September 4, 2007

Flawed yet fascinating

Shane Warne's list of the top 50 cricketers of his time is everything a list ought to be: provocative, surprising, talked-about, and, in places, plain wrong

Of Steve Waugh's 32 Test centuries, 25 led to victories, yet Shane Warne called him a match-saver, not a match-winner © Getty Images
Cricket generates a lot of lists. So do the modern media. There are now so many lists coming at you that even a list-lover may be left feeling a little listless. But Shane Warne's list of the top 50 cricketers of his time, published last week in The Times, bucked the trend. It was everything a list ought to be: provocative, surprising, talked-about, and, in places, plain wrong.

Most players who have columns are about as good at writing as journalists are at batting and bowling, but Warne is one of the exceptions. He always has opinions and where others might soften them to spare their fellow pros' feelings, he is more than happy to give offence. He takes the same approach with his top 50. He throws himself into it, grasping that, just like any other game, it wouldn't be fun if you didn't take it seriously.

The Warne we know and love, or hate, or both, is on full view here. He cheats, in a minor way: three times he places two players level, and he forgets that if you have two people at 27th, you can't then have one at 28th. In fact, he has two more at 28th, and another two for good measure at 29th, so his top 30 is a top 33.

He also settles a few scores. He places Mark Waugh 12th and Steve 26th. You can certainly argue that Mark was the more gifted twin, the greater stylist, the better catcher, the more useful one-day player. But better player full stop? No way. Steve put a much higher price on his wicket. And he was also a great captain, a quality which Warne cannot see, even though he values it in both Steve's predecessors, Mark Taylor (9th) and Allan Border (4th).

Warne's rationale is that, as a batsman, Steve was "a match-saver rather than a match-winner", and, as a captain, he was "handed" a "wonderful team" by Taylor. The match-saving idea is baffling. Of Waugh's 32 Test centuries, 25 led to victory, and only two to draws. The captaincy line isn't much more accurate. He did inherit a great team, but he took it to another level - and he did it by virtually eliminating the draw, so to accuse him of being a match-saver is doubly unfair.

Warne fails to convince anyone that Steve Waugh was as ordinary as he makes out (below Darren Lehmann and Brett Lee? Come off it). But he tells us a few other things: that one of the greatest teams ever had a rift running through it, with Warne on one side and Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist (20th on Warne's list, when he would make many people's All-time World XI) on the other. Perhaps he is also saying that he is still sore about being passed over for the captaincy in favour of Steve Waugh, and later for the vice-captaincy in favour of Gilchrist. Which makes their achievement all the greater. These men played a lot of Tests together. Gilchrist took more stumpings off Warne than Ian Healy (10th) did - and more catches. Just think how good they would have been if they'd all been close mates.

Warne is not unkind to the English, but he can't find room for Graham Thorpe, a better Ashes cricketer than Atherton or Stewart, or for Darren Gough, who took 74 Ashes wickets at 30
Here are the rest of Warne's top ten anomalies:
  • Does Warne have too much respect for batsmen? His top two are Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Yet Glenn McGrath, who is 4th, has won more matches than either.
  • Merv Hughes is 18th, about 50 places too high. Hughes was a totem and a trouper, but also a bit of a trundler.
  • Wasim Akram is 6th, Waqar Younis 45th. Akram was the better bowler in their dotage, but in the early 90s, Waqar was dynamite. You might put him 10 to 15 places behind Wasim (who could also bat), but not 40.
  • Brett Lee is 24th, above both Shaun Pollock (27th) and Allan Donald (33rd). Lee is great when the force is with him, but for consistency, economy and sheer class, Pollock and Donald are way ahead.
  • Warne acknowledges three of the best batsmen-keepers, Gilchrist (20th on his list, Test average 48), Andy Flower (36th, average as a keeper 53) and Alec Stewart (44th, average as a keeper 34). But two others are nowhere to be seen. With Mahendra Singh Dhoni, it's probably because he hasn't played many Tests yet (20, average 36). With Kumar Sangakkara (48 Tests as keeper, average 42), there is no such get-out. Has Warne forgotten him, or is he not a fan of his educated style?
  • Warne includes 20 Aussies, which sounds a lot. But he finds no room for the silky skills of Damien Martyn, or, more criminally, for two one-day finishers - Michael Bevan (the best ever) and Mike Hussey (also very good, and a Test match-winner too). Nor is there any sign of Dean Jones, who, along with Javed Miandad, practically invented one-day middle-overs batting. The places given to Tim May, Darren Berry and Jamie Siddons should have gone to these three.
  • Warne is not unkind to the English, finding room for eight of his Ashes opponents. But not too many England fans would recognise them as the eight best players of the last 15 years. Graham Gooch is top of the Poms at 15th, followed by Andrew Flintoff (16th), Kevin Pietersen (30th), Robin Smith (32nd), Michael Vaughan (35th), Steve Harmison (37th), Mike Atherton (43rd) and Alec Stewart (44th). Warne shows respect to all the England captains he faced, except one of the best, Nasser Hussain. He also favours Anglo-South Africans - although South Africans who stay in South Africa go down less well (no Jonty Rhodes, Makhaya Ntini, or Herschelle Gibbs; perhaps their mistake was not to join Hampshire). Most strikingly, he can't find room for Graham Thorpe, a better Ashes cricketer than Atherton or Stewart, or for Darren Gough, who took 74 Ashes wickets at 30 - a record Harmison would love to have.

  • VVS Laxman's 281was probably the best innings by an Indian, but it wasn't enough to win him a place in Warne's list © Getty Images
  • Warne has always been decisive, and with the West Indians he has faced, he decides that they are either geniuses (Lara 2nd, Ambrose 3rd, Walsh 11th) or non-entities - no other player gets a look-in. To some extent this reflects West Indies' fortunes, but Ian Bishop, Richie Richardson and Shiv Chanderpaul all deserve better.
  • Warne is funny about Indians. He lionises Sachin Tendulkar (1st) and pays his respects to Anil Kumble (13th) and Rahul Dravid (14th). But then he forgets about India for some time, and when he does remember, it's all ancient history - Kapil Dev (40th), Ravi Shastri (42nd) and Dilip Vengsarkar (46th). If Shastri is there for the double-hundred he made against the young Warne, that is surely outshone by VVS Laxman's 281, probably the best innings ever by an Indian. And Harbhajan Singh may feel like consulting his lawyers: he has 56 wickets at 24 against Australia, a far better record than Warne has against India. In the end, this exercise, like Warne's whole career, is all about Warne himself. As a piece of selection, it's surprisingly flawed. As a self-portrait, it's fascinating.
  • Do you agree with Warne's list of cricket greats? Tell us here

    Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. His book Young Wisden: A New Fan's Guide to Cricket is published next month by A&C Black. His website is