February 1, 2010

What makes a cricketer great?

You could judge him by stacks of runs and wickets, elegance, or exerting considerable influence on how the game is played

Cricinfo's recent quest to determine the greatest cricketer of the 2000s finished with Ricky Ponting, as the election reports say, "securing a landslide victory". I did not concur, but that is hardly relevant. There was a case to be made for almost all the remarkable players on the shortlist. The thing of interest was to consider how we assess cricketers. It is a process of rationality forced through filters, starting perhaps with partisanship, then attractiveness, an assessment maybe of a "champion" factor, a judgement of the player's greater impact on the game, arriving finally at a cold percolate of numbers.

I found myself rationalising past the extraordinary Brian Lara. To watch Lara bat was to not only understand the scope of cricket, but also appreciate the beauty of the moving human form. He was one of the very few cricketers to watch whom I was willing to drop anything I was doing. And yet, succumbing to the task of making a worthy verdict while simultaneously resisting the tyranny of stats, I decided to focus instead on 'influence'.

So in first place I had Adam Gilchrist, who turned cricket from an eleven-a-side sport to a twelve-a-side one (though with some imitators, who could neither bat nor keep, you ended up with 10 men). Above that he excelled - and thrilled - in all three forms of the game, making him an appropriate representative of the decade gone.

Influence of a different kind I used to arrive at the second choice, Glenn McGrath: the most influential member of the generation's most dominant team. From the subcontinent to the World Cups, McGrath was not mastered by batsmen, conditions or the occasion. My third choice, Virender Sehwag, to my alarm, was not on the shortlist at all. Alarm turned to outrage when, despite my vote, which should have catapulted him alongside the 10th-placed Shivnarine Chanderpaul who also had one point, Sehwag's name was omitted from the top 10.

I was delighted, therefore, to read Derek Pringle in the Daily Telegraph celebrating Sehwag as his cricketer of the decade. "Statisticians and the government policy-makers trust figures," wrote Pringle, "wise men, facts, but I'm going to apply another measure: that of redefining the role they play, something Virender Sehwag has done for opening the batting in Test matches."

Sehwag's pile of runs was smaller than those of the stalwarts on the shortlist, but his impact on the sport greater. In a decade of runs, Ponting, to my mind, did what the rest did, with 5% or 10% more consistency. The whole lot of them, in fact, reflected a 1990s school of batting. Sehwag left them for dead in the game of the 2000s. He smote improbable scores at an unthought of speed. His technique - of getting beside the ball to carve on the off - might open up a new mode of attack against the new ball; his mindset - not studying the pitch, for example - might come to be considered as an acceptable, even preferable, mental approach; and his rate of scoring may in the next decade come to be the norm. He is a phenomenon of the 2000s; yet no place on the shortlist.

The results of the Cricinfo exercise - Ponting's rout, the absolute rejection of Sehwag, the near-total neglect of Lara - were a reminder that in cricket, more than beauty, influence or invention, what really wins the day is a stack of runs (and, less frequently, wickets). I do not necessarily quarrel with it, but I regret it.

There are now official player and team ratings, derived from unfathomable algorithms, and numerous, equally complex, unofficial ones. Statsguru adds ever more features with which to settle debates.

The might of numbers has grown and grown in the past decade. When, 10 years ago, Wisden conducted a poll to determine the five cricketers of the century, they did not, in contrast to the 2009 way of thinking, solicit rankings from the jury, only five names. Also in contrast to the recent exercise, I doubt the panel was plied with a shortlist and Excel-sheet stats packs.

The top five were led, naturally, by Don Bradman and Garry Sobers, with Jack Hobbs, Shane Warne and Viv Richards bunched close together at third, fourth and fifth. But the really heartening aspect of that list was the names outside the top five.

The results of the Cricinfo exercise - Ponting's rout, the absolute rejection of Sehwag, the near-total neglect of Lara - were a reminder that in cricket, more than beauty, influence or invention, what really wins the day is a stack of runs (and, less frequently, wickets). I do not necessarily quarrel with it, but I regret it

Frank Worrell came in as high as No. 6 primarily because of his eloquent leadership as cricket's first black captain of tenure; and Ian Chappell received a vote presumably also for captaincy. Victor Trumper, statistically dwarfed by succeeding generations as well as contemporaries, received four counts for his bold charisma. KS Ranjitsinhji, though he played only three of his 15 Tests in the 1900s, received a vote because he opened up the leg side as a legitimate area of run-scoring. BJT Bosanquet, who invented the googly, got one. Colin Bland, a fieldsman ahead of his time, got one, and Godfrey Evans scored a point for the keepers. The spectacular advent of reverse-swing was acknowledged (though, of course, not that alone) in votes for Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. And my hunch is that had the doosra been invented a few years earlier, so that its revolutionary effect on finger-spin was more evident at the time of polling, votes would have accrued to Muttiah Muralitharan, its greatest practitioner, and even perhaps Saqlain Mushtaq, the inventor.

