Best spin bowlers in cricket history

Cricket is often termed a battle of willow (bat) and leather (ball). To defeat the willow, pace bowlers rely on sheer pace, seam or swing. The spinner is slower and more crafty, relying on a combination of flight, bounce and turn to deceive batsmen.

Before the advent of great spinners, fast bowlers topped the wicket lists in Test match bowling. Spinners were typically thought as bowlers to use on turning tracks or to give fast bowlers a break.

It is easy to pick out the great spin bowlers by assessing cricket statistics. Spin is such a difficult art to master, that few bowlers really put themselves in the category of great. Still, to pick the best, it is important to sift through relevant criteria, which include:

Variations: Generally, great spinners are mystery bowlers, with so many variations that batsmen find it hard to pick them.

Minimum qualification: At least 50 Tests or 300 Test wickets (not necessarily both)

Test bowling strike rate: Spin bowlers do not have fantastic strike rates that fast bowlers do, but the best still manage to take a wicket every 70 balls or less.

There were many good spinners who would not qualify as the greatest of all time because of these stipulations. Danish Kaneria, Abdul Qadir, Bishen Singh Bedi, Lance Gibbs, Clarrie Grimmett and Richhie Benaud are notable ommissions. The four who make this list are three leg break bowlers and one offspinner.

Murali bowling: Not always the prettiest sight
Murali bowling: Not always the prettiest sight

1. Muttiah Muralitharan

Muttiah Muralitharan has the most international wickets by any bowler (1334). The wily Sri Lankan off-spinner holds the world record for the highest number of wickets in both Tests (800) and ODIs (534). The soft-spoken, affable spinner's action was unique in a number of ways - for the natural bend in his elbow to the hyper-rotating wrist. This allowed Muttiah to impart prodigious turn on the ball; he could turn the ball almost square on many pitches.

Murali used bounce, turn, flight and, of course, spin to deceive batsmen who were unable to play him. Brian Lara, the double world record holder, scored heavily against the off-spinner, but even he admitted that he was never really able to pick Murali in the first 45 minutes of facing him. Murali's action was controversial and many cricket observers (particularly in Australia) still think he was more of a javelin thrower. Despite his critics, Murali went about his task winning matches for Sri Lanka and setting records.

Murali wickets

The Little Book of Cricket Legends
The Little Book of Cricket Legends

This book is packed with 4 page profiles of 30 of the world's most admired and revered cricketers. The Little Book of Cricket Legends includes key statistics about each legend, illustrated with some of the best known photographs of them together with a fascinating profile of their career.

 

Muttiah Muralitharan's international bowling records

Type 
Matches 
Wickets
Average
Strike Rate
Tests 
133 
800
22.72
55.0 
ODIs 
350 
534
23.08
35.2 
Shane Warne letting it rip
Shane Warne letting it rip

2. Shane Warne

The chubby Victorian is the best leg-spinner to have played the game. Some would rank the Australian as the best spinner ever. Warne could turn a ball prodigiously and could keep batsmen guessing. He was not the most mysterious spinner at times, but he would work batsmen out with his arsenal of variations, which included the googly, flipper and top-spinner.

Brian Lara summed up Shane's modus operandi by stating that Warne grew more confident the more he bowled to a batsman. Before Muttiah Muralitharan surpassed his record, the leg-spinner was the world record holder for a brief period. However, he had the distinction of being the first bowler in Test cricket's history to take 600 and then 700 wickets, Warne and Muralitharan are the only bowlers to have taken more than 700 Test wickets.

Shane Warne's best wickets

Shane Warne: Portrait of a Flawed Genius
Shane Warne: Portrait of a Flawed Genius

Shane Warne was the most glamorous and arguably the best cricketer in the world for more than ten years. He won a generation of fans by showing the fun to be had in bamboozling opponents. Warne loved the limelight, but the limelight also burned him: scandals involving drugs, extra-marital affairs, and taking money from dodgy bookmakers have soured relations with his family and homeland.

 

Shane Warne's international bowling record

Type 
Matches
Wickets
Average 
Strike Rate 
Tests 
145
708
25.41 
57.4 
ODIs 
194
293
25.73 
36.3 
Anil Kumble: Didn't need too much turn to outfox batsmen
Anil Kumble: Didn't need too much turn to outfox batsmen

3. Anil Kumble

India has produced many world-class spinners in the past decades. Anil Kumble was the best of them all; the irony was that he was not a big spinner of the ball. Kumble could turn the ball on a helpful track, but he relied on variations in flight, speed and bounce to outfox batsmen.

