-winner for Pakistan although it is Shoaib Akhtar who makes the headlines, not always for the right reasons. Kaneraia harried the Indian batsmen in their backyard this year, and not too many leg-spinners, including Warne, have managed to accomplish that.

The leg-spinner took over as the spin spearhead from the magnificent Saqlain Mushtaq, who, it must be said, was a path breaking off-spinner with guile and variety. Someone who brought the doosra and deception into the forefront, Saqlain, in his heyday, could hoodwink the batsmen with flight. Here was a cerebral customer who, perhaps, used the crease better than most spinners, apart from bringing about subtle changes in pace and trajectory.

He possessed the `loop' associated with great off-spinners and batsmen would jump out of the crease only to be sold the dummy. In his peak, Saqlain tormented the Indians in India, during the two-Test series of 1999, registering successive ten-wicket match hauls. Like the other purveyors of the `doosra', his action too came under the scanner, he turned a reticent man, and gradually drifted away from the scene. Spinners depend on captains and Saqlain's confidence levels were high when Wasim Akram was at the helm for Pakistan. Once Akram lost the top job, Saqlain's career suffered.

Harbhajan Singh has to be Saqlain's logical successor in international cricket. One half of the famous pairing with Kumble, Harbhajan is just one wicket short of 200, and he has only figured in 45 Tests.

The Sardar's doosra, his key delivery, has run into problems. He often sets ups the batsmen with the delivery drifting away, putting into their mind seeds of doubts and then prises them out with his off-spin — a two card-card trick.

He is much the better bowler when he gives the ball air, as he did in the historic three-Test series against Australia where Harbhajan, staging an astonishing comeback, snared 32 batsmen. That was a series where flight and sharp off-spin were the Punjab bowler's assets.

Harbhajan's record is creditworthy, but it remains to be seen whether the questions about his action have dented his confidence. He, surely, will have to be slower through the air.

Danish Kaneria ... holds a lot of promise.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

In the domain of contemporary left-arm spinners, New Zealand's Daniel Vettori and England's Ashley Giles score. Vettori, even on grass-laden surfaces assisting the seamers, has been a crucial component of the Kiwi attack. He might deliver from slightly wide of the crease — this can be detrimental for a left-arm spinner — but given the kind of wickets he operates on, his tactics have worked. He gets the deliveries to straighten and skid through, and uses the angles well. He is clever, changes his speed and length, and has good control over flight. He is easily the finest, but rather under-rated, left-arm spinner of our times.

The Indians would remember Ashley Giles as a defensive bowler, bowling from over the wicket, who made run-making hard during the home series of 2001. Here is a team bowler, who has gained in stature over the years. He can also sting, as Damien Martyn discovered in the recent Manchester Test, where a Giles delivery pitched on the leg stump and hit the off.

Warne, Muralitharan and Kumble will have to be the top three present-day spinners. The Australian and the Sri Lankan are in their 13th year in Tests, while Kumble has been around for 15. While they might have taken a pounding physically, their strength of mind has enabled them not just survive but soar in the field of dreams. They have been durable, and they have conquered.

At the end of it all, you will have to give Warne the edge. He has the most number of wickets away from home — 343 — and his strike rate of 56.22 on foreign soil is better than Muralitharan's 64.34 and Kumble's 80.32. And Muralitharan's overall strike rate of 57.52 is only a shade ahead of Warne's 58.44.

There is also a theory that the three bowlers have been so successful since the quality of batting in Tests against quality spinners has dropped. "You do not want to take credit away from anyone, but the standard of batting against genuinely good spinners has come down," feels Sivaramakrishnan.

However, bowlers can only be judged from the opposition they play against. And the first five spinners, after taking all factors into account in the last 15 years, are: 1. Shane Warne; 2. Muttiah Muralitharan; 3. Anil Kumble; 4. Saqlain Mushtaq; 5. Daniel Vettori.