The two most successful bowlers in cricket history; two bonafide legends of the game; two spinners capable of single-handedly tying any batting line-up in knots. Their careers, for the vast majority, ran in parallel to one another, and between them, they amassed a huge 1,508 Test wickets as they terrorised batsmen around the globe.

The Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan debate is one that raged fiercely for almost all of their respective careers: some arguing for Warne’s theatrical expertise, turning every ball into an event and a spectacle, whilst others favoured Murali’s mystery and the magic that surrounded his famous, freakish double-jointed wrist capable of seemingly pivoting any way in a 360° direction.

Whilst Warne was best known for his hard-spinning leg-breaks and the way he would work out and wear down a batsman psychologically and technically, Murali’s genius lay in that wrist of his. The first mystery spinner, he faced many challenges in his career from those who felt he threw the ball as opposed to bowling it, and although his unique action caused plenty of controversies it was also the source of his genius. Here, we will analyse the statistics behind the pair, analysing various metrics from their Test career, before using our Bowling Index model to definitively rank the two and see who really was the best of the best.

How were they used?

Whilst the role of a normal spinner is usually to look to contain and hold up an end early on in a Test match before then capitalising on a wearing pitch to attack more later on in the game, Warne and Muralitharan were far from normal spinners. 

Muralitharan was used far more in the first bowling innings of a match than Warne, bowling on average 34 first innings overs in comparison to Warne’s 24.7. When looking at the second innings’ of games Muralitharan’s average overs bowled actually drops to 29.18, whilst Warne’s remains almost identical at 24.9. 

One of the likely reasons for Muralitharan’s heavier first-innings workload is his ability to be both tighter and more of a wicket-taking threat than his Australian companion. Whilst he averaged eight maidens per first innings, Warne’s was lower at six. Of course, there is no proof of a definitive cause and effect here given that it is plausible that either is a direct result of the other: either he bowled more maidens and so was trusted to bowl more; or because he bowled more this meant he bowled more maidens. Additionally, he also took 3.5 wickets per innings compared to Warne’s 2.4.

Average, economy and strike-rate

Looking at the three most prevalent statistics used to analyse a bowler’s capabilities –  average (amount of runs conceded per wicket taken), economy (amount of runs conceded per over bowled) and strike-rate (number of balls bowled per wicket taken) – for their career as a whole, we can see that it is the Sri Lankan who again has the edge when it comes to all three. Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

His average of 22.72 is 2.69 runs better than Warne’s 25.41, his economy sits at 2.47 to Warne’s 2.65 and he also took a wicket every 55 balls bowled compared to the Australian’s 57.4. 

Given that Warne was a leg-spinner and Muralitharan was technically an off-spinner (albeit one capable of also making the ball spin in either direction), it is perhaps unsurprising to see that the control of Sri Lankan was better due to the more unpredictable nature of leg-spin in comparison to off-spin. However, the fact that Muralitharan’s action was so different and almost impossible to replicate and yet he still was able to perform it to such an elite level, taking wickets more regularly than Warne, shows how much of a freak he really was. 

Right- or left-handers?

The usual cricketing theory is that off-spinners perform better to left-handers whilst leg-spinners perform better to right-handers, due to their respective abilities to turn the ball away from the bat and thus challenge both edges in the process and bring in more forms of dismissal.Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

We can see from the graphs above that both performed significantly better to right-handers than they did left-handers, although Warne was the man with the greatest record against both, having a lower average than Muralitharan in both categories. Whilst Warne averaged 22.1 against right-handers Muralitharan had a slightly higher figure of 23.25, although the difference was much greater when comparing the two against left-handers: Warne’s average of 28.32 is over three runs cheaper than Muralitharan’s 31.71.

It is interesting to note the pair’s relative struggles (by their own exceptional standards) to left-handers. Looking deeper into it, remarkably, 609 of Muralitharan’s wickets were right-handers – a whopping 76.125% – whilst they account for 536 of Warne’s overall total, which was 75.71% of his victims.

Home or away?

