Order, order (but it's only a game)
Christopher Martin-Jenkins' introduction to the latest list of the top 100 cricketers is apologetic. He names all 129 candidates he has left out and observes that being a selector is an invitation to be ridiculed, a bit like being a politician or going out to face Dennis Lillee (ranked 19th) on a drying pitch in Melbourne in 1977. On the contrary. Cricket's list-makers are blessed because they give us a game to play when it is raining and on winter nights when it seems as if summer will never come.
Each selection is accompanied by a 500-word essay and these are best when CMJ injects a personal note, as with Maurice Tate. (The author's PE teacher came into the school dormitory after bedtime to speak in hushed tones about the great man after he died.)
The list gives us a snapshot of the rise and fall of the historical reputations of cricketers, and the good news is that five of CMJ's top 15 have played in the 21st century. Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan are still active. The other three were members of the great Australian steamroller - Shane Warne, highest placed at No. 4, Adam Gilchrist (10) and Glenn McGrath (13).
Compare that with the similar list compiled in 1998 by CMJ's predecessor as cricket correspondent of the Times, John Woodcock, who elected only two active players into the top 15 - Warne, even then, at No. 13, and Ian Botham, still a vivid memory, at No. 9. Sir Ian drops to 18 in CMJ's book, the same position he occupies in a list drawn up in 2006 by the Australian sportswriter Geoff Armstrong, and well down from No. 6 in the 1999 effort by Nick Brownlee.
Woodcock, aka the Sage of Longparish, was particularly sageist in his selection of a 19th-century stalwart, Alfred Mynn, as high as fourth, along with Hambledon cricketers such as Billy Beldham and John Small. CMJ's earliest entries are Australian fast bowlers: the Demon Spofforth and CTB Turner. Within his 100 are 24 Australians, 33 English players and 15 West Indians. A third of his selections captained their country.
The Sage is the only one of the four selectors to place WG Grace above Don Bradman at No.1. I long for the list that finally tests to destruction the assumption of Grace's superiority over, say, Arthur Shrewsbury. Grace averaged 32.29 in Tests compared with 35.47 for Shrewsbury. But are not Jack Hobbs (CMJ's No. 5) and Wally Hammond (8) better cricketers than Grace? And why, apart from the lingering power of the Victorian publicity machine, does CB Fry appear in these lists at all (80 for CMJ, 54 for the Sage and 45 for Brownlee; though Armstrong ignores him)?
Only two of CMJ's top 10 are bowlers, but his list reflects a fascination with fast bowlers, particularly when they come in pairs. We have Walsh (92) and Ambrose (51), Statham (89) and Trueman (22), Holding (85) and Marshall (11), Waqar (36) and Wasim (34), Lindwall (31) and Miller (16). No Lillee and Thomson, however, because CMJ has no room for Thommo. No Thommo. No Alan Davidson or Mike Procter, or Joel Garner and Andy Roberts. Christopher, how could you?
He confesses that he has had to leave out his own favourites, Tom Graveney, Derek Randall and Lindsay Hassett. But what the hell. It's only a game.
The Top 100 Cricketers of All Time
by Christopher Martin-Jenkins
Corinthian Books, hb, 304pp, £14.99
This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here