Does becoming leading wicket-taker make Murali the greatest bowler ever?

Science cleared Sri Lankan's famous action but consensus in the game is not clear. Stephen Brenkley reports from Kandy

When Sydney Barnes pitched up, in every sense, at Durban in December, 1913 he created a record that was to stand for 23 years. Muttiah Muralitharan did something similar in Kandy yesterday.

It is vaguely conceivable that some genius-cum-freak will come along in the next decade and start turning the ball around corners but considering that this generation has already had two such phenomena, the next one may have to be a four-armed bloke from the planet Zog.

There was the sense that Murali knew his figure would be around for a long time. He had twice held the record before but this was when it counted, this was when he had rounded the final bend and broken everybody. This was when he had at last, inexorably, overtaken Shane Warne with everybody else long since in the distance.

"This record is more important to me because the first time I knew Warne was playing and I always thought that whoever played longer would have the record," said Murali after close of play of yesterday. "He stopped after the last Ashes series and I continued so this record will last. The only other one is Anil Kumble if he plays for a few more years than me, otherwise it will stand for a long time." Few would be willing to rule out for ever.

Nobody has held the world Test bowling record for longer than Barnes. He dismissed Plum Lewis, caught by Frank Woolley, for wicket number 142 which gave him the record and by the time Lionel Tennyson had snaffled Jimmy Blanckenburg, back in Durban three months later, he had extended the tally to 189.

Whatever else happened you can be pretty sure of three things: that none of his colleagues mobbed Barnes in the unlikely event that they were aware of his achievement, that a nation did not go into raptures and that Barnes did not smile. He never smiled.

That was it for Barnes. He played only 27 Test matches for England and he was already 40 when he delivered his last international ball. He had taken 49 wickets in four matches in his last series.

He was a wonder of the age, a sensation, a fast-medium bowler who was a master of the bowling arts, in his case, swing, seam and, remarkably, spin. Just like Murali, who is a master of different arts, of dip and spin and bounce, but a master still.

There are many sound judges, many who consider Barnes to be the best bowler who ever lived. There were no arguments when he was around. Nobody demurred. But for Murali there can never be such consensus.

There will always be those, indeed there were yesterday on his day of days, ready to be grudging in their praise and these are the ones prepared to speak in public. It is probably worth noting that Murali has become appreciably more prolific as a bowler as the years have gone on.

In the 27 matches it took Barnes to take 189 wickets, Murali took 101. By the early part of the millennium Murali had raised that rate to more than five wickets a match. Sometime in 2003, however, he developed the doosra, the one that went the other way. Since then he has been taking his wickets at more than seven a match, his last 260 since playing England four years ago at an average of 18.

It would be more than a pity if history was to judge him unkindly, it would be a travesty. Science has cleared him, players recognise they have to play him, whatever their private thoughts.

An idle thought, no more, is that even if his action is dodgy how many people do you know who can propel a ball with such verve and precision no matter what the angle of their arm? Precisely none.

Muralitharan is a country boy, albeit the scion of a biscuit manufacturer. He represents a country which did not start playing Test cricket until 1982. He is playing in an era when grounds have become smaller, bats have become bigger, pitches have become flatter and batsmen have become larger. All this counts in his favour when considering his place in the pantheon.

He has taken 432 wickets in Sri Lanka, altogether 528 on the subcontinent. He has never performed well in Australia (as Warne never did in India), and that is perhaps to his disfavour.

He had no favourites among the wickets. They were all important, though number 520 (the Zimbabwean, Mluleki Nkala) when he first broke the record and number 709 (Paul Collingwood) were his favourites.

If there was not such hoo-hah when he first broke the record that was because the match took place in Harare in as low key a Test match as it is possible to imagine. He will now hold it indefinitely and there was a huge media attendance yesterday.

Murali was delighted to do it in his home town. He first played at the Asgiriya ground as a 15-year-old for Trinity College, whose ground it is. As a schoolboy he took 100 wickets in a season there. He could be said to have had home advantage yesterday.

"The best batsmen I bowled to was Brian Lara because I played him more than anybody else. The subcontinent players are good players of spin and I would also say that Andy Flower and Graham Thorpe were difficult to bowl to." Not as difficult as he was to face, but, interestingly, all left-handers.

Warne, it will be remembered, was voted as one of the five cricketers of the 20th century. Quite right, too, because he revived an art form. But if the millennium was shoved seven years back would Murali make the cut? It is doubtful considering the baggage.

If Barnes was the greatest bowler of the first part of the 20th century he was succeeded by Australian spin bowlers like Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett. In the latter half of the century pace came to the fore again because pace hurts.

No discussion is complete without mention of Fred Trueman who finished with 307 wickets and was the leading wicket-taker for 13 years, a tenure second only to Barnes. After he took his 300th Trueman was asked if anybody would ever match his record. Echoing something that his fellow Yorkshireman had said after taking 200 wickets and scoring 2,000 runs in the 1906 summer Trueman said that if anybody ever broke his record they would be bloody tired. Tired? Three hundred wickets is a walk in the park these days.

The Seventies brought more ferocious velocity, an array of intimidating West Indies bowlers worth their place in list of great bowlers. Many of them were the contemporaries of Dennis Lillee of Australia. And then came the Pakistan duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. All these men brought something different to the game. But the record will never be held again by a fast bowler. They would have to be around for 20 years, never injured and come from Zog.

Today, the standard of international bowling is not especially high. It is just one of those things perhaps, but it makes Murali somehow more eminent. He is a great cricketer whatever it is he does with the ball and he is an outstanding man.

Test best: Top 10 leading bowlers

M Muralitharan (Sri L) 116 Tests; 710 wickets

S Warne (Australia) 145 T; 708 w

A Kumble (India) 120 T; 576 w

G McGrath (Australia) 124 T; 563 w

C Walsh (West Indies) 132 T; 519 w

Kapil Dev (India) 131 T; 434 w

Sir R Hadlee (N Zealand) 86 T; 431 w

S Pollock (South Africa) 107 T; 416 w

Wasim Akram (Pakistan) 104 T; 414 w

C Ambrose (West Indies) 98 T; 405 w

Simply the best: Angus Fraser and Stephen Brenkley name their top-five bowlers

* ANGUS FRASER

1 Malcolm Marshall

The greatest fast bowler of all time. Skill, pace and a huge heart earned him 376 Test wickets at 20.94.



2 Dennis Lillee

With his shirt open to his navel and a chain swinging from side to side as he ran in, there was no better sight in cricket than Lillee. A perfect bowling action and a personality to match.

3 Shane Warne

Pure theatre. Single-handedly made spin bowling sexy.

4 Muttiah Muralitharan

With 61 five-wicket and 20 10-wicket hauls to his name he has to go down as the greatest match-winner cricket has seen.

5 Sydney Barnes

Reliable sources make him sound like Harry Potter, so many tricks did he have up his sleeve.

* STEPHEN BRENKLEY

1 Sydney Barnes

Played only 27 Tests but bowled until he was 63. The professional's professional and the first master bowler.

2 Wasim Akram

In his pomp, swinging lethally, no one was safe. A master of disguise.

3 Shane Warne

Leg-spin was dead. He proved that there is life and of what quality after death.

4 Michael Holding

Extremely quick, hostile, straight, clever, beautiful to watch, could bowl anywhere.

5 Bill O'Reilly

The first aggressive spinner, operated when the bat was king. Bradman said he was the best. But this list and the names on it could change by tonight.

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