July 8, 2008

Spun out

The cupboard is worryingly bare when it comes to replacements for Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan

Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan dominated the 90s. Will pace lead the way in their place? © Getty Images

A common theory about Shane Warne is that he popularised spin bowling. Yet the circumstantial evidence would suggest that this is a myth. He made spin bowling cool, for sure, and indeed made cricket cool, but there isn't a huge amount of evidence to suggest that he has left a legspin legacy any more than there is that Muttiah Muralitharan has created a dynasty of doosra-dealing mystery twirlers.

This is not to knock these two icons of the modern game. They have given an unquantifiable amount to cricket; they have given pleasure by the barrow load to millions around the world, young and old. But bowling spin is hard, and bowling as well as either Warne or Murali is even harder, not to say impossible. Both are once-in-a-generation players - if that - and to have had both playing in the same generation is a privilege that we will only appreciate in the coming years.

Warne has gone, although his resurfacing in the IPL reminded us unexpectedly of his brilliance, albeit more of his ability to inspire than his bowling. Murali will be gone too, soon enough. That shoulder must give out at some point, mustn't it?

And then what? This was their age, the era of spin, the antidote to the pace-dominated age of the 80s and early 90s. Even as bats got lighter and boundaries shorter, these two magicians kept learning new tricks to fool the biffers and the one-day maulers. Since the start of 2000, only two spin bowlers who have taken 20 wickets or more have Test averages under 30. You can guess who those might be. Compare that with ten during the 1990s.

You could argue that bowling in general has become harder, pitches deteriorate less, and that there are other mitigating factors. But it is still a stark difference. Next on the list after Warne and Murali in the 2000s list is Anil Kumble, also in the autumn of his career, who has taken his wickets at 30, as has Harbhajan Singh. Warne, Murali and Kumble are all in the 1990s list too, but there are others like Venkatapathy Raju and Michael Bevan, who would not immediately spring to mind.

My gut feeling is that we may be entering another pace-dominated era. The problem with Warne and Murali, and Kumble to a lesser extent, is that they have been so outstanding as to be impossible to emulate. Australia will endeavour to replace Warne - and the newly retired Stuart MacGill - as best they can with Beau Casson or Bryce McGain or whoever, but it's a very tough ask. Only eight Australian spinners have taken 100 or more Test wickets and two of those have been in the last decade. More likely is that the burden of responsibility will fall on the quicks. South Africa don't do spin bowling and they look to have a pace quartet of eye-watering potential, so don't expect much of the slow stuff from them.

My gut feeling is that we may be entering another pace-dominated era. The problem with Warne and Murali, and Kumble to a lesser extent, is that they have been so outstanding as to be impossible to emulate

There is Monty Panesar, of course, but is he going to be any more of a spectacular performer than Daniel Vettori at Test level? That is not meant to damn him with faint praise but simply a realistic assessment of what orthodox slow left-armers are expected to achieve.

There are a handful of legspinners knocking around English county cricket at the moment but there seems little encouragement to give these guys their head and let them push their potential to the limit. The pressures of containment and of needing to make batting contributions could be stifling.

In general, the outlook for spin seems on the bleak side but there is one possible saviour: the Sri Lankan "freak", Ajantha Mendis, who bowled India out two days ago. His name won't mean much outside the subcontinent yet, so it's a visit to YouTube for me. Spinning fingers crossed: cricket needs him.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ritesh on July 10, 2008, 14:29 GMT

    We need a spinner with NOT just quality. I've always felt that the quality of a spinner not only lies in the magic of the fingers & the quickness of the mind, but the kind of impression he can leave on the batsman. Spin bowlers are in for some rough times ahead - flat test pitches that don't turn until it's the 3rd or 4th day, flat ODI pitches that hardly offer any turn, & "ridiculous" T20 pitches that DON'T turn at all! So being a wizard with the fingers might not be sufficient for a spinner to stand tall against the test of times. How often do captains turn over to their spinners when the going gets tough in ODI's or T20's? HARDLY EVER - omit Vettori and Murali - the answer would probably be NEVER! The genius of Warne lied not only in the big leg rippers and cute flippers - so many bowlers can do that (may be not as consistently!) BUT more importantly the kind of personality & image and & awe he projected on to the batsman. "It is not only what you do, it is also what you can leave."

  • Daniel on July 9, 2008, 2:45 GMT

    All I really have to say is that I am really looking forward to seeing how Mendis turns out. This lad has thus far proven near on unplayable, like Warnie and Murali at the top of their game. Watching Warnie and Murali weave their magic often had me shaking my head in disbelief and amazement. Here's hoping Mendis will do just that.

