July 9, 2010

Murali v Warne

Murali's wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are often held against him, so here's how his stats stack up against Warne's after excluding those performances

Muttiah Muralitharan or Shane Warne? That's perhaps one of the most fascinating debates going around in cricket (even if one of the protagonists has retired), and it's only likely to gather further steam with the other's decision to quit Test cricket in a couple of weeks. Both bowlers will undoubtedly go down as legends, and yet each camp has its staunch set of supporters, who not only lift their own hero, but also, unfortunately, enjoy tearing the achievements of the other. This column attempts to do away with all the other aspects, and compares them only on the basis of their stats, looking at their numbers along certain meaningful parameters.

One of the pet peeves of the Murali baiters is his record against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. It's not his fault that he has played so many matches against them, but it's also a fact that those games have significantly improved his overall stats: in 25 Tests against those two teams, Murali has taken 176 wickets at an average of 15.09 and a strike rate of 42 - both those stats are much better than his overall career numbers. By contrast, Warne has only played three Tests against those two sides. Taking this disparity into account, all Tests against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have been excluded for the purpose of this analytical exercise.

What's immediately obvious is that Murali's tally of 792 wickets shrinks to 616 when his haul against those two teams is excluded; Warne's aggregate, meanwhile, drops only by 17, to 691. However, while Murali's average rises by about two runs, it's still marginally better than Warne's 25.40. The difference, though, becomes miniscule.

Both bowlers have found Indian batsmen difficult to bowl to, and that's indicated in their numbers, though Warne's average is much poorer, and he only has one five-for against India in 14 Tests. Murali has also been far more influential in wins, taking, on average, more than eight wickets in these 32 Tests. (That, though, is also a telling commentary on Sri Lanka's dependence on him; Australia, on the other hand, had several bowling match-winners.)

Comparing Murali and Warne
  Murali - Tests Wkts Average 5WI/ 10WM Warne - Tests Wkts Average 5WI/ 10WM
v all teams 132 792 22.71 66/ 22 145 708 25.41 37/ 10
v all excl Zim and B'desh 107 616 24.88 49/ 16 142 691 25.40 36/ 10
v India 21 97 33.34 6/ 2 14 43 47.18 1/ 0
in wins (excl Zim and B'desh) 32 261 17.70 23/ 12 89 493 22.36 26/ 7
outside subcontinent (excl Zim) 29 162 25.85 14/ 5 119 575 25.13 26/ 7
4th innings (excl Zim and B'desh) 34 98 20.74 7/ 7 60 138 23.14 7/ 4

If Murali's advantage was the number of matches he played in spin-friendly conditions, then Warne's plus was the support he got from the rest of the Australian bowlers. Murali's stats at home are much better than Warne's, but overseas his average goes up to almost 29. Both bowlers struggled in India, with their averages sailing well into the 40s. Murali supporters often claim Warne had the advantage of playing against England repeatedly, and the stats below suggest that's an opportunity Murali would have relished as well: in the six Tests Murali played in England, he averaged eight wickets per match, and nailed his victims at less than 20 apiece. A few more Tests there during his peak years surely wouldn't have hurt his career stats.

Murali and Warne in different regions (excl Zimbabwe and Bangladesh)
  Murali - Tests Wkts Average 5WI/ 10WM Warne - Tests Wkts Average 5WI/ 10WM
Home 58 364 22.19 31/ 10 69 319 26.39 15/ 4
Away 49 252 28.78 18/ 6 70 345 25.49 19/ 5
In India 11 40 45.45 2/ 0 9 34 43.11 1/ 0
in Asia 78 454 24.54 35/ 11 23 116 26.77 10/ 3
in England 6 48 19.20 5/ 3 22 129 21.94 8/ 3

Arguably the biggest difference for the two spinners has been the kind of support they've received throughout their careers. Whereas Warne had the likes of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie to soften the batsmen (and also eat into his share of wickets), Murali only had Chaminda Vaas as a regular high-class bowler in the line-up. The table below compares the performances of the support acts to Warne and Murali. In the 106 Tests he played against the top teams, the other bowlers in the Sri Lankan team took only 889 wickets to Murali's 611, and conceded almost 40 runs per wicket. There were only three ten-wicket hauls by other bowlers to Murali's 16, with Vaas getting two and Ajantha Mendis one. That meant Murali had to do most of the work himself, and he did, bowling 33% of the team's overs and taking 41% of the wickets.

