Now that we have had the batsmen out of the way, it is time for probably the most important and vital part of the game: the bowler.
In any form of cricket, and most importantly Test cricket, the bowlers are the main match winners. If a team has bowlers who guarantee a return of 20 wickets a game, there is little poor batsman and shoddy fielders can do to stop that team from winning.
The great West Indian teams from the 1970s and '80s built their dominance on the backs of the most fearsome, fast bowlers the world has ever seen. Today the likes of Dale Steyn and Kemar Roach are proving a handful for world class batsmen across the globe, with Roach giving Australian captain Ricky Ponting an especially torrid time during West Indies’ recent tour Down Under. Now imagine a team with four such bowlers among their ranks. The picture is pretty clear.
Of course, while fast bowlers get the adrenaline pumping, the last decade and a half has seen a major shift of the cricketing spotlight from the fast bowlers to the spinners. Indeed, the sidekicks of yesteryear took such a stronghold of the world game that it was difficult to look beyond them.
So, without further ado, let’s cut to the chase.
As mentioned above, the spinners have pretty much ruled the roost in the 2000s. Many blame it on docile and dry pitches, which suit batsmen better than they do fast bowlers, and break up towards the end, bringing spinners into play on the fourth and fifth days. In the shorter formats of the game, as the average rate of run scoring has gone from five to nearly seven, the fast bowlers have become dispensable but world class spin bowlers who can bowl 10 tidy overs, even if they do so without taking a wicket, have become invaluable.
In light of these conditions faced by bowlers of the soon-to-be-concluded decade, one is tempted to view faster bowlers more leniently than slower ones.
Yet, irrespective of how much scrutiny one imposes on spinners, two names are going to crop up again and again, irrespective of which way one looks at it.
Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, the bowling avatar of the Tendulkar-Lara bloc, each threatened to take an unprecedented 1,000 Test wickets at his peak. And while the record for being the highest wicket taker, in both forms of the game, rests with the Sri Lankan they call the Smiling Assassin, the Australian is set to go down in cricketing folklore as the most charismatic cricketer of all time, apart from being a decent leg spinner.
Statistically Muralitharan has been the leading wicket taker in all forms of the game over the past two decades. Warne, meanwhile, retired from One Day Internationals way back in 2003, when, shrouded by the cloud of a failed drugs test, he was banned from the cricket World Cup in South Africa.
So does this peg Warne back in the race? Perhaps slightly, but Warne himself benefited by the reduced amount of ODIs he played, which is very evident in his Test performances post retirement, compared to pre 2003. In the end, it evens things out for the legendary leggie.
In terms of style, Warne was the ultimate entertainer. Short run up, followed by an exaggerated release, the Australian put his powerful build and strong wrists to great use. Muralitharan on the other hand was more classical in his run up, but possessed a very unorthodox release, from behind the hand with a bent elbow to boot.
While Warne was a wrist spinner who miraculously spun the ball a mile, Muralitharan literally perfected the art of finger-spinning, a painful discipline which requires mind-boggling patience to master. Both have had clashes with the authorities, Warne for drug-abuse and Muralitharan, repeatedly, for a suspect action (though he has never been found guilty).
Ultimately, the two have been master entertainers. Both have had their chinks in the armoury. India has proven a nightmare for both, with Warne getting his first and only five wicket haul in "the final frontier" for the first time on his final visit as a Test cricketer. Australia has been a difficult place for the Sri Lankan, but one has to wonder how much of it had to do with the trauma of facing accusations of being a “cheat.”
Outside the spin duo, there have been some sensational fast bowlers. Glenn McGrath, 30 in 2000, played some of his best cricket in the new millennium. Though he retired in early 2007, his 297 Test wickets and 234 ODI wickets (both at a fraction above 20) since 2000 have easily established him as the best paceman of the decade, apart from earning him the moniker of being arguably the best quickie ever.
McGrath’s amazing consistency, coupled with his ability to take wickets on any surface, cheaply has meant that, barring the Caribbean islands, he has averaged in the low 20s in almost every Test playing nation.
Indeed, it was McGrath and Warne who on their own made Australia invincible for much of the decade.
And this list would be incomplete without mentioning the third great spinner of this generation, Anil Kumble. Without a doubt India’s finest ever bowler, Kumble, a finger-spinning, leg break bowler, created a style of his own, barely turning the ball, but relying on variation of speed, line, length, and bounce to price out his prey. Kumble was an expert in wiping out the tail in the subcontinental conditions, though he didn’t begin to enjoy considerable success until the tour of Australia in 2003-04.
Kumble, India’s highest wicket taker in the decade in Tests didn’t feature much in the One Dayers, which sees him not feature among the top 20 wicket takers of the decade, yet, he remains, by some margin, one of the best finger-spinners to grace the game.
Mention must go out to the fast bowlers of the decade who suffered ruthlessly on dry and at times concrete-like pitches. Brett Lee led the bandwagon for the out and out pacemen, followed closely by Shoaib Akhtar. Both were blighted by injuries, stress fractures being the most common ailment, which never let either settle into a rhythm. Shane Bond too was victim to the flurry of injuries.
All three pacemen were abundantly gifted and looked set to take the cricketing nation by storm, yet each fell by the wayside, time and again, most recently Bond during the series against Pakistan. Lee at times came close to justifying his talent, especially in Test cricket, yet never really cemented himself as a successor to the great McGrath.
Akhtar was a curious case though. He exploded onto the world scene in the most explosive way possible, clean bowling Sachin Tendulkar himself, with a peach of a delivery. But a frail temperament, tantrums in the dressing room, and drug abuse, plus the added cloud of a suspect action, meant that Akhtar would never be the bowling great he was destined to be.
His record in all forms of the game, however brief, gives a glimpse of the potent wicket-taker Akhtar is, or was.
Few others came to the fore in a decade, which saw some of the best batting talent coupled with batting-friendly pitches.
Steve Harmisson was the best bowler in the world for a brief period between 2004 and 2006, frightening the life out of some of the best batsmen on Earth, but unwillingness to travel, and tame competitive nature meant he never really maintained standards that make a good bowler great.
Yet there were many promising signs for the future, for the coming decade, in the form of Steyn, Ishant Sharma, Asif, and Mitchell Johnson, who never made the list of contenders due to the limited number of years spent playing international cricket in the decade. The same is true for greats like Wasim Akram, Javagal Srinath, Alan Donald, and Waqar Younis.
So who gets this one? On the face of it the answer is obvious. Only one man has led both the ODI and Test tables, and that is Muralitharan. Yet, despite his astonishing number of five-wicket hauls, one man outdoes Muralitharan, and that is Glenn McGrath.
If batting averages have bloated, so have bowling averages, and to see a bowler, a fast bowler no less, average next to nothing over 20, is nothing short of a miracle. Apart from that, McGrath has excelled in every condition presented to him. Whether the dry and crumbling wickets of Sri Lanka, or green tinged wickets in humid England, McGrath has destroyed reputations of batsmen quicker than one can say “howzzat!”
While most pacemen lose their sheen when they cross their physical peak by 30, McGrath stepped on the pedal and took wickets at an even greater rate. Comparisons to old wine and new bottles were, but, expected.
Hence, for his amazing control over the art of fast bowling, especially when viewed over the backdrop of 21st-century bats and pitches, Glenn McGrath is the bowler of the decade.
Bowler of the Decade: Glenn McGrath