The Friday Column March 12, 2004

The Warne-Murali battle

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it. Every Friday, The Numbers Game will take a look at statistics from the present and the past, busting myths and revealing hidden truths.

For all those who doubted Shane Warne's abilities after a one-year lay-off, there couldn't have been a more emphatic response than his performance at Galle. Apart from the Indians, against whom he has struggled, Warne has been more than a handful for the other teams. Before this Test, Warne's record against Sri Lanka hadn't been too hot - 23 wickets in eight Tests at nearly 31 - but now, those stats look far more impressive - 33 wickets at 26. Not much room for Arjuna Ranatunga to take a jibe at him now.

For a while now, experts have opined that Warne is past his best, that the zing in his legbreaks have disappeared. If it is true, the opposition batsmen certainly haven't noticed: Warne's last 20 Tests have fetched him 117 wickets at 22.85 - not returns which are typical of a man on his last legs.

Wkts Runs Ave Wkts/Test
In his first 88 Tests 384 10110 26.33 4.36
In his last 20 Tests 117 2673 22.85 5.85

Warne may have got there first, but it is only a matter of a few days before Muttiah Muralitharan joins the exclusive club. The contrast in their styles is huge - one is the ultimate classicist, the other highly unconventional - yet, a look at their records reveals some amazing similarities.

Both bowlers have a strike rate of around 60 balls per wicket, and have a nearly equal percentage of top-order and lower-order wickets, while the split between right-handed and left-handed victims is also almost the same for both. Where the numbers do differ is in the manner in which they get most of their wickets: 25% of Murali's victims are bowled - that's once every four dismissals - while for Warne it's a much lower 16% (one out of six). Warne, on the other hand, gets many more lbws than Murali. Both those stats aren't surprising, given the amount of spin Murali imparts to the ball.

Tests Wkts Ave SR 5-I 10-M
Warne 108 501 25.51 60.32 25 7
Murali 86 496 22.87 59.34 41 13

Warne Murali
Top order (top six) wkts (%) 55.49 56.85
Right handers (%) 79.64 80.44
Dismissals for duck (%) 13.77 14.52
Bowled (%) 16.57 24.40
Lbw (%) 19.56 15.73
Caught (%) 58.88 54.03
conceded >100 in inng. 22 39

Murali has played 22 fewer Tests than Warne, but Sri Lanka's over-reliance on him means that he has bowled an average of 57 overs per match, 11 more than the corresponding figure for Warne. Not surprisingly, Murali has scalped almost 40% of the total wickets taken by Sri Lanka in those matches. Also, he has gone for more than 100 runs in an innings an incredible 39 times, while his tally of five-fors stands at 41 - an indication that Sri Lanka have often had no back-up plan other than to bowl Murali ... and then to bowl him some more. By contrast, Warne has conceded more than 100 only on 22 occasions.

As the table below shows, Murali's success curve has been especially steep over the last few years: in his last 52 Tests, he has taken an astonishing seven wickets per match, at an average of less than 20. Compare that with 135 wickets in his first 34 Tests - effective, but hardly the lethal force he has become more recently. Given the crowded international calendar and the fact that Murali is at the peak of his abilities, getting up to 650 or even 700 Test wickets isn't too far-fetched a possibility.

Wkts Runs Ave Wkts/Test
In his first 34 Tests 135 4229 31.326 3.97
In his last 52 Tests 361 7113 19.7 6.94

Murali might have lost the race to 500, but here's a contest in which he might still beat Warne: at the end of the Galle Test, both have dismissed 399 right-handers. The race for 400 is on.

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.