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Shane Warne versus Muttiah Muralitharan: Who is the best spinner in cricket history?

Updated on August 6, 2012
Shane Warne: Champion leg-break bowler
Shane Warne: Champion leg-break bowler | Source
Muttiah Muralitharan: Champion off-break bowler
Muttiah Muralitharan: Champion off-break bowler | Source

Muttiah Muralitharan – the quiet, affable son of a confectioner in the aptly-named town of Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Shane Warne – the chubby, ebullient and flamboyant leg-spinner from Melbourne, Australia.

These are two of the best spinners in the history of the game, with different personalities to match their different bowling styles.

The cricket world is somewhat divided on who was better. Different arguments have been advanced, selectively using statistics to that end.

Indeed, it is nigh on impossible to be objective about it – especially as statistics don’t reveal context or circumstances.

For sure, statistics alone cannot the decider, which is the reason for many cricket fans and pundits choosing Shane Warne over Muralitharan – despite Murali’s superior statistics.

To uncover who should be considered the best, I’ll take a look at some of the arguments for and against either bowler, along with some points of comparison.

The great news is that there will be many persons who disagree with my conclusion, regardless of what it may be.

Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan's Test records

Strike Rate
Shane Warne
Muttiah Muralitharan

Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan's ODI records

Strike Rate
Shane Warne
Muttiah Muralitharan

Few can argue that Muttiah's statistics are not clearly superior to that of the Aussie leggie. Indeed, it is quite likely that if Shane Warne had Muttiah Muralitharan’s statistics, there would be no debate at all – Shane Warne would be number one.

The major blemish on Muralitharan’s statistics is the fact that many cricket fans opine that his bowling action is suspect to say the least. The controversy over Murali’s action is the primary reason that many mitigate his achievements and consider him after Shane Warne – probably even after Anil Kumble, Lance Gibbs or Clarrie Grimmett.

Coming back to the issue of statistics, many fans know that statistics could never tell the full story. they don't even give a proper account of the distribution of wickets! I thought it would be interesting to analyse and compare the stats within the overall stats. This way, we would be able to do such things as identifying their bogey teams and determine who used home advantage better.

The Z&B factor

When assessing modern statistics, it is now a common practice to discount efforts against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

I don’t agree with the practice, since West Indies and New Zealand can be nearly as awful – even India is susceptible to spineless displays in entire series!

However, some Murali critics have argued that The Sri Lankan off-spinner had his record embellished by playing several more Tests against the Test minnows.

This is a claim worth examining by discounting performances against what many fans consider substandard teams.

Test records against established Test teams

Tests played
Shane Warne
Muttiah Muralitharan
Excludes records against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh

This analysis is quite interesting as it appears to lend some credence to the claims of his critics that he bullied the Test minnows. The Kandy man played 25 Tests against them, reaping a whopping 176 wickets at a metronomical average of 15.09. On the other hand, the Victorian leggie played only three Tests against the said minnows, taking 17 wickets at an average of 25.70.

The common argument in these cases is that you can only play the opponent that is put before you. Even so, Murali still appears to have the statistical edge over Warne. However, the exclusion of minnows provides parity to the stats of these two great spinners.

This brings us to another valid claim by the Sri Lankan's critics: Muralitharan benefitted from playing the bulk of his games on the Asian subcontinent, by virtue of having all of his home games played there and even some away games (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India).

Warne's home games were sometimes in conditions better suited to fast bowling - like the WACA Ground in Perth, Western Australia.

Home advantage

Tests at home
Shane Warne
Muttiah Muralitharan
Table showing the performances of the two spinners at home

Bogey teams and venues

The records show that Muralitharan performs significantly better at home than Shane Warne does.

This can be viewed as a good thing, but quality players are expected to exploit the home conditions anyway.

Is it that Murali exploited home conditions but was less successful away?

