May 13, 2009

The case for a more inclusive Hall of Fame

Why the ICC's initiative to honour just 55 of the many greats who have played cricket is flawed

At Lord's last week it was the turn of Sir Alec Bedser and Rohan Kanhai to be officially inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame. Both, quite properly, were chuffed to bits. Given the countless thousands of men who have made a living out of flannelled tomfoolery, and those who have batted and bowled strictly for fun, status and "expenses", to be enshrined as one of the leading 55 of all time is not on any account to be sniffed at. One day, indeed, given the right amount and brand of promotion, membership of this particular club will surely be regarded as the game's ultimate accolade. Nevertheless questions and quibbles abound.

Let's start with that initial number of inductees. Fifty-five? What a curious figure. What, pray, does it purport to represent? Five XIs' worth? One sincerely doubts that. More likely it was a case of deciding which players, drawn from those whose careers had been completed in the 19th and 20th centuries, simply demanded inclusion, though it remains devilishly hard to resist the suspicion that the cut-off point was purely arbitrary. How else to explain the more glaring omissions (of which more anon)?

Geographical considerations cannot have entered the ruminations. If they had, there could scarcely have been twice as many Poms (22) as Cobbers (11), much less two South Africans (Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards) and a solitary, lonely New Zealander (Sir Richard Hadlee). As a reflection of historical national supremacy, the fact that there were more Caribbean representatives (13, no fewer than six of them Bajans) than Australians also beggared belief.

Nor, it seems, was there any attempt to reflect the growing influence of the Indian subcontinent - only three Indians (Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev) and three Pakistanis (Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Hanif Mohammad) made the list. Nor, apparently, was there any attempt to treat the disciplines equally. There were almost twice as many batsmen as bowlers, and the only wicketkeepers included were Alan Knott and Rod Marsh, thus ruling out a century of stump-minders. All that said, strictly on the basis of statistical achievement, the number of blatant exclusions was far from large.

On the basis, therefore, that insufficient recognition has been accorded those who graced the game before the Second World War, and that 75 would be a far more appropriate, digestible and memorable number than 55, your correspondent hereby nominates the following 20 additions for the ICC's perusal:

Ken Barrington (England), Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (India), Learie Constantine (West Indies), Basil D'Oliveira (England), Godfrey Evans (England), George Giffen (Australia), Clarrie Grimmett (Australia), Desmond Haynes (West Indies), George Lohmann (England), Bert Oldfield (Australia), Bill Ponsford (Australia), Mike Procter (South Africa), Abdul Qadir (Pakistan), Sonny Ramadhin (West Indies), Bert Sutcliffe (New Zealand), Herbert Sutcliffe (England), Hugh Trumble (Australia), Victor Trumper (Australia), Alf Valentine (West Indies), Zaheer Abbas (Pakistan).

Now for the justifications. As 50% of the most renowned opening partnerships in history, Haynes and Herbert Sutcliffe should be indivisible from Greenidge and Hobbs - and besides, Sutcliffe (60.73) averages more than any other Englishman in Tests In his 42 five-dayers, Bert Sutcliffe accounted for more than one-sixth (16.87%) of New Zealand's runs. Equally skilled standing up or back, Evans and Oldfield double our paltry share of stumpers. Among those whose completed careers have spanned 25-plus Tests, nobody since Bradman has averaged more than Barrington's 58.67. Chandrasekhar had a far superior strike-rate to Bedi's (65.9 to 80.3) and did more than any bowler to give India credibility at Test level. Constantine was the Sobers of his day, and did even more for black pride than George Headley (witness his successful 1944 suit against London's Imperial Hotel for failing to admit him and his family).

Fifty-five? What a curious figure. What, pray, does it purport to represent? Five XIs' worth? One sincerely doubts that. More likely it was a case of deciding which players, drawn from those whose careers had been completed in the 19th and 20th centuries, simply demanded inclusion, though it remains devilishly hard to resist the suspicion that the cut-off point was purely arbitrary

Giffen remains the only man to couple a double-century with 16 wickets in a match as well as the only one to score 10,000 runs and take 1000 wickets in Australian first-class cricket. Grimmett invented the flipper and was every bit as irresistible in his day as Shane Warne was in his. Lohmann's Test average (10.74) and strike-rate (34.1 balls per wicket) remain unsurpassed among those with 50-plus wickets. Only Bradman compiled more first-class runs at a higher average than Ponsford (65.18). But for the inequities of apartheid and the way it foreshortened his international career, there is every chance that Procter, who averaged twice as much with the bat in first-class play as he did with the ball (36.01 to 19.53), and bowled spin as well as pace, would have outdone the Great Garfield for all-round untouchability. Qadir singlehandedly revived the art of wrist-spin, reinvigorated the game and inspired innumerable acolytes. Ramadhin and Valentine were as intrinsic to, and synonymous with, the rise of the Caribbean as Greenidge and Haynes. Trumble's 141 Ashes wickets remained a record for almost a century. Had he played on the flat inter-war tracks instead of the evil Edwardian ones, Trumper might have given Bradman a run for his money. Zaheer hit a century in each innings an unparalleled eight times, and remains the only subcontinental batsman to rack up 100 first-class hundreds. As for D'Oliveira, in doing his bit to help bring down apartheid, however unwittingly, this endlessly resilient and determined man is arguably the single most influential cricketer of them all; his 158 against Australia at The Oval in 1968 was certainly the most significant of all Test innings.

IN TERMS OF THE FUTURE, the infrequently wise men of the ICC could do a great deal worse than follow the lead of their baseball counterparts. Opened in 1939 in Cooperstown in upstate New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame entrusts the Baseball Writers Association of America (i.e. the hacks) to perm two from a longish annual list of candidates, all of whom must have played at least 10 seasons in the major leagues and been retired for at least five years. Were it introduced this year, the initial ICC shortlist, based on the baseball criteria, would be illustrious indeed: Courtney Walsh, Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Mark and Steve Waugh - and that's just the Ws. Throw in Curtly Ambrose, Aravinda de Silva, Allan Donald and Arjuna Ranatunga, and the selection process could test Solomon.

The Cooperstown Veterans Committee, meanwhile, is given special dispensation to catch those who have fallen through the cracks, offering a second chance to those whose careers concluded up to 21 seasons ago, along with managers, umpires and executives. Inductees are honoured amid much pomp and circumstance at a ceremony that attracts fans from all over the country; the sense of occasion, for all the platitudes parroted and tears ritually blubbed, is considerable. Less, in this case, is appreciably more.

Another leaf worth taking out of the Cooperstown book would be the non-consideration of the game's more infamous figures, regardless of how impressive their accomplishments might be. "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the most prolific hitters in the history of the diamond, has always been overlooked because he was one of the eight Chicago White Sox players who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. Likewise Pete Rose, who amassed more hits than anyone in baseball annals but was found guilty of betting on games in which his team was participating.

One would like to think, therefore, that both Lord Frederick Beauclerk, in many eyes the greatest pre-Victorian batsman as well as cricket's first notable match-fixer, and Hansie Cronje, his best-known disciple, would be given similarly short shrift. Needless to add, nominations for any current or recent administrator should also be considerably less than zero.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton