Sunday, April 10, 2011

Who is the greatest cricketer of all time?

Since its interception, cricket has produced many great players—batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders. There are many masters of their own specialty, yet there are few all-rounders—the true cricketer. This is because excelling at every facet of the game is particularly demanding on the body and mind. However, there have been a number of fortunate souls who have been able to withstand the rigours of top-level cricket and etched their name into the list of top batsman, bowlers and on the rare occasion, fielders.

Dr William Gilbert Grace (W.G. Grace) is a name that would easily roll off the tongue of an Englishman, despite last gracing the first-class cricket field in 1908. Many argue that despite only having a mediocre record in twenty-two Tests, Grace made modern cricket as we know it. He scored 54,896 first class runs (at 39.55), scored 126 centuries and 244 fifties in 872 matches. Along with this, he took 2876 first-class wickets (at 17.92), captured five wickets in an innings 246 times and ten wickets in a match on 66 occasions. Grace was a dominant batsman in his era—as most top-quality batsman averaged around twenty, extremely low compared to today’s standards. This was because pitches were usually no different to the rest of the luscious, green playing surface, thus providing uneven and concerning movement. As a fielder, the Englishman was considered a sure catch and a good fieldsman, often in the cover and point regions.

Though Grace’s resume is indeed remarkable, there is no doubt that West Indian Sir Garfield Sobers is the greatest international all-rounder of all-time. Not only was he a great batsman, bowler and fieldsman, he had something no other great all-rounder possessed—a variety of left-arm bowling styles. Sir Donald Bradman—the greatest batsman and many believe cricketer of all-time—described Sobers as a “five-in-one cricketer” (batsman, fieldsman and three-in-one bowler). [Armstrong, p. 24] He could open the bowling with in-swingers to the right handed batmen, before bowling his two styles of spin—left-arm orthodox and wrist spin. His effectiveness as a bowler, however, was nullified by being the West Indies’ leading batsman for most of his career. Sobers averaged 72 as a number three batsman and 64 at number four, but 107 of his 160 Test innings were at five, six or seven in the order, mainly because of the need to rest from bowling. Sobers’ long individual batting efforts—including twenty-six centuries—may have also affected his inflated Test bowling average of 34 because he would often already be fatigued before beginning his bowling spell. This, and being part of a team which had two of the world’s best fast bowlers—Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith—and accomplished off-spinner Lance Gibbs at its disposal. Sobers mostly had to bowl into the wind when playing with the two faster men, before having to bowl long, defensive spells after their retirement, therefore decreasing the possibly of taking wickets.

Sobers was also a brilliant fielder and inventive captain. Leading cricket website, Cricinfo, says “His catching close to the wicket may have been equalled but never surpassed, and he was a brilliant fielder anywhere.” Former Australian captain Richie Benaud described Sobers as "the greatest all-round cricketer the world has seen". Sobers was "a brilliant batsman, splendid fielder, particularly close to the wicket, and a bowler of extraordinary skill, whether bowling with the new ball, providing orthodox left-arm spin or over-the-wrist spin,” according to the Australian. [Armstrong, p. 23] Sobers’ captaincy style also impressed many. A year after his career ended in 1974, Sobers was knighted due to his services to cricket.
Nonetheless, statistically, Sobers may not have the best international record as an all-rounder. This title could quite easily go to South African Jacques Kallis. In a career slowly coming to a close, he has played a colossal 140 Tests, 303 One Day Internationals and sixteen Twenty20 Internationals. Although Kallis will be most remembered for his batting and technique—that is about as hard to crack as his limitless concentration—the all-rounder’s workmanlike 500-plus international wickets ranks him alongside great South African bowlers. These wickets and nearly 22,000 international runs should put him in the top echelon of players, but a public perception of selfish batting seems to stop him being put in the class of great cricketers. Kallis is also a batsman who takes time to score runs—striking at 44.52 per hundred balls in Tests, significantly slower than the dominate batsman of the past fifteen-twenty years. He therefore fails to dominate a bowling attack in the vein of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting and Virender Sehwag.
There are many more all-rounders that may be considered as the best; Imran Khan, Keith Miller, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Alan Davidson all make a compelling case, however in my opinion, none are in the class of Sir Garfield Sobers.

Cricket’s five leading Test wicket-takers—Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh—may not all receive the same amount of attention as cricket’s five leading run-scorers or batsman, though they are all great. Three of the five are spinners, with Shane Warne being the only leg-spinner in the top twenty-five leading wicket-takers. Warne, however, will always be regarded as one of the greatest and most famous cricketers. His many off-field misdemeanours and on-field success may never be topped. He revolutionised the art of leg spin bowling after former Australian leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly wrote how he feared “the art of leg-spinning is in danger of disappearing from the game”. [Armstrong, p. 25] Warne grew up in the eighties, a decade of fast bowling. Captains believed quicker men were far more likely to capture wickets and spinners gave away far too many runs. Nonetheless, Warne, after initially bowling medium pace as an adolescent, finished his career as the leading Test wicket-taker in 2007 (708 wickets). Another spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, soon overtook Warne’s record and finished his Test career with 800 wickets—well ahead of the Glenn McGrath, whose 563 wickets are the most from a quick bowler.

Finally we get to batsman—and they are in abundance: Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Jack Hobbs, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Vivian Richards, Len Hutton, Victor Trumper, Sunil Gavasker, Greg Chappell, Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott; the list could go on and on. Bradman’s credentials are obvious as I touched on earlier in the Bodyline article, but apart from Tendulkar, the rest are extremely difficult to split; definitely not as influential as a man like Sobers, Miller, Botham or Imran Khan.

Although Bradman will go down in history as the greatest cricketer, the question is, who would be more valuable—Sobers or Bradman? I think because of his batting record alone, Bradman would have to be regarded as the greatest cricketer. But if I had to choose my own side, I would select Sobers. I came to this opinion after significant research and a personal preference for having an all-rounder instead of a one-dimensional player in my side. In Tests or a four-day first-class game, I would have to toss a coin on who to choose. Though, Sobers would, in my opinion, be more valuable than Bradman in the shorter formats of the game—ODI and Twenty—because the Australian would not have time to achieve his remarkable Test batting feats, thus nullifying his effectiveness. Even if Sobers failed with the bat, he could unleash an inspired spell of fast bowling, before cleaning up the tail with his spinners—something Bradman would be unable to do. However, I am sure you would take either player any day of the week. It is extremely difficult to compare cricketers from different generations, let alone to cricketers who have basically never played in the newest two formats of cricket (Sobers played one ODI). Though, in summary, an all-rounder gives a team more variety and stability than a player who has just one specialty.

Armstrong, Geoff (2006). The 100 Greatest Cricketers. Sydney, Australia: New Holland Publishers. ISBN 174110439-4.


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