Cricket Expert & Columnist
The Kings of spin
Is Warne or Murali the best ever? Mike Atherton gives his verdict and reflects on England's loss.
Last Updated: 06/12/07 10:44am
After some dogged resilience in Kandy on day five, England finally succumbed to Sri Lanka in the first Test.
What will have surprised many of our viewers is that it wasn't Muttiah Muralitharan who wreaked the havoc in the second innings as he had to wait until 248 runs were on the board before taking England's seventh wicket, ending the resistance of Matt Prior.
He soon added Ian Bell and Ryan Sidebottom to his record-breaking six wickets in the first innings and Murali had played a big part, as expected, in this match. Who knows how far he can go now? He can probably nudge 1000 and set a record that will stand, not forever perhaps, but for a long time.
By becoming the world's leading wicket-taker in Test cricket during this match, Murali re-ignited the debate about who is the greater of him and Shane Warne, the man whose record he passed.
I think Warne is a better bowler. He is the greatest spinner I have ever seen, but you are talking about a matter of degree because these are the two best spinners of the modern game.
I have always thought that Murali had a freakish genius that no one else can replicate. I can't imagine anyone running up and bowling like him. Whereas Warne is actually just an orthodox leg spinner - albeit a brilliant one - I always felt the difference with Warne is that he has a keener cricketing mind.
Murali has this freakish brilliance and the ability to spin the ball more than Warne but Warne is more of a cricketer at heart and has more able to work out a batsman better. Murali sometimes get stuck against a batsman playing well and will just keep wheeling away without any thought of change of plan.
As I say it is only a matter of degree and England need to find a way to combat him if they are to take something from this series. Each batsman will have his own way of playing him, so you just can't say, 'this is how we must play to prevent him getting a hold on us'. The way that Kevin Pietersen plays will be different from the way Michael Vaughan does.
What is important is that each batsman has a clear idea before he goes out there how he might wish to play, whether it is batting further over to off to open up the leg side, sweeping, or using your feet. It is an obvious thing to say that you must score off some of the other bowlers too.
For all the talk of Murali though I suppose the game was lost in Sri Lanka's second innings and England have got to get their thinking caps on and work out how they are going to bowl at Kumar Sangakkara and how they are to get him out.
He was obviously the key difference between the two teams. Most of the batsmen struggled by and large on the surface - Ian Bell is the exception for England - but Sangakkara timed the ball superbly and the runs scored by him and Sri Lanka on the third and fourth days were what pulled the game away from England.
Sangakkara scored over 200 runs in the match, became the first player to score 150 or more in four consecutive Tests and has now scored a hundred against every Test nation. It was quite a Test match for him and he clearly is a high class player at the top of his game. So what are the options for England?
They could try some off-spin to turn the ball away from his bat. Given the next two Tests are in Colombo and Galle, playing two spinners might have been in the game plan anyway.
They are also going to have to replace Matthew Hoggard and so that could mean a place for Steve Harmison and he, if selected, will offer a different test with a bit more height, pace and bounce. So there are a couple of options for England to test Sangakkara.
Another player who stuggled less with the pitch than some of the others was Sanath Jayasuriya and of course we have seen him for the last time in a Test match.
I missed the defeat at the Oval in 1998 when he smashed a double hundred in quick time to set up victory for Sri Lanka but I have played against him a lot. He has been a revolutionary player and he will be remembered for the way he changed the one-day game, in particular at the 1996 World Cup, pinch-hitting superbly at the top of the order.
But he is much more than one-day player as hit Test record shows. There are weaknesses in his game - you felt on a bouncy pitch that he was vulnerable when the ball darted around (but who isn't?) - but essentially he has been a high class performer with the bat and he has 98 Test wickets too. He is a genuine, all-round cricketer for Sri Lanka.
England won't have to worry about him when they start again in Colombo on Sunday but there is still Murali and Sangakarra and a hard fight ahead to level the series.