The Big Question: Is Shane Warne the greatest cricketer in the history of the game?


Why are people saying he is?

Because Warne has just announced his retirement from international cricket. He will play just two more Test matches, both, inevitably, against England, the team he has tormented with his spin for as long as the current crop of batsmen can remember. When sportsmen retire, the superlatives come out, and all the more so when the retirement is smartly timed. Warne is going earlier than expected, while close to the height of his powers - in this series he has wobbled at times, but has still had a hand in each of England's three defeats so far. By making the announcement now, Warne has guaranteed himself two thunderous send-offs, first at Melbourne, his home ground, which was already expecting to break all attendance records next week, and then at Sydney, back where he started, 15 years ago, as a greenhorn dyed-blonde beach bum with only four first-class matches under his belt.

So, is he really the greatest player ever?

Some good judges are saying so, among them Nasser Hussain, the former England captain who is now a sharp-witted commentator. But players are not always best placed to judge historical issues. Hussain would have seen little of the first 100 years of Test cricket. Warne is certainly there or thereabouts, as cricket people say. In 2000 he was named as one of the Five Cricketers of the Century by a 100-person panel of experts convened by Wisden, the game's so-called bible. It was a tremendous honour: Warne was the only man still playing to make the top five, and the only one without a knighthood. But the voting rather suggested that he wasn't the greatest player of all. Each expert had five votes, so it was possible for a player to score the full 100. Don Bradman, universally acknowledged as the greatest batsman of all, did just that. Garry Sobers, probably the greatest all-rounder, got 90.

Warne finished fourth with 27 votes, jostling for position with the pre-war English batsman Jack Hobbs (30) and the West Indian master blaster Viv Richards (25).

How has he done recently?

Warne has added to his legend in the six years since 2000, despite missing one of them through a drugs ban. He has become the most prolific of all Test bowlers, with 699 wickets; when he began, in 1992, the world record stood at 431, so he has taken the game into uncharted waters. But the Wisden vote confirms that Bradman and Sobers are widely considered to have been greater players.

Bradman's record towers above every other batsman's: he had a Test batting average of 99, while nobody else with a significant career has managed more than 60. Sobers is one of the cluster of batsmen in the high 50s, and the only one who was also a very good bowler. So those two are both way out in front in their category.

Warne, for all his brilliance, isn't: his Test bowling average, 25 runs for every wicket, and strike rate, 57 balls per wicket, are great but not the best of his time, or even his team. And he hasn't had to bowl at the many excellent Australian batsmen of the past 15 years.

So he's not that great?

On the contrary - he is a fabulous cricketer. There are plenty of superlatives he can be garlanded with. He is definitely the greatest leg-spin bowler there has been. Leg-spin is a fiendishly difficult art: most of its exponents are erratic and expensive. Warne's unique contribution has been to bring extreme accuracy and economy to the task, while still spinning the ball miles and attacking the batsman at almost all times. He is probably the most watchable cricketer since WG Grace, in Victorian times, and, thanks to television, much more watched. He has the greatest sense of theatre of any player of the modern era, which began with the launch of Kerry Packer's circus in 1977. He is a genius, a superstar, an original. He has made the game more exciting. That's more important than whether he has been the greatest player of all.

Is he the best player of our time?

Maybe. He is the best slow bowler whose action has not been questioned; Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka, a brilliant off-spinner who explores the borders of legality, takes even more wickets per Test than Warne, for even fewer runs. And Warne's current captain, Ricky Ponting, is the best player in the world right now - the one winning the most Test matches. Three of Warne's other contemporaries are all-time greats - his opponents Brian Lara of the West Indies and Sachin Tendulkar of India, and his team-mates Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath. Gilchrist is a great attacking batsman who happens also to keep wicket (no easy task with Warne in the team).

He isn't quite a rival for the crown, but McGrath is: he is a phenomenally consistent seam bowler who, like Muralitharan, takes wickets more often than Warne and at a lower cost. McGrath has the edge over Warne in one key area: he has done well in India, where Warne has struggled (Indian batsmen play spin better than most). But he doesn't capture the imagination in the same way. Then again, cricket has a ranking system, the LG Ratings, and Warne isn't top of its list of bowlers - Muralitharan is. So you'll see that the argument goes on.

Is it even possible to measure these things?

Yes and no. Cricket is the most statistical of the non-American sports, so there is plenty of evidence. But measuring a batsman against a bowler is tricky, and you also have to bear in mind that, as someone famously said, cricket is a team game played by individuals. Lara and Tendulkar have won fewer Test matches than Warne, but then they have played in some ordinary teams. Warne is part of one of the great teams of all time. This means he deserves even more credit for the 699 wickets, since there were often other top-class bowlers, led by McGrath, competing for them; but it also means the team will have lifted him some of the way to the heights.

Is he just known for cricket?

Far from it. He has been one of the most colourful sportsmen of his time. He smokes, drinks, swears, disputes decisions and sends lecherous text messages. When match-fixing was threatening the game's fabric, it emerged that he had flirted with the illegal bookies. When he got caught taking a banned substance, he blamed his mum. The sex and drugs stories show that he has been the first rock'n'roll cricketer, the George Best of the game - except that unlike poor old Best, he has kept going, and has made full use of every ounce of his talent. We really won't see his like again.

Is Warne's achievement really unparalleled in cricket?

Yes...

* He has taken more test wickets than any other bowler in the history of the game

* He has consistently excelled in the difficult and often erratic art of leg spinning

* He has brought a larger-than-life personality and unique zest to the game

No...

* His performance as bowler cannot compare to that of Don Bradman as batsman

* Even as a bowler, his average runs per wicket has been less than that of others, including his team-mate McGrath

* His escapades off the field and his suspension for drugs have made him a poor role model for the young

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