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