DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not reflective of the website as a whole.
Cricket has gone a sea of change in the last 20 years. The evolution of fast, batting friendly wickets, smaller grounds, better bats and an overall attacking mentality has seen the game become more batsman oriented in these two decades. While this has added to the excitement factor as well as a growth in attendances for matches, it has brought about a rapid decline of those fearsome bowlers of the golden era.
Bowlers these days have become supporting acts in the team, with batsmen hogging the limelight most of the times. There have been several bowlers however, who have stamped their undeniable authority on the game and have become all time greats. The following list is only of the best test bowlers in the last twenty years, since this period has seen a revolution in the way the game is played.
10. Allan Donald
Allan Donald is to South African cricket what Malcom Marshall was to West Indies. Fast, fearsome, with a permanent scowl on his face and a phenomenal control on the ball.
Donald was a genius when it came to making great use of the red ball, and was a genuine match winner for South Africa. His 330 wickets was a national record before Shaun Pollock broke it a few years later.
Donald though was beyond numbers; the psychological effect he had on batsmen was terrifying. Some of his greatest duels have been with arguably the best players on the planet, and some like with Tendulkar in 1996 or Atheron in 1998 are part of Test Cricket folklore. Donald has booked his place in history as one of the all time greats of modern day cricket.
9. Courtney Walsh
Walsh was the first fast bowler to break the 500 wicket mark, and 519 wickets in 132 tests at under 25 runs per wicket is an excellent record to have. He wasn’t express pace, but his accuracy and discipline was second to none and he was notoriously difficult to score off. He was also capable of bowling long spells at a time, and along with Curtly Ambrose formed one of the most lethal opening partnerships in world cricket.
The paradox in his nature was, unlike his aggressive contemporaries, he didn’t display that in-your-face aggression so common with fast bowlers. He was rather known for his exemplary sportsmanlike conduct on the field, and was without doubt one of the finest exponent of seam bowling in cricket.
8. Curtly Ambrose
Unlike his new ball bowling partner, Curtly Ambrose was very much the opposite of gentle. His verbal duels are as famous as the ones with bat and ball, and batsmen preferred walking away rather than getting involved in a war of words with the 6 foot 7 inch giant. If 405 wickets in just 98 tests isn’t amazing enough, an average of 20.99 per wicket is simply spectacular.
Ambrose had the knack of bowling a very tight line, and his height helped him extract more bounce than was usually possible. As a result, not only was he difficult to score against, it was sometimes difficult for batsmen to get bat to ball when Ambrose was in full flow.
Some of his best performances have been against Australia in Australia, where the wickets were favourable to his bowling. 7 wickets for 1 run is scarcely believable, but those were his figures in a 32 ball spell described by Wisden as “one of the most devastating spells of fast bowling”.
7. Saqlain Mushtaq
The man credited as being the first bowler to produce the doosra, Saqlain Mushtaq was part of possibly the best bowling attack in the early 90s. Mushtaq was a wily bowler with plenty of variations in his armoury, and used his doosra to a great effect throughout his career.
The doosra is the opposite of an off spinner’s traditional delivery, it has the same trajectory as the standard ball but spins the opposite way and is extremely difficult to pick. 208 wickets in 49 tests may not make for great numbers as compared to others on this list, but he was just as feared by the batsmen as the others.
6. Anil Kumble
India’s first and only name on this list. Anil Kumble was India’s greatest match winner for the best part of 18 years, and 619 wickets in 132 matches puts him third on the all time highest wicket takers list. He wasn’t a great spinner of the ball but used variations in pace and the odd wrong one to fool batsmen.
He became the second bowler after Jim Laker to take all ten wickets in an innings; a feat he achieved against Pakistan in 1999. His never say die attitude has been exemplary, motivating the whole team with his inspired bowling efforts.