With the vastly varying conditions from country to country, many bowlers can find it tough to adapt to the specific environmental requirements in each nation. Looking generally at the pair, it is Muralitharan who performed better in home matches, although Warne was more successful overseas.Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

At home Muralitharan averaged just 19.56, almost seven runs lighter than Warne’s 26.39. However away from home comforts, it was the leg-spinner who ruled, his average actually dropping in comparison to his home efforts to a figure of 25.5. Conversely, Muralitharan saw his average shoot up dramatically to 27.79.

Looking at their records in each Test-playing nation, we can begin to identify the places where the pair struggled in comparison to the other. 

Starting with the obvious, Muralitharan (signified by the thinner bars in the below chart) struggled hugely in Warne’s backyard Down Under. He averaged a huge 75.41 as a consequence of taking just 12 wickets in the five matches he played there. Indeed, it was the only country he did not take a Test five-wicket haul in.Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

Looking elsewhere at places where Warne had a more favourable record, the Melbourne-born spinner also performed better in India, where he averaged 43.11 to his Sri Lankan counterpart’s 45.45. It is surprising to discover the relative struggles of the legendary duo in India, given that the dry, dusty pitches are renowned for their assistance to spin and also the fact that Muralitharan was raised and honed his craft on similar pitches just over the Palk Strait. The only other two places where Warne had a better record than Muralitharan were South Africa (average of 24.31 compared to 26.02) and Zimbabwe (22.83 against 27.53).

How did they fare against the best batsmen?

Whilst overall career averages are, of course, a very good indication as to how good a bowler was, they are skewed by a player’s ability against tail-enders and lower-order batsmen – i.e. ones that aren’t as good as their higher-order colleagues. Therefore, a bowler’s average purely against top-five batsmen gives a much better portrayal of their proficiency at removing the best players.Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

It is strikingly apparent from the above graphs that both players’ averages increased significantly based against their overall career average. However, despite Muralitharan having the better career average, it was actually Warne who performed better against top-five batsmen with an average of 37.59 in comparison to Muralitharan’s 39.78.

The player that Warne enjoyed the most success against throughout the course of his career was Alec Stewart, who he dismissed 14 times in the 23 times he bowled at him, and was one of the finest English batsmen of his generation. In fact, the top five players (including Stewart) of whom he had the best records against were all top-order players: Nasser Hussain and Ashwell Prince (11 dismissals each), Michael Atherton (ten) and Graham Thorpe (nine). As for Muralitharan, three of the five players he removed the most were top-five batsmen: Grant Flower (ten dismissals), Sourav Ganguly and Mohammad Yousuf (nine apiece).

Early containment and late threat

As already alluded to, the normally practised role of a spinner in Tests is to bowl tighter and concede fewer runs earlier in a game, before then using the worn pitch to be more aggressive in the later innings of the match. Therefore, the best way to analyse a spinner’s capability at fulfilling this role is to assess their first innings economy to see how tight their bowling was, and then their second-innings strike-rate to judge how frequent they were at taking wickets. Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

When we do look at both of these figures, it is clear to see that Muralitharan held the edge in both regards. Not only was his first innings economy lower at 2.48 compared to Warne’s 2.74, but he also took wickets more regularly in the second innings: every 51.2 balls compared to Warne’s 53.7. Judging from this, it appears that the Sri Lankan was the better first- and second-innings bowler – but what is the overall outcome?

Conclusion

According to our analysis and Bowling Index model, it is the Sri Lankan great who comes out as the better bowler by virtue of a lower Index score.Shane Warne vs Muttiah Muralitharan: who was the best Test spinner? - player analysis

His figure of 268.26 is just under 11 points better than Warne’s 279.38, meaning he definitively takes the crown as the best of the best. Throughout their respective careers, the pair were nothing short of incredible, revolutionising spin bowling and providing pure theatre and spectacle to any game they were involved in. Their ruthless ability to consistently churn out wickets will surely never be seen again such are their mammoth totals, whilst the evolution of the modern game means the chances of producing a player akin to either of the duo at Test match level is looking increasingly unlikely. To watch either man play without the presence of the other would have been thrilling enough; to watch them both throughout the same period was an honour.