World Cricket Podcast May 15, 2012

The Sobers-Kallis debate resolved for the final time ever

Stats that prove who the world's best allrounder is. Also readers' questions answered

Andy Zaltzman goes where no man has gone before to get stats that prove who the world's best allrounder is, while also finding time to answer other readers' questions.

Download the podcast here (mp3, 14.3MB, right-click to save).


For those of you unable to stream or download the audio of the World Cricket Podcast, here is a link to a transcript of this month's show. However, it is supposed to be listened to, not read. So I would prefer that you listened to it. Or played it on your sound system during a party, to make your guests think there is a strange man wittering on about cricket in the corner. Or, at least, read it with either my voice or Richie Benaud's voice in your head. Thanks. AZ.

Hello Cricket fans, and welcome to the May 2012 edition of Andy Zaltzman's World Cricket Podcast.

I am Andy Zaltzman, and although I have few credentials as a cricketer, I can claim that I would have been WG Grace's nephew, if my dad had been born 100 years before he was and had hit it off with one of WG's four sisters. Although if that had happened, I would probably have been born in around 1860, and by now I would be a very cranky old man complaining that all my friends had died 80 years ago or more and that Twenty20 isn't real cricket, and going on about how WG's beard was obviously a fake and he hid a mouse in it that had psychic powers that could tell what ball a bowler was going to bowl at him and convey the information through coded squeaks.

In fact, if you look at old photos, you can see that, at drinks breaks, when other players were brought a glass of lime cordial or methylated spirits, depending on whether they were amateurs or professionals, WG would be brought some small cubes of cheddar, which he would ferret away in his fake beard for little Mookie The Magic Mouse to nibble upon in between overs.

I digress. On this month's podcast: I will exclusively reveal the result of the 1972 Ashes - it was 2-2. I will reveal who was responsible for the gruesome murder of England legend Wilfred Rhodes. It was old age. He was 95. Case closed. And I will tell you all about my own first game of cricket as a player for over two years, last Sunday. Cancelled. Waterlogged pitch.


Well, I appear to have covered everything I wanted to cover in this podcast. That's me done. Just time for a quick Question and Answer session, with the questions you submitted to my @ZaltzCricket twitter feed.

A couple of IPL-related questions first. The IPL is cricket's golden goose, and it's been honking about its business quite perkily of late, with a series of dramatic finishes, not to mention Danny Morrison's continued expansion of human understanding of what can come out of a person's mouth when you stick a microphone in front of it.

@diggoblick asks: "Was Shaun Tait's recent at-the-death bowling the worst such example in professional cricket?"

Well, I assume you're referring to Tait's bowling in the Rajasthan Royals' spectacular defeat to the Chennai Quite Super Kings in Jaipur last week, rather than their convincing win over the Pune Worriers on Sunday, in which Tait bowled the 17th and 19th overs at a combined cost of eight runs for one wicket, albeit with the game already more in the bag than a kleptomaniac glutton's tub of ice cream on the way out of the frozen food aisle in a supermarket. Whatever you think of Tait, to call 1 for 8 off two the worst example of death bowling in professional cricket would seem a little harsh on the lad.

However, his spell of 0 for 12 off one ball against Chennai was, certainly, less good. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that, when the other team needs 12 to win off two overs, being smashed for six then bowling a no-ball followed by flinging a wide to the boundary is, at best, tactically questionable.

In fact, being a rocket scientist would be of no help in that matter. You would probably have no interest in cricket, being focused quite rightly on the more pressing matter of how to fire dogs into space, or whatever it is they put in rockets these days. (Incidentally, did you know that when the Soviet Union fired Laika to cosmohound into space in 1957, they fired another rocket just beforehand with a stick in it?) (You learn something every day.)

However, in Tait's defence, the damage had been done by Pankaj Singh and Shane Watson conceding 35 in the previous two overs, enabling Chennai to turn a near-perfect demonstration of how not to chase 126 to win a T20 match - combine scoring bafflingly slowly with hitting the ball in the air straight to fielders and a sub-infantile run-out, and bingo, you suddenly need 12 an over off four overs ‒ into a near-perfect demonstration of how to score those 12 an over off four overs. And the best way to do that is by scoring 22 an over off 2.1 overs. Bingo. Sure, Tait supplied the final coup de incompetent grace, but Pankaj and Watson's death bowling provided the CPR to jot CSK back to life.

And it's nice to just see Tait bowl. Like several of his fast bowling contemporaries, he hasn't played enough cricket. And anyone that can wang it down at 150kph is worth watching. Particularly when he might go for 12 off one ball.

@glyncunningham asks: "'He bats like no-one else. Chris Gayle is cricketing porn.' Discuss."

Well, I imagine he makes the IPL's accountants quite excited, if that's what you mean. He is a majestic sight in full flow, a man who can hit a cricket ball as if trying to recreate the Big Bang. It's just a shame that full flow won't be seen in the Tests in England. Filling that flow would of course be much more difficult against the swinging ball on soggy pitches in May against one of the finest seam attacks England has ever fielded, but still. Cricket's calendar is a mess. The Tests are without Gayle, the IPL is without Pietersen, and both contests are poorer for it.

Please sort it out, whoever's running cricket. It would help if the IPL didn't keep expanding like Inzamam's tummy, but something has to be done. That golden goose might get stroppy, and might peck all the other geese to death. And then you're just left with one cocky, obstreperous golden goose laying shiny but inedible eggs.

Moving on…

@nintendo_jones asks: "Do you think the rise of R&B music in the Caribbean is directly responsible for the fall of West Indian cricket?"

Well, no. I think it has nothing to do with it. I admit I am a bit out of the loop on contemporary R&B, and it is always worth blaming music for something. A recent British government minister blamed hip hop music for gun crime. Which, in a way, was a bit like a 19th century politician blaming JMW Turner for stormy seas. There you go, not many cricket podcasts with a JMW Turner joke. You're welcome.

But let's hope the impending Test series between England and the once-great West Indies is competitive. West Indies have been roundly hammered on their last three tours here, and recent form suggests they are going to struggle again, particularly if Chanderpaul and Bravo keep having to rebuild at 25 for 3.

Recently, the West Indies top three have been not so much vulnerable as ceremonial, a vestige of cricket tradition where you feel obliged to have three batsmen coming in before your No. 4.

There have been shoots of recovery, but there have been more false dawns in West Indian cricket than there have been through the window of an insomniac who lives next to a lighthouse. They have now got half a decent side, if not yet a half-decent side, if that makes sense. But if their top order can somehow lay a couple of reasonable platforms, they might be able to build a station from which a train of success might chug. Although, my prediction is 3-0 to England, unless it rains.

@Yandisa asks: "When was the last time that England didn't have a South-African-born player in their starting 11?"

The answer, for Tests, is April 2004 in Antigua, and for ODIs, November 2003 in Dhaka, respectively the last Test and ODI before the South African-born but obviously English Andrew Strauss made his debuts in each format. Since then, one or more of Strauss, Pietersen (a bit less obviously English), Prior (who moved to England aged 11, and has an English daddy), and Trott (not the most English of Englishmen, but not the least either) have been in the side.

But remember: what happened last time England took the field with no South Africans in the team? Brian Lara smashed 400 and West Indies racked up 750 for 5. Since then, no batsman has scored a quadruple-century against England, and no team has scored 750 against them. Point proved. Admittedly, neither of those things had happened before, but point proved. Merely having South African-born players in England's team, even if none of them are bowlers, clearly inhibits opposition batsmen and stops them scoring all the quadruple-hundreds they used to score so regularly. That's good enough for me. Plus the fact that the ECB have recently tightened the qualification rules. That helps too.