Warne, on the other hand, had all the support he needed (and perhaps some he didn't). The Australian bowlers took almost twice as many wickets as the Sri Lankans did, and three times as many five-fors (69 to 23). All that meant Warne only took 28% of all wickets taken by Australia in the matches he played.

Support for Murali and Warne (excl Zim and B'desh)
  Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Muttiah Muralitharan 106 611 24.83 58.7 49/ 16
Other Sri Lankan bowlers 106 889 39.88 80.48 23/ 3
Shane Warne 142 691 25.40 57.6 36/ 10
Other Australian bowlers 142 1754 27.97 58.38 69/ 5

With McGrath and Gillespie often accounting for the top-order wickets, Warne usually didn't have the opportunity to have a go at them, which is reflected in his percentage of top-order victims - lower compared to Murali, who often came on to bowl when the opposition hadn't lost too many wickets. Warne winkled out the tail more often, with the last three batsmen accounting for almost 27% of his victims, compared with less than 23% for Murali.

Break-up of wickets for Murali and Warne (excl Zim and B'desh)
  Murali - wkts Percentage Warne - wkts Percentage
Right-handers 471 76.46 521 75.40
Left-handers 145 23.54 170 24.60
Batsmen in top 6 351 56.98 373 53.98
Batsmen in bottom 3 139 22.56 184 26.63
Bowled 127 20.62 114 16.50
Lbw 114 18.51 134 19.39
Caught 337 54.71 407 58.90
Stumped 37 6.01 36 5.21

It's hardly surprising that Murali's list of batsmen dismissed most often is dominated by players from the subcontinent (and a Zimbabwean; though Mark Boucher heads the list), while Warne's list is dominated by Englishmen. But to check the averages of individual batsmen against them, we need ball-by-ball data, which Cricinfo has for all international games from May 2001. The next two tables look at the performances of some of the top batsmen against Murali and Warne over these years. Interestingly, both played almost exactly the same number of matches during this period, and had very similar averages: Murali averaged 23.86 in 54 Tests (against the top teams only), while Warne averaged 23.94 from 56 matches.

During this period, Brian Lara clearly had the better of Murali, but Sachin Tendulkar's record is pretty ordinary, as is Kevin Pietersen's. Most of the other Indian batsmen have done well against him, though.

Murali v top batsmen since May 17, 2001
Batsman Balls Runs Dismissals Average
Sachin Tendulkar 295 148 5 29.60
Brian Lara 710 373 3 124.33
Ricky Ponting 243 172 2 86.00
Rahul Dravid 660 316 5 63.20
VVS Laxman 431 207 2 103.50
Virender Sehwag 238 217 3 72.33
Jacques Kallis 205 88 1 88.00
Kevin Pietersen 236 168 6 28.00
Inzamam-ul-Haq 148 80 1 80.00
Matthew Hayden 218 142 5 28.40

Warne's stats are a mixed bag too: he has superb numbers against Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, but Pietersen and Jacques Kallis have handled him much better. He didn't bowl much against the Indians during this period, and not at all to Tendulkar.

Warne v top batsmen since May 17, 2001
Batsman Balls Runs Dismissals Average
Kevin Pietersen 522 308 5 61.60
Jacques Kallis 550 280 5 56.00
Kumar Sangakkara 207 127 4 31.75
Brian Lara 168 105 3 35.00
Virender Sehwag 95 78 3 26.00
Mahela Jayawardene 196 92 2 46.00
Michael Vaughan 285 131 3 43.67
Marcus Trescothick 219 147 8 18.37
Andrew Strauss 245 140 8 17.50

Most of the numbers above suggest there's little to choose between the two bowlers, which is exactly as it should be when comparing two legends of the game.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo