From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.31 :: Aug. 05, 2010

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CRICKET / ANALYSIS

Awesome threesome

Spin bowling will not be the same owing to the gracious departure of Shane Warne, 40, Anil Kumble, 39, and Muttiah Muralitharan, 38, from the cricket field, writes Vijay Lokapally.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Anil Kumble and Muralitharan... unique in their own ways.

Batsmen can thank their stars that Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and now Muttiah Muralitharan have hung up their boots. There could not have been a bigger tribute to their ‘hunting' skills as three of the game's greatest spinners took a gracious bow, with the world asking “Why?” and not “Why not?”

They were bowlers with the same mindset, but of hugely different styles. Batsmen of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Brian Lara, Mark Waugh, Matthew Hayden, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Michael Atherton and Jacques Kallis have, at different times in their career, been caught in two minds by these bowlers, never failing to acknowledge their craft with the ball.

“One should never compare,” the legendary Bishan Singh Bedi has maintained. He has fiercely criticised Murali for his action, but has been quick to praise the human side of the affable Sri Lankan. Bedi, however, would rave over Kumble and Warne for giving spin bowling a new dimension.

Warne was credited with the revival of leg-spin. His versatility was mind-blowing as he came to master the art of turning a match on its head. It became a routine for him even as batsmen succumbed to his wiles in an embarrassing manner. Mike Gatting and Basit Ali would never forget the deliveries that snaked past their bat to hit the stumps, the Pakistani rooted to the crease as the ball whistled through.

Kumble was a terror in his own way. Accuracy was his forte, as he struck a nagging line at will. Often Kumble worked like a one-man army, plotting the opponents' fall with the mind of an astute marksman, who has sized up his target well enough. The batsmen would be reduced to sitting ducks when Kumble, Warne or Murali were on song.

That they could flourish on any surface made them a lethal weapon for their respective teams. India, Australia and Sri Lanka won many a battle riding on the shoulders of these fascinating cricketers who have dominated the last two decades with their astounding deeds.

Breaking a partnership was a challenge they relished and winning contests became a habit as their careers progressed.

The Aussie leg-spinner, fondly called the ‘Sheikh of Tweak' by his team-mates, was a dream bowler, a must for any captain aspiring to conquer the cricket world. He had the ability to ‘kill' a match single-handed. Nothing could pin him down; not even the many controversies that he kicked up during his illustrious career.

For a bowler whose Test debut analysis read 45-7-150-1, Warne indeed did wonderfully well, crowning himself with glory even after retirement when he led Rajasthan Royals to the title in the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League.

Kumble and Murali played the game with great dignity. Warne did blot his reputation with some off-field misdeeds, including a doping offence before the 2003 World Cup, but Kumble and Murali have only won hearts and made friends.

Warne has been the most aggressive of the three, and very different in terms of his approach to the game. The Aussie has always believed in playing the attacking role. “You can't relax at all when facing him,” Dravid would say. The same was true of Kumble and Murali, who were supreme examples of commitment to their team.

It is a tribute to their fitness that Kumble, Warne and Murali bore the burden of being the key bowlers for their teams. Kumble's career lasted 18 years, the same as Murali's, while Warne ruled for 15 years.

“An asset,” was how Tendulkar described Kumble. “A champion” was how Steve Waugh called Warne. And Murali was a “trusted match-winnner” for Arjuna Ranatunga.

Among them Warne played the most number of Tests — 145. Kumble played 132 Tests, but bowled 145 balls more than Warne's 40705. Murali played one Test more than Kumble but bowled 3189 balls more. Murali also ended up with 800 wickets, a good 181 more than Kumble and 92 more than Warne. That puts Murali on a different plane, but the genial Sri Lankan would love to share the glory and platform with his “good friends.” Kumble and Warne, on their part, have been very generous in their praise of Murali, who was at the centre of a storm when called for ‘throwing.'

Kumble could have developed into an all-rounder given his liking for batting. He would resent it, if batting opportunities were denied in the ‘nets,' but did make a strong statement with a Test century and five half centuries.

Warne was no rabbit either, hitting 12 fifties, including a 99, but Murali was a disaster with the bat, hitting just one fifty in 164 innings. He must be the only batsman, other than B. S. Chandrasekhar, to sport a smile on getting out.

Murali had to win his battles in the shadow of being labelled a ‘special' bowler. The International Cricket Council (ICC) gave his action a clean chit, but many were not convinced. In private they slammed the ICC, but praised Murali, who was a perfect role model. Not once did Murali lose his composure even as critics lashed out at the authorities for permitting his style of bowling. It is another matter that coaches at various academies had a tough time discouraging young aspirants from aping Murali's action.

The Sri Lankan was a freak bowler, quite like Johnny Gleeson, whom David Frith describes as blatantly unorthodox. Murali was unique. His doosra, as he gripped the ball between his middle and index fingers, and the back-of-the-hand strike, were lethal. His stock off-spin was bewitching as he teased and tormented the batsmen, mocking at their defence, daring them to attack, and often having the last laugh.

Murali was not a conventional off-spinner, like E.A.S. Prasanna or Ray Illingworth, but he could impart prodigious spin to the ball. He had such strong fingers.

That Murali did not seek statistical milestones became evident from his decision to retire after the Test match at Galle. He needed eight wickets to get to 800, earned five in the first innings, added two more, and got stuck at 799. Now that he was so close to a grand finish, he tried everything that he could, before eventually picking the last wicket of the Indian innings with a conventional off-break.

By then he had bowled 44.4 overs in addition to the 17 in the first innings. Every soul at the Galle International Stadium was praying for him, even some Indians. How then could Murali be denied his place in history? He had earned it as a matter of right!

Warne was also a huge turner of the ball. His leg-spin was judicious and came from a dominant use of shoulder in a body action that was the envy of all. He did not have a googly to be proud of, but then his side spin would shatter the batsmen's confidence.

His flipper left many a batsman embarrassed as Warne craftily, and often, would bowl it deliberately short. It was as well-disguised as Abdul Qadir's, but the Pakistani was a master of the flipper and the googly. Qadir had more variations and was a joy to watch. Warne too was a joy, but not when you were facing him.

Kumble, a gentleman to the core and a great role model, was one of a kind. His nagging line and length snared some of the best batsmen. He acknowledged he was unorthodox and excelled in wearing down the batsmen.

His high-arm release meant that he was quicker in the air, but the Indian spun the ball the least when compared to Warne and Murali. He did not allow criticism to hamper his style. He imparted over-spin to fox the batsmen and the bounce that he derived would leave the opponent stranded on the front foot as off-the-glove dismissals marked his plotting.

Kumble was known to set up his victims and the number of leg-before decisions that he won bore a testimony to his accuracy. He would leave the batsmen frustrated and then devastated.

The three were different in many ways, but similar when it came to being effective. Their never-say-die spirit was so infectious and their mental approach a delight for the captain. They were amazing characters, who served the game with great distinction, and enriched it with incomparable passion. They also shared a rare quality — enjoying each other's success.

Spin bowling will not be the same owing to the gracious departure of Warne, 40, Kumble, 39 and Murali, 38, from the cricket field.



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