Winning duels is a habit with them

S. DINAKAR

TANTALISING flight, sharp turn, vicious bounce, exciting bag of tricks... and clueless batsmen. Welcome to a very different world.

Apart from their exceptional skills with the ball, Shane Warne (right) and Muttiah Muralitharan (below) are persistent and accurate, seldom easing the pressure on the batsmen, and it is a severe test of ability and character for the men facing them.-V. V. KRISHNAN

The world of two phenomenal bowlers, Australia's Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka. The heavyweights in the realm of spin.

Knocking out batsmen with guile and deception, rather than power and force. Killing 'em softly, they do make it appear ridiculously simple.

So simple that it often camouflages countless hours of hard work, a zillion deliveries sent down at the nets in their quest for perfection, and the occasional moments of frustration.

Warne, the leg-spinning wizard, Muralitharan, the off-spin genius. Warne of that bright, winning smile, that bristles with confidence and Muralitharan of those big, bold eyes, so full of life. The most successful spinners ever.

Different, innovative, and eventually path-breaking, they have enhanced cricket during a period when real quality in spin bowling has been at a premium. Precisely, the reason for their very special place in cricket history.

Apart from their exceptional skills with the ball, the two are persistent and accurate, seldom easing the pressure on the batsmen, and it is a severe test of ability and character for the men facing them.

Indeed, Warne's awesome leg-breaks, trademark flippers and sizzling top-spinners pose searching questions, while Muralitharan's heady mix of deadly off-spin, the straighter one, the arm ball and the away spinner has made him Predator No. 1 in recent times.

When the batsmen are prepared to use their feet, the two are ready. There are few sights in cricket more fascinating than watching daring spinners operate against fleet-footed players.

Here, deceit is looked upon with admiration, and Warne and Muralitharan are only too happy when the batsmen go after them, giving the ball even more air, setting up the dismissal, and eventually succeeding in their plans.

V. V. KRISHNAN

Winning duels is a habit with the two, and they have won several famous ones, re-writing records along the way. Right now, Warne and Muralitharan are involved in a fascinating race to the summit - the dash to Courtney Walsh's world record Test haul of 519 scalps.

And the coming days promise to be interesting. Shane Warne has 413 from 95 Tests (before the series against South Africa), and Muralitharan, rapidly narrowing the gap, 374 in 69 (before the series against Zimbabwe). However, at 29, the Lankan is three years younger than Warne, and this provides him with a vital edge over the Aussie.

Their careers run along parallel lines. Muralitharan's debut, against Australia, in the Colombo Test of 1992-93, was also the series where Warne first assumed the mantle of the match-winner, after enduring a frustrating period against India in the 1991-92 series down under.

Muralitharan made a quiet start to his Test career in the second Test at the Premadasa Stadium, with his three wickets costing 141 runs. Those were the days when the friendly Tamil from Kandy was very much a one-dimensional bowler with a huge off-break being his principal weapon.

A far cry from the present day Muralitharan, who has astonishing variety. Clever use of the crease, subtle variations in flight, changes in pace, control over the extent of turn and the ability to bowl marathon spells have seen this dangerous bowler, with a unique wrist action, scalp a stunning 57 batsmen in his last seven Tests.

This includes unprecedented 10-wicket match hauls in four successive Tests, beginning with the destruction of India at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground in September 2001.

Muralitharan began the sequence by destroying India on a first day pitch at the SSC with a spell of eight for 87 - a unique feat in itself - picked up three more wickets in the second innings, and has since been on a dream run.

Along the way, Murali has swept past the 350-wicket barrier in his 66th Test, the youngest bowler to achieve the feat. The 400-wicket mark should be behind him soon and Muralitharan, if he maintains his present rate, might overhaul Walsh's mark towards the end of the 2003 season.

Here, a comparative study with Warne's strike-rate would be interesting. The Aussie was off to a much better start, getting to 100 wickets in 23 Tests, while it took Muralitharan 27 matches to reach the milestone.

The Lankan then made up lost ground, his next 100 wickets coming in just 15 Tests. Interestingly, both Warne and Muralitharan went past the 200-wicket landmark in their 42nd Tests. This is the point from where Muralitharan has surged ahead, scalping his 350th victim in his 66th match. It took Warne 80 Tests to overcome the 350-wicket barrier. As and when Muralitharan becomes the second spinner to cross 400 Test wickets, it should surely be sooner than Warne, who achieved the feat in his 92nd Test.

Muralitharan, if he maintains his form, and stays free of injuries, would end up as the most successful bowler ever. It is not beyond this super-fit cricketer to finish with more than 600 Test wickets, considering he must have at least five good years left in him.

The series against India saw Muralitharan's skill in all its glory, the exceptional offie hounding the Indian batsmen, who are otherwise comfortable against off-spin. The close-in cordon was in place and the pressure was very much on Sourav Ganguly's men as Muralitharan sent down over after over of probing spin.

When the batsmen pushed forward, the extra bounce did them in, when they played back, the delivery hurried off the surface to catch them napping, when they attempted to cut against the turn, the ball invariably crashed into the stumps, and when they attempted to cover-drive the offie, the cherry sneaked in between the gate.

Muralitharan's eight-wicket match haul on an extremely grassy surface in Galle reflected the fact that he was not dependent on the conditions. And this has been the Lankan's greatest strength. He can turn the ball on any pitch - these days he does a lot more than that, bringing into play his exotic repertoire.

Compared to Muralitharan's mind-boggling feats in 2001, Warne had a mixed year. A serious shoulder injury, that required surgery, kept him out for much of the 2000 season, and when Warne returned to Test cricket against India the next year, he clearly struggled, his 10 wickets in the eventful series coming at a high cost.

Steve Waugh narrowly failed in his bid to conquer India in India, the final frontier, and there were serious question marks over Warne, especially after it came to light that coach John Buchanan actually wanted the leg-spinner out of the final Test only to be vetoed by Steve Waugh.

Meanwhile, there was much sympathy too for Stuart McGill, the temperamental but talented leg-spinner, who had done wonderfully well during the period Warne was away. Warne was still picked for the English tour, but the message was clear. He had to perform.

Truth to tell, Warne was feeling his way through in India following the lay-off, and the fact that he was up against a bunch of positive batsmen, familiar with leg-spin, didn't help matters either.

Actually, India was the worst place for Warne to make the Test comeback, for he had got battered here in 1997-98 by Sachin Tendulkar & co, and thus carried unhappy memories with him when he returned.

And then, the Indian pitches, though spinner-friendly, do not really suit the Aussie, for he needs that element of bounce from the wicket, which provides the fizz to his bowling. To add to his woes, the Indian batsmen pulled, drove and swept his leg-breaks, seldom giving him an opportunity to re-discover his rhythm.

Warne was totally overshadowed by a resurgent Harbhajan Singh in the series, and the Australian's pride must have been severely dented.

In the event, England was the right place for Warne to tour. He had always called the shots against the crease-tied English batsmen, and soon he was back to happy scalp-hunting ways.

The Victorian began the Ashes with an eight-wicket match haul in the Birmingham Test, and then closed out the series scalping 11 batsmen in the final Test at The Oval, both match-winning efforts.

During the series, he also castled Mike Atherton with a monster leg-break, a clear sign that he was buzzing again, and became the first spinner to leap over the 400-wicket bar. Warne returned home in a role he is only too familiar with - as the hero.

But when the home season got under way down under, the Kiwis, an efficient if not a spectacular bunch of cricketers, not overly bothered by reputations, tamed Warne, seldom allowing the leggie to dominate. Warne dismissed just six batsmen in the three-Test series, and it was a comedown for the ace bowler from the highs of the Old Blighty.

He has risen from the ashes before, and Warne regained his touch when the Proteas arrived. Mentally, The Victorian is mentally strong. However, as months and then years roll by, Warne would find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with a rampaging Muralitharan. Warne might overtake Walsh first, but Murali is likely to travel way beyond any bowler in Test match cricket...into an uncharted territory.

But then, both Warne and Muralitharan go way beyond the numbers. Through the sheer joy they provide to the millions of aficionados, with their extraordinary ability. That tantalising flight, that sharp turn...