One notable incident is the 2002 tour of West Indies when in the fourth test in Antigua Kumble was hit on his jaw while batting. Despite sustaining a fracture, Kumble stepped out to bowl and sent down 14 consecutive overs taking the crucial wicket of Brian Lara. It was this inspirational attitude of his that made him one of the game’s greats.
5. Waqar Younis
Had it not been for the chronic back problems and the extra burden of captaincy, Younis might have ended his career at the best of all time. Nonetheless, 373 wickets in 87 test matches at a phenomenal strike rate of 43 balls per wicket is a superb record. His mantra was simple; keep it fast, keep it full.
The banana yorkers were aimed at either destroying the batsman’s stumps or his toes, and they landed with ferocious pace and a deadly accuracy. Along with his bowling partner in Wasim Akram, Younis was one of the best in the business when it came to reversing the ball; a quality that earned them the nickname “Sultans of Swing”.
One of cricket’s most loved personalities, McGrath’s behaviour on and off the field was befitting his nickname Pigeon. He is the highest wicket taker amongst fast bowlers, with 563 scalps to his name. He is also hailed as one of the pillars of the tremendous success that Australia enjoyed through the 1990s.
McGrath wasn’t of those Australian breed of fast, fearsome aggressive bowlers who would be breathing down your neck at all times. He was blessed with an extraordinary control over the ball and was perhaps the most accurate bowler the world has ever seen. He holds the record of dismissing a single batsman most number of times – Michael Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in his career.
3. Shane Warne
One of cricket’s most famous moments is that of Mike Gatting being bowled by a viciously turning delivery that pitched way outside leg and turned in to take the batsman’s off stump. The man behind the delivery, Shane Warne, is just as famous as his Ball of the Century.
Shane Warne’s brilliant career on the field was matched with infamous scandals off it, making him the proverbial bad boy of cricket. One shouldn’t overlook his stats though as his 708 scalps are the second best on the all time list. Warne was without doubt the greatest leg spinner to ever play the game, and he was noted for being able to turn the ball at astonishing angles, as a certain Andrew Strauss would be able to confirm.
He was also selected by Wisden in 2000 as one of the five cricketers of the century, and was the only one still playing cricket at the time of receiving this honour.
2. Wasim Akram
Without doubt, the best fast bowler of this era. He was a master at swinging the ball, new or old. One of the founders of the reverse swing, he also had the ability to move the ball both ways in one delivery; a feat that only he has been able to achieve till now.
With Waqar Younis, Akram formed the core of one of the best bowling attacks of all time. The Sultans of Swing, as they were known, were capable of ripping through just about any line up on their day.
Many great batsmen of his era, including the likes of Ponting and Lara, paid their compliments to him saying he was the best bowler they had faced. Akram had the ability for swinging the ball both ways, but his inswinging yorker was perhaps the best delivery of its kind ever seen in cricket.
Akram was also instrumental in Pakistan winning the World Cup in 1992, with his superb second spell in England’s innings earning him a deserved man of the match in the final. With 414 wickets in just 104 tests, Akram made his mark on cricket with his beautiful, controlled swing bowling and inspired leadership as a captain.
Muralitharan tops the highest wicket takers list with a mind boggling 800 wickets in 133 test matches at a miserly average of 22.92. On that account alone he could be called the greatest bowler ever, but his bowling inspired awe from the batsmen like no other bowler ever could.
He is the game’s first and only wrist spinning off spinner, and can bowl three to four types of deliveries with almost no discernible changes in his action. This makes it extremely difficult to pick him since both his stock delivery and the doosra are bowled with a near identical action.
Although his bowling action was called into suspect several times during his career, he was never banned from bowling since he had a congenital defect in his bowling arm which made it impossible for him to straighten it while bowling. The rules of the game regarding bowling hand angles while delivery were subsequently changed to accommodate such anomalies.
Murali also holds the unique record of getting 10 wickets in a test match against all the other 9 test playing nations and averages a staggering 6 wickets per test match. Without a shred of doubt, the greatest bowler the game has seen.