Wrists of fury

Muralitharan and Warne have willed wrist and shoulder past 550, past 600, past 650, and they aren't done yet. When they stop playing a tangible figure will tell us who the most successful Test bowler is. But, the intangible of who the GREATEST ever bowler was will remain just that — an intangible, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Legacies are messy things. How a man is remembered after he is long gone — warts, glass eyes, bunions on toes, the works — often consumes him when alive. When the matter involves according greatness, things get messier.

The little matter of how Zinedine Zidane's head-butt was to be reconciled with his silken skill, and position among football's immortals, proved as much. For, those doing the according — us — are a finicky lot. We have our biases, our conditioning, our perspectives. And woe betide anyone who as much as whispers anything contrary to what we believe.

So, depending on which part of the world we wake up in, who we read, who we listen to, and what we see, Muttiah Muralitharan is either cricket's single greatest illusionist or its biggest fraud; and Shane Warne is either cricket's single greatest illusionist or its most wanton — at least publicly so — member.

These two men, who, with each passing year, near sports' equivalent of the journey beyond the veil, retirement, have legit claims to being the greatest ever, never mind the most controversial ever. From this has sprung the most compelling race in cricket. A race that has seen improbable milestones being passed almost at will, a race that has enough rancour to keep the media salivating.

It's a race that resembles another of more than 50 years vintage. That too had at its core the symmetry of numbers. The four-minute mile: four laps, four one-minute segments. Once thought a physiological impossibility, performances since have debunked the myth, and shown it to be something of a media conception.

But, Roger Bannister's pioneering run on a cider track at Iffley Road, Oxford, in 1954, and John Landy's subsequent breaking the soon-to-be doctor's record just 46 days later in Turku, Finland, set up the `The Dream Miracle Mile of the Century'. Reportedly, 35000 filed into the Vancouver Empire Stadium to see Bannister and Landy face off. In the event, Bannister famously passed Landy in the final moments, as the Australian looked over his left shoulder.

Both men ran sub-four-minute miles; though Bannister was the first to go under four, and was the victor of their one-on-one run, he never beat Landy's then world record. A case of each simultaneously having the drop on the other. Which is how the Murali-Warne battle has shaped up.

Leg-spinner and off-spinner have willed wrist and shoulder past 550, past 600, past 650, and they aren't done yet. When they stop playing — how cricket will miss these two! — a tangible figure will tell us who the most successful Test bowler is. But, the intangible of who the greatest ever bowler was will remain just that — an intangible.

For, both men have fantastic cases. (Comparative statistics below). Murali, 34, has the better strike rate, the better average, a Bradmanesque stack of five-fors (Steve Waugh said he was the Don Bradman of bowling), a higher percentage of top-order batsmen, and the time to take the tally to God knows where. But, Warne, 36, has done better away from home, played fewer times against the minnows, and really, how can he match Murali's wicket per match rate when wickets in the Australian side are shared around like a potluck meal?

You can argue Warne will always get more lower-order dismissals than top-order when the wrecking ball that is Glenn McGrath is around. Murali often has to work his way through a line-up, and hence gets more deliveries in at genuine batsmen.

Conversely, the Australian can feed off the pressure ratcheted up at the other end, while the Sri Lankan must do it off his own hand. Warne rarely has to bowl 64-over spells like Murali did in the second innings of the first Test against South Africa to record his third consecutive ten-wicket match haul. Both have plundered the Englishmen, to whom spin is about as comprehensible as the rules of Mahjong.

Neither though has had the wood on India in India — Murali hasn't played enough in the land of spin after his evolution from a one-dimensional bowler. But, he showed what he could do late last year. He forced Rahul Dravid to drop his bat late on doosras — the Saqlain Mushtaq invention that breaks from leg to off — he evidently hadn't picked. On a frosty Delhi morning, when fingers chapped, on a track that didn't do much, he bowled a beguiling mix of wrist-spun off-breaks, doosras, and flat skidders from around the wicket to take five.

Warne has never toured India at his best. As he has got on in age, his lower-slung deliveries have needed a little vertical assistance from the track; those in India don't volunteer much. The strips in India almost always play up sidespin, and so even the teeniest amount on a Warne straighter one — the slider, the skidding top-spinner, the zooter take your pick — is accentuated. This negates one of his main modes of dismissal: the leg-before.

So, it's a bit like Perry Mason clearing his throat to take on Perry Mason. The verdict will vary from jury to jury.

Greatness is often measured by the influence a man has on the game in his lifetime: on this count, both Warne and Murali score very high, though, again, it's not as straight-forward as it seems. First the obvious bit: in the age of batting, the age of shortening boundaries, flattening tracks, and bats with power-to-weight ratios rocket propellants would ungrudgingly concede superiority to, these two have fore-grounded an art that had seemed lost. Bowling remains the only act of pure creation in cricket. Everything else — batting, keeping, fielding — is reaction. Add to this burden of creation the fact that a spinner doesn't counter a batsman on his weakest front, reaction time from the point of delivery, and it becomes apparent just why spin bowling is such tough work. Admittedly, both Warne and Murali have been endowed — one more so than the other — with physical attributes that give them an edge.

Murali's freak hyper-mobile wrist and shoulder allow him access to planes of shear and axes of rotation that help generate turn either way. The pivot can be dispensed with altogether. The most striking aspect of Warne's delivery is the strength of his action. These days, he relies more on metering spin, and timing the slipping in of his straight ones during a phase of leg-breaks. But, he still stays strong through delivery. Seldom has a right hip powered through as violently, seldom have stronger fingers, aided by the wrist, kneaded the ball as furiously. These generosities of nature have helped the two men revolutionise slow bowling.

Now to things that aren't as obvious. No two men have needed the game more. As much as these magnificent warriors have given to the game, they have taken out of it. It manifests itself differently in each case. For Murali, the game is both a means of release and a path perhaps of conciliation in a land riven by sectarian violence. Through cricket, Murali has done his bit to dissolve bitterness; there's a temptation for someone in his position to think he can change the world, and by not falling for that, Murali has kept his sanity. Warne needs cricket like Sherlock Holmes needed crime. The excesses of both the peroxide blonde bowler (women, nicotine) and the gaunt detective (the seven-percent solution) have as their root the inability to replicate the thrill and challenge of their private worlds (cricket, detective work) in real life. Hence the need for artificial stimulants. While Warne's on-field performances are beyond reproach, something of a bailout for what he does off it, Murali's has polarised the cricket world.

Despite bio-mechanists clearing him repeatedly, saying his action when viewed in two-dimensions creates an illusion of throwing, there are still some that aren't convinced. A comprehensive study by the ICC then found that almost every bowler in international cricket bent and straightened his arm, a result of the forces bowling places on its exponent.

While the finding gave Murali deserved legality, and won converts, he is aware that he will be remembered as the cause for a rule change — the one that allows 15 degrees flexion. Legacies are messy things, aren't they?