Shane Warne Hold That Hat!
A great spinner? Certainly. A great bowler? Conceded. The greatest ever leg-spinner? Hmmmm. The greatest ever cricketer? No way.
It had all the drama of a taut thriller – though with a twist in the tale. The denouement was a foregone conclusion, but the suspense and intrigue lay in how it would finally pan out. England, nine wickets down and its fate all but sealed, are facing yet another humiliating defeat against Australia in the final 2006-07 Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Tailender batsman Steve Harmison is up against the mighty Shane Warne, fresh from his incredible feat of reaching the 1,000 international wickets mark in the same Test after being annointed the world’s highest Test wicket-taker, breaching the 700-wicket barrier in the previous Test at Melbourne. The Australian had then announced he would retire at the end of the Ashes series.
Cut back to the action in the middle at SCG. Warne saunters to his bowling mark, his thick beefy torso oozing a languid self-confidence. The bowler turns around to face the batsman. There is a homicidal glint in the bowler’s eye, not quite in sync with his lazy walk to the wicket which passes off as his “run-up.” The partisan Sydney crowd, expecting another sleight-of-hand miracle from the blond magician – their naughty boy “Warney” – is on edge. Warne heaves his arm over and lets go off the ball: an innocuous full-toss on the leg stump. Harmison tonks it contemptuously to the boundary.
Cricket has rarely seen a more resounding anti-climax. It turned out to be Shane Warne’s last ball in Test cricket, because Glen McGrath took the last wicket and wrapped up the Aussie victory. But Warne’s uncharacteristically pedestrian ball to Harmison was nonetheless historic. It brought down the curtain on a career that had begun in much the same unimpressive fashion. Warne’s performance in his debut series in January 1992 was a thoroughly undistinguished 1 wicket for 228 runs against the touring Indians (the sole wicket being Ravi Shastri’s after the batsman had scored a double-century). In a manner of speaking, Warne’s life as a professional cricketer had come a full cosmic circle.
But overall, the 16-year-long career of 37-year-old Shane Keith Warne, right-arm leg-spinner and right-handed lower-order batsman from Upper Ferntree Gully, Victoria, Australia, was anything but undistinguished or unimpressive. In 145 Tests, he snared 708 wickets at an average of 25.41 runs, with 37 five-wickets/inning hauls and 10 ten-wickets/match figures, and a career strike rate (the average number of deliveries per wicket) of 57.49. Simply stupendous for any kind of bowler and, as a career achievement, unparalleled so far for a spinner. As a batsman, Warne could be relied on frequently for a decent contribution albeit as part of the batting tail. In fact, of all Test cricketers past and present, Warne has scored the most Test runs without having ever scored a century, being dismissed twice in the nineties – his highest was a tantalizing 99!
At the height of his bowling prowess, Warne has bamboozled several of the world’s most reputed batsmen with astonishing variations of spin, flight and speed that were truly unparalleled in modern cricket. Whether it was his legbreak, topspin, flipper or zooter, Warne kept the batsmen guessing.
Whenever he came on to bowl, the buzz around the stadium and around television sets around the globe was as palpable as it was unmistakable: the crowds anticipated that something was about to happen out there, and it invariably happened to be the fall of a wicket! The only other bowler in living memory who evoked such crowd reactions even as he readied himself to bowl his first spell of the day was another equally colorful spin master – our own Bishen Singh Bedi.
And the cockier the batsman, the more rapier was Warney’s guile and thrust. Who can forget Pakistani batsman Basit Ali’s stunned exit from competitive international cricket? The gum-chewing boastful Ali had tried to counter the routine sledging by close-in Australian fielders with the claim that he was the next Javed Miandad. Warne got wind of it, and planned his move against the brattish upstart. He had already detected a chink in Ali’s footwork while padding up to good balls. But before the next delivery, he kept the batsman waiting – a touch of sly gamesmanship – while he convened a whispering cloak-and-dagger conference with wicket-keeper Ian Healy. The restive Ali, his mind teeming with unresolved doubts, met the awaited ball with what Warne had accurately anticipated: a mindless and clumsy padding effort. The ball ripped through between his pads and crashed into the stumps. Basit Ali never recovered from that blow, and faded out of Test cricket for good.
His real bunny – a cricketing term for a batsman particularly vulnerable to a particular bowler – was Alec Stewart England’s vice-captain, wicket-keeper and otherwise decent batsman. Warne scalped Stewart no less than 14 times, the most memorable doubtless was the 1994-95 Ashes dismissal. As Warne recounts in his autobiography (Shane Warne – My Illustrated Career), Stewart had developed an irritating defence of keeping bat close to pad in order to thwart Warne. So the bowler deceived him with the zooter – a delivery which begins its trajectory as a good-length ball but suddenly dips on a short length and then shoots along the ground to trap the batsman leg before wicket.
And what about the “Ball of the Century”? It was in the 1993 Ashes series in England that Shane Warne made England – and indeed the entire cricketing world – sit up and take notice of his enormous talent. Mike Gatting, among the better-equipped among the English batsmen to play spin bowling, got a ball that swerved mid-air after leaving Warne’s hand, landed well outside leg-stump and then ripped across the startled batsman to take the off-bail! Gatting, from all accounts, is yet to unravel that ball’s mystery just as many other batsmen failed to decode Warne’s mystique with the red cherry. The Englishman still remembers that ball. Recalling his dismissal, Gatting paid Warne a farewell tribute on the the latter’s retirement: “I suppose I can say that ‘I was there’ at the moment he first indicated his potential to the wider world…We may not see his like again.”
If that was hyperbolic coming from stiff upper-lipped England, lips and tongues in faraway Australia are coming real loose. There’s a chorus of ex-cricketers as well as contemporary players putting Shane Warne just a shade behind – if not on a par with -Don Bradman as the “greatest” cricketer of all time. One can of course discount the exclamation of paceman Jason Gillespie who thought “he’d be just about the best player that’s ever played cricket.” Pacemen are a breed apart, prone to shoot as recklessly from the lip as they hurl the cricket ball at batsmen. But when Richie Benaud, the high-priest and respected sage of cricket commentary and-significantly-a legspinner himself, gushes “Shane Warne is without doubt the finest legspinner the world has ever seen. You would certainly have Warne right up there as one of the greatest Australians to ever step on the field,” one can’t just shoulder-arms and let the delivery pass by unanswered.
Let us approach this debate as objectively as possible. Cricket, like any other team sport played between nations, lays open deep well-springs of chauvinism and unleashes fierce passions which generate more heat than light. But thanks to our unsung cricket statistians, we do have the wherewithal (a veritable wealth of statistics) to back our observations and criticisms and thus assess greatness on the basis of irrefutable data, thus steering clear of the ethnic imperatives of nationalism and race.
In a debate over who is or was the “greatest ever” in any field of human endeavor, there are a couple of questions to consider even before we begin discussing performance statistics. The first involves the larger and more fundamental question of how much of the credit for a particular achievement can be claimed by a single individual in respect of any activity or sport. The other concerns the adequacy – and therefore the legitimacy and validity – of comparisons across different and disparate generations.
Take the first question. Rarely, if ever, can a single player claim the entire credit for the team’s success. In cricket, a batsman – to a certain extent – could stake exclusive claim for his individual score, but even then he has to rely on his non-striker’s cooperation to run at his behest and help him compile that score. We rarely think of the non-strikers who ran along with Sir Don Bradman when we call him the Greatest Ever Batsman with an average of 99.97 – that has not yet been neared, let alone surpassed.
Similarly, we never invoke or recall statistics and sundry figures when we call Sir Garfield Sobers the Greatest Ever All-Rounder. There are of course statistics to back that title, but allow me a small transgression into subjectivity. I saw Sobers play a Test match in Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium way back in the mid-1960s, and even in my pre-teen ignorance of statistics and the like, I could sense that the entire stadium’s eyes were rivetted on that man – whether he was batting, bowling or fielding. Suffice to say, his genius and natural talent left no doubt in our minds that the only thing Garfield Sobers could not do on a cricket field was keep wickets to his own bowling.
A specialist bowler’s case is on much thinner ice. There are 11 ways to get a wicket in cricket – caught, bowled, caught and bowled, leg before wicket, run-out, stumped, handled the ball, timed out, double hit, hit wicket, and obstructing the field – and in only four of them, i.e. bowled, caught and bowled, leg before wicket, and hit wicket, can the bowler claim full credit, although hit wicket is often (like the remaining seven) the result of the batsman’s incompetence or carelessness than the bowler’s skill. Overall, the largest number of dismissals in a typical game of cricket at any level accrue through fielders’ catches, but get pencilled into the bowlers’ booty. And there, even if the ball was so cleverly bowled as to induce the catch, the catch still needs to be taken by a fielder. The credit is not – repeat, not – exclusively the bowler’s. Even the famous Indian spin quartet of the 60s and 70s – Prasanna, Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan -doubtless the world’s best spinners of their time, owed a large share of their wickets to close-in fielders like Eknath Solkar.
In individual sports such as tennis and athletics however, there could be a stronger case for individual annointment. The debate currently raging in the tennis world, for instance, centres on whether Roger Federer can be legitimately called the Greatest Ever in the history of men’s singles tennis. At least one former tennis great – Pete Sampras – has put in his veto claiming he could have held his own against Federer. Also, Rod Laver, the player Vijay Amritraj considers to be the Greatest Ever player to have stepped onto a tennis court, sounded a note of restraint when he remarked that Federer has the unmistakable makings of an all-time champion but has still to get there.
