Spinners March 22, 2010

Murali and the rest

The world's leading wicket-taker, his likely successor, and three from the 80s

One area where Sri Lanka has never been short of talent is spin. Since the time of Tommy Kelaart, regarded as the greatest left-arm spinner the country has ever produced, Sri Lanka has had a surplus in the department. From the time he made his debut, in 1890, Kelaart destroyed all opposition with his accuracy. He was the first bowler to take 1000 wickets in club cricket, and when he ended his career at 55 in 1926, he had over 2000 wickets. Kelaart was followed by Lucien De Zoysa, a legspinner who figured prominently in the national teams of the 1940s and 1950s. Another legspinner, Gamini Goonesena, divided his time between representing his country and playing for Cambridge University, Nottinghamshire and New South Wales till the 60s.

Throughout the 60s up until the mid-70s, spinners like Abu Fuard, Neil Chanmugam (offspinners), Anurudda Polonowita, Fitzroy Crozier (left-arm spinners) and Somachandra De Silva (legspin) dominated the game. De Silva was part of a three-pronged spin attack - along with offspinner Lalith Kaluperuma and left-arm spinner Ajit de Silva - that formed the nucleus of Sri Lanka's bowling in the early years after they got Test status. While Kaluperuma and Ajit de Silva cut short their budding careers by undertaking an illegal tour to South Africa and receiving 25-year bans, Somachandra continued till the mid-80s before the national selectors decided that it was time to start grooming young spinners.

Of the lot, left-arm spinner Don Anurasiri was the best, but he was not a match-winner. It was not until the arrival of Muttiah Muralitharan in 1992 that Sri Lanka had a spinner who could rattle entire teams with his unique brand of bowling. Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, who bowled Sri Lanka to victory in the home series against Pakistan and New Zealand last year, missed out narrowly in the list of those in the running.

The contenders

Somachandra De Silva
De Silva worked hard to emerge as his country's leading legspinner, and he is still to be matched. He was unfortunate that his talents could not be displayed for a longer period at Test level because by the time his country were awarded Test status he was nearing his forties. He took 37 wickets in 12 Tests before retiring at 42.

Muttiah Muralitharan
The first wrist-spinning offspinner in the history of the game. Murali's super-flexible hand has made him especially potent and guaranteed him turn on any surface. Never has one country depended so on a single bowler for success in all formats of the game. Murali is used to bowling marathon spells, and despite the controversy that has surrounded his bowling action, he has etched his name in the record books as the leading wicket-taker in Tests and ODIs. He is the first player to take 1000 wickets combined in the two formats.

Ajit de Silva
De Silva was a highly rated left-arm orthodox spinner who failed to live up to expectations in the four Tests he played for his country and ended his career by going on a rebel tour to South Africa less than a year after Sri Lanka had become a Test-playing nation. It was hoped he would form a lethal spin combination with Somachandra De Silva during the country's formative years in Test cricket, but that not to be.

Ajantha Mendis
Mendis made a startling entry to international cricket baffling all batsmen with his crafty bowling, which comprised a variety of deliveries: googly, offbreak, topspinner, flipper, legbreak, as well as the carrom ball, released with a flick of his middle finger. In a short span Mendis was posing questions to the batsmen with his unpredictability. In his debut Test series, against India, he took 26 wickets, beating Alec Bedser's record by two. Although batsmen have begun to play him with more ease now, he still remains a dangerous bowler and the likely successor to Murali.

Don Anurasiri
Anurasiri was Sri Lanka's first-choice slow bowler from the late 80s to the mid-90s but never a permanent fixture in the side. Although he made his Test debut at 20, he never took a five-wicket haul in any of his 18 Tests. But he was successful in containing batsmen, especially on unresponsive wickets. A whole-hearted performer, Anurasiri lacked the penetration to become a match-winner in the side.

We'll be publishing an all-time Sri Lanka XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your spinners click here