A cursory overview of the statistics show that both Warne and Murali performed well in England and New Zealand. One suggestion was that Muralitharan did not perform well in Australia. That notion is supported by the statistics: Murali took just 12 wickets from 5 Tests at an average of 75.41 - more like a fantastic batting average.

Touring Australia was difficult for the Sri Lankan. It was in 1995 that Aussie umpires Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair no-balled Murali for throwing. He was typically heckled by spectators whenever he played Down Under. The off-spinner also had a high bowling average (45.45) when bowling in India, although he took 40 wickets from 11 Tests in India.

Shane Warne also had difficulties in India and even had a fairly high average from Tests in the West Indies. Warne's bowling average in India was 43.11, while his bowling average in the Caribbean was 39.64. The legspinner managed 34 wickets from 9 Tests in India. Both of these great spinners seemed to struggle in India, possibly because the batsmen were adept at playing quality spin bowling.

The following table shows Muralitharan's and Warne's overall record against India in Tests:

Tests against India (home and away)

Muttiah Muralitharan
Shane Warne

India was clearly a difficult team for both spinners, more so the Australian leg-break bowler. In addition, the away statistics for both men do not suggest that they performed poorly away from home generally. Those who wish to argue that Muralitharan only did well in Asia have to face the reality that Muralitharan performed quite well in the West Indies, England and Africa as well.

Muralitharan bowling in South Africa, New Zealand and England

New Zealand
South Africa
These are the away matches that Muralitharan played against three established Test sides in their own conditions

The Brian Lara Factor

It is clear that mere statistics cannot be effectively employed in an attempt to separate Warne and Murali.

They both have pros and cons where the stats are concerned.

However, what Brian Lara had to say about the two champion spinners may help.

The double-world record holder and West Indian batting maestro suggested that the Sri Lankan off-spinner was more difficult to read. Lara admitted that he often could not pick Murali's deliveries, although he scored heavily against him.

However, Lara also scored heavily against Shane Warne. The main difference between the two spinners for the great batsman was that Warne's confidence never wilted. You can appear to get on top of Warne, but he'll still come at you and work you out. Once you get on top of Murali, he easily became deflated and you were able to stay on top.

Other considerations

Muralitharan's critics suggested that he bowled the bulk of Sri Lanka's overs, thus he had the opportunity to get wickets.

They argued that Warne had to share his wickets with bowling greats such as McGrath and Gillespie.

That claim has some merit, but it is weak. After all, one can argue that having the metronomic McGrath bowling at the other end made Warne's job a lot easier.

Warne was a controversial figure on and off the field. However, none of his controversies polarized cricket fans and experts as Muralitharan's. The accusation of throwing haunted him during his career and may even haunt his statistics. Warne's action was clean and textbook, while Murali's action seemed very irregular to the naked eye.

Even after his action was cleared, many observers were left unsatisfied and accused the ICC of adjusting the laws of cricket to accommodate the Kandy man. To my mind, Murali's double-jointed arm and his congenital deformity conspired to give the appearance of throwing. The hyperextension that came so naturally to him proved to be his bane. Were his action more classical in nature, he would have stood a better chance of being regarded the best spinner in cricket history.

Someone even suggested that since the art of leg-spin is more difficult to master than off-spin, Warne had to be better. While wrist spin is more difficult than finger-spin, Murali had as much mystery and as many variations to match any leg-spinner's.

Shane Warne: My pick for best spinner
Shane Warne: My pick for best spinner | Source

Who is my pick for the best spinner?

Since Shane Warne revitalised the art of leg-spin and had a traditional, uncontroversial bowling action, my pick is the pudgy Aussie.

Warne had the spirit of a champion, especially as Lara described it.

Murali is equally amazing, but it is unfortunate that his unconventional bowling action may forever taint his achievements in cricket.

The Shane versus Murali debate

Who is your pick for the best spinner?

