22 July 2010

The greatest bowler of all time?

Muttiah Muralitharan has reached the landmark of 800 test wickets in his final test match for Sri Lanka. This led me to ask a philosophical question about greatness: is greatness proportional to a quantum of success (like a number of wickets)?

As a cricket fan with a Sky Sports subscription (until September) I have watched the bowling of Murali on the TV many times. His action is unconventional, and has been subject to controversey and dispute over the years. His 'bent' arm makes his delivery look quite unique, and he has confused a great many batsmen (800 of them). This wicket-taking acheivement far outstrips his nearest rival (Shane Warne, 708 wickets), but I have to say that Shane Warne is the bowler I always preferred to watch.

One of the difficulties of equating greatness to a quantum of success is that the quantum under discussion is accrued over time. So someone with an extremely long career may end up with more wickets than someone with a shorter career. So why don't we look at the averages then? Well maybe that would be better than looking at the career total for wickets taken, but does that number adequately quantify the greatness of the bowler? Probably not.

It was Warne, not Murali, who dispatched Mike Gatting with 'the ball of the century', but is one ball enough to confer greatness? 

I suppose, in the end, greatness is in the eye of the beholder. What's beyond doubt is that many international batsmen will face the Sri Lankans with a little less anxiety than before.


  1. There is also the question of support - what with cricket being a team game.
    Warne had McGrath, Murali had Vaas.
    Warne had the Waughs, Ponting, Hussey, Gilchrist
    Murali had da Silva, Jayawardene, Jayasuria

    Both put their teams in a position where they could defend almost any total, and scared the opposition (after a while - if I remember correctly Warne's first test figures were 1-100+)

    Warne had more appeal to the casual fan, with his more extroverted behaviour (see Panesar's Tendulkar wicket celebration and the press that recieved)

    Whereas Murali had more of a low key demeanour.

    But that is just those two - the West Indians of the 80s (Hall, Griffiths) and 90s (Ambrose and Walsh), Merv Hughes and Thompson of Aus all intimidated batsmen in their time.

    I agree the teams facing the Sri Lankans will breathe easier, but it does go in cycles and the youngsters for Pakistan are beginning to look quite dangerous, and one could confer that to a couple of the English bowlers

    At least we can say we have seen them play, and remember the intrigue they both caused

  2. Thanks for the comment Scouse Vasey. You make a good point about bowlers being part of a team. I would argue that some are elevated, though, through regular magnificently aggressive spells of bowling. I'm thinking of people like Flintoff (at his best), Simon Jones in the 2005 Ashes (Old Trafford test) etc...
    There are also your solid bowlers, who plod away game after game - we always seem to have an abundance of these. They take 1 or 2 wickets per game, but rarely change the course of a match or series.
    Then there are the bowlers who sit right between those 2 categories. Some days they look ordinary, and the next day they look unplayable! I'd put people like Anderson, Hoggard and Panesar in this category (along with most of the bowlers who came through the Fletcher-era system for fast bowlers).
    You're right about it going in cycles. This is what makes it impossible to compare players from different eras.
    In the end, I suppose what really makes players great is their involvement in great contests. That's when they leap out from their peers by providing us with immovable memories and magic moments. Bring on the Ashes!