  • richard on July 9, 2008, 1:05 GMT

    I find it rather ridiculous to be suggesting that the spin cupboard will be "bare" upon the departure of Muralitharan and Kumble. Sure Warne, Murali and Kumble will be gone but these guys are freaks of the game; they are the three highest wicket takers in our game, with 2051 wickets between them and counting. We still have Vettori, Panesar, Kaneria, , Mendis, Harbhajan, Harris and a lot of other potential. That's a line up of spin bowlers that the 80s drought would've been crying out for. In fact not in the history of our long game have there been many periods with more quality spinners. Also it's fair to say that with Vettori, Panesar and Harris the wonderful art of left arm orthodox is arguably at its greatest height since the days of Bedi and Underwood. This plethora of spin bowlers can only get better with experience and players such as Vettori could potentially be spinning a web around this article by his mid 30s.

  • Ashwin on July 8, 2008, 19:00 GMT

    I think you are right, Australia aren't producing any more great spinners. Casson barely makes the cut. MacGill was good, but he was sidelined for decades. The next great one may be Mendis - I presume this article was written before (published later) the Asia Cup final. There are some good spinners around and some good ones outside the Test world. But Warne and Murali will never be replaced. South Africa have struggled on many occassions due to their lack of quality spin bowling. They should send Paul Harris to Warne or Murali or Jenner for some coaching so he comes out world class. On a side note - Vettori is an an incredibly good spinner!

  • Shanmuga on July 8, 2008, 17:55 GMT

    Ajantha Mendis has definitely created some curiosity among the cricket followers, especially after taking 6 Indian wickets in a flat track! But, the line up didn't include the top 4 current Indian batsman and all of them play spin exceedingly well! So, his real litmus test will be the upcoming test series. If there was one spinner who could consitently bowl well to these four, it was Murali. And even Shane was a big time failure against this line up. Let's see how Mendis fares against the fab four! I won't be surprised if AM becomes just another spinner after a season or two!

  • Shanthal on July 8, 2008, 17:50 GMT

    I think alot of the Saqlain quotes here are valid but the point is Mr. Stern never said Murali created the Doosra now did he?

  • Bruce on July 8, 2008, 13:10 GMT

    As much as the Aussies and Asians are lamenting their spin reserves, spare a thought for us in the West Indies. West Indies sucess was built on great spinners (Ramadin, Valentine, Sobers & Gibbs) but since Gibbs retired we haven't truly invested in a spinner. Roger Harper was only used when the wickets were flat but still managed to win a couple matches by a combination of his persistent bowling and fantastic fielding.

    During the 90's, Ramnarine threatened to reverse the trend, but politics and a few poor matches left him out of favour even though his overall record compares favourably with most of our quicks of the last 20 years.

    Now we have a new batch of potential WI spinners. Mohammed & Banks appear to be already forgotten, so lets now hope the selectors stick by Benn, Miller & Jaggernaugth and, most of all, that we learn how to make the most of their capabilities. For starters, perhaps someone should suggest to the WICB that we send them to play a season in the subcontinent.

  • Nigel on July 8, 2008, 10:52 GMT

    You all are complaining, but let me give you a quick quiz: can anyone recall a West indies spinner who was given more than 10 Tests / 25 ODI's during the the last 15 years when we slipped from first to worst???

    Each and every guy that was chosen suffered tremendously as they were expected to emulate some other great spinner of the past or present, and allow the West Indies to turn the corner on the road toward new success. This is just part of the horrible management problem that passes as the WICB!

  • Janaka on July 8, 2008, 10:46 GMT

    Yes, Murali and Warne are unmatchable. But the thing is they never came to seen as heroes of spin. Both of them took time to show there capabilities. The luck they got was they were never dropped from the side after their debut. Even with poor performances both SL and Aus believed in them. The spinners who came to the seen after them, never got that chance. For example there was a spinner called Nimesh Perera, who broke the schools record which was set by Murali in school days.SL board got him into side once if I'm correct, but all of them were expecting magics of Murali from him. He failed and never got an opportunity again.So if we want champion spinner on show, all the authorities should give budding spinners enough opportunities.In the case of Ajantha Mendis(AM), it is the same case. .He has showed his class. But in few months, sometimes in the coming test series, the Indian team which had no answer might hit him all around the park.But SL must keep faith in him.

  • Tom on July 8, 2008, 10:43 GMT

    Being a leggie myself in Australia, I know better than many how difficult the art is. Warnie was a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime sort of bowler, as is murali, however suspect his action is. The problem is that people still don't like leggies because before they are inexperienced they do go for a few runs. But all through their careers, leggies go for runs, so for any young leggies in any national side (including left-armers like hogg, casson, bevan etc.) need to be shown confidence by the selectors like warnie was shown by border and simpson. That way they get confidence in unleashing their full arsenal and are more likely to bowl to their full potential because they know they won't just be sent back to domestic cricket the second they don't perform.

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