See results


Submit a Comment
  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from The Caribbean

    I disagree that Murali's action was such an abomination, but it is clear that it polarised views on his legacy. I believe he was a wonderful addition to the game of cricket and all the fuss about chucking stems from cricket being a batsman's game. Most cricket controversies appear to revolve around bowling.

  • SAQIB6608 profile image


    4 years ago from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN

    I am in favour of SHANE because of leg spin has again become popular with cricket fans and a successful part of cricket teams, driven largely by the success of Shane Warne, beginning with his spectacular Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting in 1993.

    . MURALI used to CHUCK.

    LEG SPIN is a masterful art, there are so many off spinners with pretty less NOTABLE Leggies like KUMBLE, AFRIDI, ABDUL QADIR and MUSHTAQ AHMED

  • Sachin Anuradha profile image

    Sachin Anuradha 

    4 years ago from Bangalore, India

    no matter what murali is the greatest spin bowler ever with his magical skills. Not a single bowler had been able to reach him

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    You forgot to include the fact that Muralidharan is a chucker..

    Look for his videos where he bowls legspin, his arm is straight as a whistle then!

  • markfo profile image


    6 years ago from Middlesex, England

    Hi Spiffy,

    Why do you think the Windies have struggled so much to find a decent spinner since the great Lance Gibbs? The game is so cosmopolitan now, once identified as a talent, a spinner could ply his trade in any number of countries with spinner friendly pitches. It it a coaching issue?

    It's easy for George Baily to say become more unorthadox, but if you have already established yourself in a team, how patient are people going to be if you change your style and take the inevitable early stick?

    So much of a spinner's performance comes from confidence, as you mentioned, Warne was mentally very strong and always backed himself, whereas Murali could be rattled.

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thanks for the read and comment mark. I think that Shane Warne is the safer pick - simply because there's a lot less controversy surrounding him.

    A few persons have argued that the Asian cricket Council pressured the ICC into bending the rules to accommodate Murali. However, I don't agree completely with that, since the ICC discovered that even bowlers like Brett Lee had more flex than the law mandated. It was more a case of adjusting the law to accommodate reality. After the World T20, George Bailey suggested that Aussie spinners be more "unorthodox," but some coaches believe that the doosra cannot be bowled legally. Even the ICC called Murali on his doosra, so they may have a point there.

    Thanks again!

  • markfo profile image


    6 years ago from Middlesex, England

    Excellent article Spiffy.

    Personally, I'd go with Warne, merely because be played the greater percentage of his games on pitches that were less spin friendly than Murali. Australian pitches were usually prepared for the quicks, Sri Lankan pitches were tailored towards Murali.

    Also it is difficult to argue that Murali's action gave him an unfair advantage. As a twirler I started to bowl with a lot more action atfer the ICC changed the rule to accommodate Murali and my figures, albeit at club level improved drastically. I was able to get more bite on the ball and turn it more and also vary my speed more as my arm was now far more flexed. Another point to consider, how many wickets did the "Doosra" that was deemed illegal contribute to.

    Nirmal - although Murali was the primary reason that SL improved so much the excellent Chaminda Vaas also came through at the same time (how demoralising must it have been to steam in hour after hour in that humidity) and the quality of the batting also improved.

    All the best Mark.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Murali's the greatest spinner in the world. No one can match his record. Before he arrived to SL team, SL was ranked 8th and 9th in the world, but murali was able to bring up SL to rank 2 and 3 and b4 his arrival to the team SL had only won against IND, PAK and NZ but after he came to the team SL managed to beat all the Test playing nations including AUS. Without his service sri lanka would have been a team like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Murali made SL cricket team a forced to be reckoned with. So I agree with Steve waugh, "Murali is the bradman of bowlers"- Steve Waugh

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Shane warn i great

  • sujithbeta profile image

    Sreejith k 

    7 years ago from Kerala, India

    Shane Warne and muralidharan are the king of spinners. I always like shane warne than muralidharan


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