But, overall, I don't know what all the fuss is about. Other teams have far more South African-born players in than England do. South Africa, for example. Besides, if it wasn't for the English arriving in South Africa in the first place, they wouldn't even play cricket. They would only play the sports the Dutch settlers took with them in the 17th century ‒ traditional Dutch pastimes such as Tulip Waggling, Windmill Whizzing, Clogball, portrait painting, and canal snouting. Technically, we should be allowed to pick any South African we want. Can we start with AB de Villiers, please?

The second half of England's summer, though, should be much closer. Which brings me neatly to this question:

@momobaig: "Alec Stewart claims Kallis is in same class as Sobers as an all-rounder. Therefore my question is: what recreational drugs is Alec Stewart on?"

Ohhhh, I tell you what this question needs. Captain Stat, the indefatigable Numerical Cricketing Superhero.

But he's pulled a hamstring, so you're going to have to put up with me instead.

Their Test career stats are eerily similar. Sobers scored just over 8000 runs at an average of 57.78; Kallis' currently has over 12000 at 56.78 (although if you take out matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, where Kallis has cashed in big, his average drops to 54.2) (that is still a useful average) (and even if you do that, he's still averaged 60+ against everyone else combined over more than a decade since 2001) (hasn't he done well?) (the answer to that question is, yes he has done well).

As bowlers, again they are well matched. Sobers took 235 wickets at 34, Kallis has scalped 276 at 32. However, Sobers' averaged 2.5 wickets per match compared to Kallis' 1.8, and taking out Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the South African's bowling average shuffles up to 35.

Still not much between them. How about in the field? Sobers averaged 1.17 catches per Test; Kallis' figure is… wait for it… 1.19.

In ODIs, Kallis has unquestionably has the edge. Sobers' 0 runs at an average of 0 in one ODI and one career wicket, compare unfavourably with Kallis' 11500 runs at 45 and 270 wickets at 31, but I think we can probably excuse Sobers for that, and assume that, if his parents had waited another 40 or so years before having their little baby Garfield, as Kallis' parents waited before bestowing baby Jacques upon the world, then Sobers would probably have averaged rather better than 0 in ODIs, and would as we speak have been on the gun-toting grandmother of all IPL contracts. And probably be unavailable for the forthcoming Test series in England.

So far, so close. We're going to need more evidence. Let's look at the peaks of these two great cricketers' careers. Both came into Test cricket young, Sobers as a 17-year-old spinner, and both took time to come into their own. Sobers hit his straps in the Pakistan early in 1958. And those straps stayed hit. Up to that point, the Barbados Beethoven had averaged 30 in 15 Tests. Over the next 13 years, until the end of the series against India early in 1971, Sobers played 67 Tests, and averaged 66. He was, comfortably, the greatest batsman in the world - five runs an innings ahead of his nearest challengers, Graeme Pollock and Ken Barrington, and almost 12 ahead of the fourth best of that timespan, the young early-peaking Australian whippersnapper Doug Walters.

Kallis exploded into life in the New Year's Test of 1999, before which he had also averaged just 30, in 22 Tests. The Cape Town Colossus scored 110, his third Test 100, and 88 not out against West Indies. In the 13 and a bit years since then, he has averaged 61, also top of international list for that time period, just ahead of Andy Flower and surprise package Darryl Cullinan (neither of whom played anywhere near as many Tests in that period), and six runs an innings ahead of his fellow modern legends Tendulkar, Ponting, Sangakkara, Lara and Inzamam.

So I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that both men have proved themselves to be handy operators at the top level of cricket. Both have been statistically pre-eminent in their eras. But Sobers has been more pre-eminent. Only six players averaged over 50 in that 1958-1971 period of Sobers' pomp (out of the 171 who played 10 or more Tests), compared with 22 in the Kallis 1999-now era (out of 339 players) - so, pro rata, twice as many Kallis contemporaries as Sobers simultaneites (is that a word?) (it is now) have averaged over 50. Sobers was more extraordinary, in an era less dominated by the bat.