Amritraj’s yardstick for measuring tennis greatness is simple: Win a Grand Slam (i.e. all the four major long-standing international tennis tournaments – Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open, and the U.S. Open – in the same year) and you’re up there. Laver did it twice. As an amateur in 1962 and in 1969 as an open-era professional. No one else has ever achieved this feat.
Assessing a cricketer’s achievements today in comparison with those of an earlier generation – the crux of the second question – is far less simple. Apart from the fact that it’s a team game, the tenor of the game itself has undergone far-reaching changes over the years. For one, the laws of cricket (such as the no-ball rule) have changed, so has the standard of equipment, and most importantly, the introduction of the One-Day format. Pyjama Cricket – as the one-day limited overs variety is disparagingly called – has brought in color not only in the form of clothing in place of white flannels. It has also changed the entire approach of the game’s players in either form of cricket. Influenced by the large number of one-day games being played these days, the batsmen have become aggressive sloggers, the bowlers more restrictive, and the fielders specialists in outfield positions.
What has this meant for Test cricket? And, in turn, for Shane Warne – since he stopped playing One-Day cricket mid-career to concentrate exclusively on Test cricket? Primarily, it has meant that batsmen have neglected the technique of playing spin bowling. The pundits believe – and rightly so – that no batsman is complete unless he has mastered the subtle adjustments in footwork and stroke-play required to defend against – as much as to score off – spin bowling.
One could reasonably argue that even with the high-standard of contemporary Australian fielding as his ally, Warne would be hard pressed to garner as many wickets in an older era. Ditto for the Sri Lankan Muttiah Muralitharan. Two reasons. Firstly, not too many international matches were played before corporate sponsors sniffed commercial blood in the game in the late 1980s. Secondly, batsmen of an earlier generation played spinners with a much better technique. Today’s batters – barring notable exceptions like Brian Lara and Rahul Dravid – lack the patience and the finely honed skill of countering spin, and tend to either get paralyzed or reckless when facing an inscrutable spinning delivery.
Sorry to report, but Warne – apart from being born at the right time – has also the advantage of being born in the right place. It is instructive to note that the majority of pundits – ex-players and commentators – who have gushed over Warney are of Australian origin. Including Richie Benaud. What is particularly galling is that, whereas the others played much later and thus never saw the world’s best spinners of the 50s and the 60s, Benaud was a contemporary of a certain Subhash Gupte and also saw B.S. Chandrasekhar in action. Ask any living Indian cricketer who played in those years, and his unanimous choice for the best-ever leg-spinner is “Fergie” (that’s was Gupte’s name in the dressing room). Chandrasekhar comes a close second. Warne, they all say, is good, but way behind the two Indians.
Did I ever see Gupte bowl? No, but neither did I ever get to see Don Bradman bat. However I have seen both Chandrasekhar and Warne in action and at their peak. And honestly, as a hypothetical selector, I would find it extremely hard to exclude either one. For those who have hailed the Warne delivery that foxed Gatting as The Ball of the Century, a cautionary pointer. How many of them saw (there was no television then) the ball that castled the in-form batsman Peter Burge for a duck in the second innings of the 1964 Bombay Test? Australian cricketers, as a rule that has become a tradition, are sparing in their praise of opponents. But Burge thought it fit to salute Chandrasekhar publicly before he walked back to the pavilion. It was a ripper – if ever there was one! Little wonder that Chandra was declared Wisden’s Indian Bowler of the Century.
Looking at Shane Warne’s career stats makes for some interesting observations. I am less impressed by the total number of wickets (there’s too much cricket being played nowadays for that to be a major criterion) than by his average of 25.42 and his strike rate of 57.49. Of course, McGrath has bettered him with an average of 21.64 and a rate of 51.95. But spinners – as against the raging speedsters – tend to “buy” their wickets and it’s never easy for a wrist-spinner to settle quickly into a wicket-taking line-and-length rhythm.
The Warne career figures also reveal a blind-spot: Indian batsmen. His strike rate against the Indians is an awful 91.28 – which means Warney could never dominate against those who play spin well. Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga has consistently maintained that Warne is “an over-rated bowler.” Ranatunga topped this assessment by reducing Warne literally to anguished tears during the 1996 World Cup Final when the Sri Lankan batsmen – particularly Ranatunga and his deputy Aravinda deSilva -mercilessly walloped the bowler around the park on their way to an historic victory.
There are those who would object to the Greatest Ever title for Warne on the grounds of his off-field peccadilloes: his messy divorce after a string of infidelities, his ban after he was caught out using prohibited drugs and – worst of all – his involvement with bookies during the match-fixing scandal. After all, greatness of any kind is always associated with fair play, and stands a rung above mere professional excellence. It also entails a sense of discipline, maturity and decency of character.
But even if we discount all that and stick to his on-field performance, the “Greatest Ever” crown sits rather uncomfortably on those blonde locks. Shane Warne, a great spinner? Certainly. A great bowler? Conceded. The greatest ever leg-spinner? Hmmmm. The greatest ever cricketer? No way.