That strategy proved successful as he scalped over 600 Test wickets - one of only three bowlers to do so. However, his variations in flight and turn helped him to scalp over 600 Test wickets in his career. Kumble's biggest moment came against Pakistan in 1999 when he became the second bowler to take all ten wickets in a Test innings.

Anil Kumble's ten wickets against Pakistan

Anil Kumble's international bowling records

Type 
Matches 
Wickets
Average
Strike Rate 
Tests 
132 
619
29.65
65.9 
ODIs 
271 
337
30.89
43.0
Chandrasekhar: Anil Kumble's idol
Chandrasekhar: Anil Kumble's idol

4. Bhagwath Chandrasekhar

When Anil Kumble was a youngster, Chandrasekhar was already troubling batsmen on the international scene. The Indian leg-spinner was India's premier spin bowler before Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

Chandrasekhar was part of a quartet of Indian spinners who bamboozled batsmen in the 1960s and 1970s. The leg-spinner was not a subcontinental bully either, having a successful record away from home. Those who saw him in action observed that the legspinner was somewhat erratic but managed to bowl many unplayable deliveries.

Bhagwath Chandrasekhar's international bowling records

Type 
Matches 
Wickets 
Average
Strike Rate
Tests 
58 
242 
29.74
65.9
ODIs
12.00
18.6

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Who else do you think qualifies for this list? 11 comments

richie benaud 5 years ago

very good at getting out of difficult situations and makes clever decisions


SpiffyD profile image

SpiffyD 5 years ago from The Caribbean Author

Richie Benaud just missed the cut, but he was certainly an exceptional cricketer.


nizum 5 years ago

shane warne should be number 1


SilkDepartment profile image

SilkDepartment 4 years ago

Shane Warne should easily be No.1 on any list of the greatest spinners. Muralidharan took 176 wickets versus world cricket easybeats Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to Shane Warne's 17. Add to this the fact leg spin bowling is immeasurably harder to master than off spin bowling and the fact Warne was a key player in some of the greatest teams to ever play its easy to see why he deserves to be No.1 and we don't even need to mention Murali's suspect action.


SpiffyD profile image

SpiffyD 4 years ago from The Caribbean Author

This is why there are defined criteria for this list. To suggest that Warne should be number one because he didn't take as many wickets against weaker teams is flawed. Excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Warne took 691 wickets from 142 matches. Muralitharan took 624 from 108 matches. Muralitharan has a far superior wicket-per-match rate (5.77) than Warne (4.86) - even if we discount his efforts against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. I suppose you'd want to discount records against New Zealand and West Indies to make a point now.

Warne is considered the number 1 spinner in many quarters because of his mastery of a difficult art. However, Murali was not a mere offspinner, but a special bowler who was difficult to read. Brian Lara suggested that Murali was a more difficult bowler to face. However, he gave Warne an edge because Warne was more patient and confident - even when good batsmen appeared to get on top of him.

Since we're going down the route of examining performance against teams, why not mention that Warne took only 43 wickets from 14 matches against India? His average against the Indians was a poor 47.18. In the matches in which Muralitharan played against Shane Warne, Warne took 51 wickets and Murali took 52. Warne had the better average though. Muralitharan had problems bowling in Australia - taking only 8 wickets from three matches there. Perhaps that was because of those who felt Warne should be the undisputed Number 1. He certainly can be considered the best spinner in history. However, is Ponting better than Lara? It's all subjective and stats can be used to argue both for and against.


wbapartner 4 years ago

My favourite is Shane Warne. Even though Sachin tendulkar owned him, he is still great to watch. More entertaining the likes of Shane warne and Anil Kumble.


ronakbhatia profile image

ronakbhatia 4 years ago from Mumbai, India

Three of the best spin blowers ever! My favorite: Shane Warne!


wbapartner 4 years ago

There is another largely underrated spinner in Daniel Vettori. He might not have numbers on his side, but he is very good.


nirmal89 3 years ago

I agree with the list. Murali is the best bowler who ever played the game. I don't think his records will ever be broken, because he's an exceptional talent. He's also a great human being......


SAQIB6608 profile image

SAQIB6608 2 years ago from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN

SAQLAIN, MUSHTAQ AHMED and ABDUL QADIR are notable ommissions


SpiffyD profile image

SpiffyD 2 years ago from The Caribbean Author

When I set the criteria I thought that at least Qadir may have been included, but that was not the case. Ahmed was a very effective leggie, but I wouldn't class him as an all-time great. Mushtaq should have played more cricket than he did, but I'm not sure if that had to do with PCB politics.

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