Also, stats fans, whilst Sobers was averaging 66, the rest of the West Indies top six averaged 41; and the rest of the world's top six batsmen 37. Whilst Kallis has averaged 61, the rest of South Africa's top six has averaged 43, and the rest of the world's top six 38. So allowing for the slight vagaries of nightwatchmen piddling around with my stats, as a top-six batsman at his peak, Sobers was 61% better than his team mates and 79% better than all of his global contemporaries combined. Kallis has been 42% better than his team mates and 58% better than his collective contemporaries. Making Sobers around 40% more pre-eminent amongst his peers than Kallis has been amongst his. And making the last 90 minutes that I've spent working that out, amongst the most pointless of my life. And that, friends, is an extremely hotly contested title.

And all this before we have weighed into the equation the fact that Sobers was unfeasibly cool ‒ one of the most stylish sportsmen of all time, and a cricketer who made you get down on your knees and give thanks to any available god who happened to be listening for the invention of cricket. All of which, with respect to one of the greatest exponents of the game and arguably the finest all-round technician the game has ever seen, Kallis struggles to match.

So, in answer to your question, @MomoBaig, Alec Stewart is, as you would expect of Alec Stewart, on no form of recreational drug whatsoever. Kallis is in the same class as Sobers as an allrounder. The highest class. But Sobers is slightly higher up that class. A class in which there have not many pupils throughout cricket history.

A few more quick questions…

@magicdarts: "Which is uglier? The hell of war, or Graeme Smith playing an on drive?"

Close call. On balance, I probably go for the hell of war, but I've never actually seen it first-hand. Whereas I have seen Graeme Smith's on-drive first-hand, and required several weeks of counselling before I was prepared to accept there was still the possibility of beauty in the universe.

@post2sharath: "What do you think would happen to state of "Test Cricket" in next 15 years?"

I don't know. I don't want to think about it right now. I'm feeling a little delicate and emotional. Don't take my one true love away. In cricketing terms. In case my wife is listening. I'll address this question in more detail in a blog in a couple of weeks.

@osamaakram: "Doesn't Socialism appeal to you because of its promise of reduced labour hours? All the time for #heavenlytestcricket… aahhhh."

I think that is what was on Karl Marx's mind when he scribbled out Das Kapital in his 1860s London home - "how can I develop a system of economics that maximises my chances of nipping down to The Oval for a couple of hours?" I guess it also depends what kind of Socialism. The Stalin kind wouldn't have left many hours for Test cricket, once you'd taken out all the time you had to spend trudging around a Siberian prison camp, and dying. And personally, I'd back myself to make time for "heavenly Test cricket" whatever the prevailing economic model of government. As I think the last 30 years of my life would testify.

@alec_everlone: "Is bodyline acceptable in back-garden cricket with my two-year-old niece?"

Yes. A win's a win. Toughen the girl up. She'll thank you for it later in life. Although bodyline for a two-year-old basically works out as leg stump half-volleys, so I wouldn't recommend it from the point of view of your own bowling.


Thanks for all your questions, and I am deeply and eternally sorry if I did not have time to answer your one. But life is a cruel mistress, and we must rebound from such heartaches stronger and more determined. Chins up.

That's it for this edition of the World Cricket Podcast. Enjoy the closing stages of the IPL. To be honest, it's not my bag, but it is a bit more my bag than it was a few weeks ago. I don't mind it in itself, although it lacks much of what I truly love about cricket. It's just I don't want it to ruin everything. Which I think is a legitimate concern.

And enjoy the England-West Indies series. Although I fear the people who will enjoy it most are those who enjoy the sight of maroon helmets looking mournfully backwards towards an exultant slip cordon.

Bye bye. Thanks be to cricket. Amen.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer