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Spin bowling was in danger of dying out in the 1980s when pacemen started to dominate but thankfully it’s made a huge comeback so let’s now take a look at the best spin bowlers of all time.
Best Spinners of All Time
So just why did spin bowling make that comeback? I think that something different was needed and that was provided by the mystery spin of Murali and the sharp turn of leg spinner Shane Warne.
In turn, their success saw more spin-friendly dry pitches and that allowed more conventional bowlers such as Graeme Swann and R Ashwin to stand out. Spin bowlers still need quality but it does help to have a wider range of deliveries in the modern game.
1. Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka)
There will always be debate as to whether Muttiah Muralitharan was the better bowler but statistically, Murali has the edge. The Sri Lankan claimed his 800th test wicket and final delivery in his last test match against India in 2010 and, with 1347 victims in all international cricket, he’s way ahead of any bowler – fast or slow.
His bowling action, which came under scrutiny at times, allowed him to impart great spin on the ball. Murali had what was described as a ‘helicopter wrist’ which sent the ball down with greater revolutions to bamboozle the batsmen. This was the kind of mystery spin that the game needed when the Sri Lankan made his test debut in 1992.
2. Shane Warne (Australia)
Although they were very different bowlers, Warne and Murali’s careers ran at a parallel. The Australian also made his debut in 1992 and he would dominate teams for much of the next 15 years.
Warne reintroduced the art of leg spin and, while many have followed, there hasn’t been anyone better. His languid approach to the crease was followed by a sharp snap of the wrist which imparted significant turn. Warne also became one of the first and best spin bowlers of all time to work on new variations and they helped him claim 1001 international victims, 708 of which came in test matches.
3. Saqlain Mushtaq (Pakistan)
A man who has been credited with inventing many of the current off spinner’s variations, Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq returned some incredible statistics during an all-too brief international career.
Saqlain claimed 208 test victims which is relatively low compared with others on this list but, considering he only played 49 matches, that’s a seriously impressive return. The player also took 288 ODI wickets and continued to play first class cricket until 2008.
Saqlain now coaches but his greatest legacy to cricket is the Doosra. Bowled with an off spinner’s action, a subtle change allows the ball to turn in the opposite direction to a conventional delivery.
4. Graeme Swann (England)
Graeme Swann made his international debut in a One Day International against South Africa in 2000 but he was immediately discarded and had to wait several years for another chance. England supporters are left to wonder just how many more wickets he would have taken if the selectors had trusted him a little earlier.
He eventually came back to international cricket as a One Day Internationals specialist before finally making his test debut in 2008. Swann would go on to take 410 wickets across all three formats before having to retire in 2013.
While he was a conventional spin bowler, Graeme Swann imparted a great number of revolutions on the ball which allowed for high levels of turn and that was a significant factor in his success.
5. Anil Kumble (India)
India’s Anil Kumble was a leg spin bowler who, like Shane Warne, came to prominence in the 1990s. He was, however, unusual in the sense that he bowled with a very flat trajectory and the ball skidded through quickly.
This combination helped to make Kumble different from regulation spinners and it certainly proved effective. In 1999 in a match against Pakistan, he became only the second bowler to take all ten wickets in a test match innings.
Those figures of 10/74 helped Kumble to finish his career with 619 test wickets and he also claimed 337 victims in ODI cricket. Worth noting that he was the only leg spinner ever to become captain of the Indian cricket team.
For more info on Kumble, check out our list of the 10 best Indian spin bowlers.
6. Tabraiz Shamsi (South Africa)
Of the current crop of mystery spin bowlers, South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi is arguably the most effective. He’s one of the few left arm wrist spinners which is very unusual in the modern game and it’s rare to see anyone with that action making a serious impact.
Surprisingly, he only played two test matches between 2016 and 2018: He’s therefore seen as a one-day specialist but he has more to offer in all formats. Using stats up to and including India’s tour of South Africa in 2022, Shamsi had played 82 games at international level, taking 107 wickets.
You could say he’s a late developer but we can expect to see more impact from South Africa’s mystery man in the near future, and we think he definitely deserves to be among the best spin bowlers of all time.
7. Ravichandran Ashwin (India)
A very tall bowler, India’s R Ashwin uses his height to generate more bounce than most spin bowlers. That’s one of the key factors in his success but he will also employ great variations in his deliveries.
Those variations don’t just appear in the grip and releases. Ashwin will also change his run up and point of delivery in an attempt to confuse the batsman even further. Together with that spin and bounce, he’s been extremely effective and, at the start of 2022, Ravichandran Ashwin had claimed over 640 international wickets with a best of 7/59.
8. Jim Laker (England)
England’s Jim Laker wrote himself into the history books by becoming the first bowler to ever take all ten wickets in a test innings. Obviously, that’s an incredible feat but it’s made even more remarkable by the fact that Laker claimed 19 wickets in the match.
The game in question came when England faced old rivals Australia in Manchester in 1956. In damp conditions at Old Trafford, the tourists had no answer to the spinners and Laker claimed figures of 9/37 in the Aussies’ first innings. In the second innings, he went one better with a stunning return of 10/53.
While that was the highlight of his career, Jim Laker was an effective bowler throughout his 11 years in test cricket, claiming 193 wickets in just 46 matches.
9. Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka)
Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath played test cricket into his 40s and he was a wily bowler who loved to outfox batters with his flight and turn. A left arm spinner, his delivery and action were quite conventional, but that flight and drift was enough to make him stand out from his contemporaries.
Herath played 93 test matches, taking 433 wickets while he also claimed 92 victims in limited overs internationals.
10. Abdul Qadir (Pakistan)
Before Shane Warne came into the game, Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir flew a lone flag for leg spinners. There were others trying to perfect the art but Qadir was the true master at a time when pace bowling ruled.
He played 67 test matches between 1977 and 1990, claiming 236 wickets with exceptional best figures of 9/56. His sharp spin wasn’t quite as effective in limited overs games, but Qadir still took 132 wickets in 104 ODIs.
11. Derek Underwood (England)
Derek Underwood’s test match career ran from 1966 and 1982 and it came at a time when the pacemen were starting to dominate cricket. As a spinner, players needed something different to stand out and ‘Deadly’ Derek certainly provided that.
Underwood was a left armer who used a longer run up and bowled at a much quicker pace than most spin bowlers in any era. That combination of turn and extra pace helped him earn 297 wickets at test level which remains a record for an English spinner. Through the era of uncovered wickets, Underwood was virtually unplayable but he continued to return productive spells once the covers were introduced.
12. Daniel Vettori (New Zealand)
Perhaps the most underrated player on this list, New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori did exceptionally well to get to the top level in home conditions which traditionally favour seam bowling.
He was another tall bowler with a high point of delivery which allowed for bounce to add an effective weapon to spin.
A left armer, Vettori retired with an impressive tally of 362 wickets in 113 test matches. With 343 international victims in the two limited overs formats, he’s widely regarded as New Zealand’s greatest ever spinner.
Promising Spin Bowlers
The art of spin bowling seems to be in good hands as we move forward. Some would argue that Nathan Lyon is a little unlucky to have missed out on this list, having passed 400 test wickets in the 2021/22 Ashes series with England.
Lyon should play at the highest level for a few more years while there are some exceptional young spin bowlers coming through. The standout in terms of returns is New Zealand’s Ajaz Patel who, in 2021, joined that exclusive club of players to take all ten wickets in an innings.
Patel’s magnificent effort came against India and he’s clearly one to watch for the future. The list of other high quality spinners coming through includes Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Yuzvendra Chahal, Keshav Maharaj and Rachin Ravindra.