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It should have been Lillee

THERE has been much rejoicing in Australia over the fact that Shane Warne has been named among the top five cricketers of all time, along with the likes of Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Jack Hobbs and Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. So great has been the rejoicing that there has been no critical examination of whether he was really deserving of the honour. This is probably due, in part, to the others who are part of this list because there is no way anybody can question their inclusion. And, had a British writer, or indeed one of any other nationality, debated the issue, it may have been interpreted as a case of sour grapes -- after all, there is just one Englishman on the list and only three cricket-playing countries represented in toto.

Just take a look at the man who was pipped to the post. I refer to Dennis Keith Lillee. Warne recently overtook Lillee's record for the most Test wickets by an Australian bowler. And in this day and age when lies, damn lies and statistics are all the rage in cricket, perhaps this has obscured to some extent how great a bowler Lillee really was. Let me be clear about my argument: Lillee, not Warne, deserves to be up there with those four knights of the empire.

Lillee came on the scene in an era when there was no lack of quality of fast bowlers. Indeed, during the most part of his career, he had to contend with grabbing headlines from the West Indies quicks -- and these were the fast men who emerged before the 1980s, definitely a better bunch than those who came through in the 1980s. Lillee arrived when England's John Snow was fading from the scene; world cricket had already seen the likes of David Brown, the famed West Indian duo of Griffith and Hall, and the Australian combine of Graham McKenzie and Alan Connolly. Lillee did not lack quality bowling partners either -- he had Thomson for company and later along came Max Walker and Gary Gilmour. On the other side of the world, Imran Khan and Safraz Nawaz were the talking point. In fact, world cricket has never seen such a parade of fast bowling talen as it did during the 1970s and early '80s. Yet, in this parade, Lillee shone.

Factor this in as well: most batsmen of Lillee's era had a chance to play quality fast bowling. This means they were good opponents. They were not coming up against something foreign to them. Yet he often scythed through them like a mower through grass. The truth is that Lillee was head and shoulders above all those fast bowlers of his time. They were good. He was great.

In contrast, Warne came through in an era when there were hardly any class spinners around. Spin became a dying art in the era of pace. This is the main reason why he caught the imagination. He did battle with batsmen who had very little practice of dealing with quality spin. While this is no reflection on the quality of Warne's bowling, it must be borne in mind when showering adjectives on him. Had Warne come through in the early 1970s when India had the four wizards Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra and Venkat around, I have no doubt that he would have been seen in a different light -- even though they were all off-spinners.

Bowling in tandem with the men Lillee did, it would have been tough to get wickets because every man was capable of knocking the opposition over. It would also have been tough to win matches, simply because there was so much competition. One had to grab his chance. Did Lillee fade? Did his wicket-taking decrease? Did he fail to make the headlines? A total of 355 wickets in 70 Tests is argument enough against that. How many bowlers had that level of pinpoint accuracy to be given a field of eight slips and a mid-off? It must also be asked: how many of those who sat in judgement on Lillee (and pushed him out of the five) have seen the magnificent sight of a top quality fast bowler in his prime, his mane of hair flying, moustaches a-bristle, delivering ball after ball on the same spot? Harold Larwood comes to mind, but I cannot think of anyone who had that level of accuracy.

Lillee was, no doubt, an aggressive competitor. The way he went after Javed Miandad at Perth in 1981 and almost gave the Pakistani, a master at playing the agent provocateur, a kick on his bottom is still debated whenever there is talk of spats on the field of play. But Lillee's rancour ended on the field. It did not translate into verbal abuse, it did not become malicious. Remember, this was the same man who applauded Sobers from the field in Melbourne after the West Indian all-rounder had made 254 for the Rest of World XI in 1971-72. Lillee had taken one of the biggest thrashings of his life - he took three for 133 in 30 overs after having taken five for 48 in 16 overs in the first innings. Yet, the fast bowler was ready to acknowledge the genius of the man who had just completed what Bradman rated as the best innings ever played in Australia.

Has there ever been a similar gesture by Warne? The last time he went to the West Indies, he had the chance to see two of the finest innings in the history of the game -- by one of his arch-rivals, a little fellow named Brian Lara. Warne was more full of his own woes than anything else. Warne took a great deal of stick in India in 1998 but if any reader can unearth a story about the way he stood and applauded Tendulkar, that reader is deserving of a reward. Generosity of spirit is not something that one talks about in the same breath as Shane Warne.

Warne's era has been under much more media scrutiny than the days when those chants of "Lillee, Lillee" echoed around the ground. Thus, there has been a tendency to hype things much more. And Warne has certainly benefited from this, more so from the constant TV coverage and the blubbering of incompetent commentators, a lot of them Australian, and arguably pretty jingoistic. Lillee had to contend with more of newspaper headlines and a breed of more crtitical individuals. And, boy, did he pass with flying colours!

Finally, can one ever imagine a scenario where Warne bets openly against his team and is not accused of match-fixing? Lille did this in the famous Test of 1981 which has come to be known as Botham's Test. Yet, there were no accusations against him. Nobody ever thought of questioning whether Dennis had played his heart out for his team or not. And therein lies the nub: Lillee, despite all his aggressiveness, all his yelling on the field on the field of play, all his antics (remember the aluminium bat?) never had his integrity questioned. He never took money from bookmakers (and they were around, remember the famous case which Lloyd filed in Australia and won?), he never shouted at fans, he never made gratuitous pledges for money or otherwise (like Warne's promise to stop smoking) and then attempted to prevent people from finding out if he had kept his word.

On any score, Lillee cannot be rated below Warne. Ability, talent, his personality, his recovery from injury (a back injury and one which was much more serious than Warne's shoulder injury) -- think of what you will, this man deserved that honour. But the minds of those who sit in judgement are sometimes clouded. And many have not seen Lillee in his prime. But that has also brought out one of the better sides of Lillee -- has there been any carping from the man? None at all. Had Warne been edged to sixth place, I can bet that we would have heard plenty of what the Australians call whinging. I rest my case.