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Warne prepares for a battle
February 18, 2004 14:38 IST
Shane Warne heads into March as the most successful spin bowler of all time but he may well have lost that honour by the end of the month.
By then, the one man in world cricket boasting as controversial a profile as the Australian may well have deposed him.
The selectors have yet to announce whether Warne will be fast-tracked back into the world champions' squad for next month's test tour of Sri Lanka following his one-year drugs ban.
However the irrepressible Muttiah Muralitharan, he of the crooked arm and rotating wrist, will certainly be playing in all three games, getting his hands on the ball early and refusing point blank to return it when his team mates ask for a bowl.
It would be a shame if Warne, with 491 Test wickets to Muralitharan's 485, were to miss the three-match series at such an important time.
The two men, such complete contrasts in so many ways, share one thing at least -- a genius for inspiring shock and awe, affection and antipathy in equal measure. They belong on the same pitch, like the two faces of a tossed coin.
Warne is credited in large measure with saving the art of leg spin, following years of dominance by long-limbed, calypso-rhythmed pace bowlers. He has a classical action, allied to fierce spin and, at his best, extraordinary control.
His behaviour away from the square has been less appealing.
As a young larrikin, he demanded to be loved, his rebellious streak endearing rather than provocative.
His character, however, failed to keep up with his art as it rapidly evolved and matured.
His close shave with an illegal Indian bookmaker a decade ago suggested a serious lack of judgement. His roving eye tested his marriage to the limit.
He then threw away the chance of a second World Cup triumph by failing a drugs test which Warne blamed on one of his mother's slimming pills.
Muralitharan's model behaviour beyond the rope has never raised a single eyebrow. Inside it, however, the off spinner has courted controversy like no other player of his generation.
Umpires have stopped calling him for throwing since his tours to Australia in 1995-96 and 1998-99, and camera-wielding experts have exonerated him, but many in the game remain deeply uneasy about his unorthodox bowling action.
Former India great Bishen Bedi even likens him to a javelin thrower.
Sadly, Muralitharan will never escape the question mark.
The more successful he is, the more tongues will wag. In Australia in particular, they never stop.
There is no doubt that he will set a new record for Test wicket-taking in the very near future, first overhauling Warne and then the all-time mark of 519 set by Courtney Walsh.
There is little doubt that he will outlast Warne, who at 34 three years his senior. There have been suggestions that 800 Test wickets are within Murali's ambit.
He takes more wickets per match than Warne, and at a lower average. In his last 20 Tests, he has taken 145 victims to the Australian's 115 as the gap has closed inexorably between them.
For Warne, second place in spinning history can only be a matter of time. It may be just a matter of weeks.