It doesn't matter that the names above didn't win. Their mere acknowledgement is a cheer for originality, idiosyncrasy and invention. It is a recognition that they cracked open the possibilities of the sport and made it larger, finer, richer.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • vishwanath on February 4, 2010, 14:14 GMT

    mathew hayden..now he was trend setter more successful than sehwag...the only series that he flopped (since his comeback) was thr 2005 ashes. as an opener he was extremely aggressive and extremely consistent. 29 centuries compared to sehwag's 16. avg close to 45 in ODIs. still the king of IPL. aus. team was extremely strong, but his absence still used to hurt them. he was the strongest pillar in that strong team. wonder why ponting is given more credit than him. ponting never mastered india (in india), which has been aus' arch nemesis in the last decade. hayden hardly had any trouble against any attack pace or spin any where in the world.

  • Dre on February 4, 2010, 1:00 GMT

    Ok. I've taken some time to think up my top 4 for the DECADE (10 yrs) and why. 1 Kallis-took a good # o wickets and contained well. Plus he made alot of runs and didnt look shabby in the field. 2. Ponting-the guy CAN FIELD! Yes its a part of cricket and he was dominant in his scoring as well as prolific, his strike rate was better than most! Those who say he didnt face good bowling insult guys like Murali, Wasim, Bond, Steyn, Kaneria etc. Not the best captain but not bad. He beat Ind in Ind in an ODI series with a depleted team. 3.Murali- took an unbelievable# o wickets! (with only Vaas at the other end for most the decade). 4. Gilly-the guy could keep and did for Aus what Sehwag (was dropped) is doing for Ind. Lara missed out because he didnt have that great an ODI decade and didnt play more o the 10 yrs. Sachin missed out cause he cant field that great and he doesnt bowl. Mc. Grath barely missed. Note: Judged only on cricket terms. Personality does no count!! Not a peace prize!!

  • shafeen on February 3, 2010, 14:17 GMT

    agree with choice of Gilchrist - there's never been a player like him. Sehwag... not so much. He plays like no one has ever before, but don't just remember the good times and forget the bad...he was inconsistent, he was even dropped from the Indian team for it! Lara suffers because he didn't play the full decade... its hard to rate him as player of the decade above somebody who was just as successful and did it for the full time. ponting (for his immense success) - players score like he did for a year or two max and then we say they've "had a run of good form". he did it for 6 or 7 years. Kallis (for his scoring, as good as anyone plus the wickets he took) Gilchrist (for reasons already mentioned) - would have been my choices, in no particular order.

  • Dave on February 3, 2010, 5:30 GMT

    Srtwows, why when trying to ascertain the best batsman of the last decade must we consider the best bowling attacks of the last 20 years? `It simply does not make sense` that the highest scoring batsman in both forms of the game should be even considered for the top spot? Perhaps the fact that he scored 13 more centuries than Tendulkar had something to do with it. FYI, Ponting was not chosen as the best batsman of the decade, although that`s probably a given, he was chosen as the best cricketer. His captaincy of easily the most dominant test team, and captaincy of two world cup winning sides may also have come into consideration.

  • Dummy4 on February 3, 2010, 4:35 GMT

    ..i heard from a friend .. that lara wasnt included ... n i didn e1 bother to go thro d list ... comments . etc .. its jus dat dis is mr. bhattacharya's article .. ive gone thro dis , n as always i totally agree wth him .. :) ps- d article "last king of trinidad" was a masterpiece ..all hail bc lara !!

  • Niraj on February 3, 2010, 1:32 GMT

    Everyone's entitled to their opinion and I totally repect Mr. Bhattacharya's opinion here. But I could not resist making a note about Sehwag. I really love his performances. But, to refresh everyone's memory, Sehwag had undergone a period of serious lack of form in 2007 and he was dropped from the team. At that time, even the thought of naming him the player of the decade would have been a joke. A lot of it was attributed to his lack of fitness. But he managed to come back and give some magnificent performances, but that does not make him the top five cricketers of the decade. Now a word about my pick: Sachin. To the few people who hate him, let me mention that it is not just his huge stack of runs or centuries or his near-perfect technique or his longevity that make him a great cricketer, but it is his humility, professionalism, discipline and ability to focus, that enhance his reputation and make him the favorite cricketer of the world. This is the criteriain my book, whats in yours?

  • Sushanth on February 2, 2010, 19:21 GMT

    Dont really understand why they say Ricky Ponting is the best batsmen of the decade... It simply does not make sense. To find out the best batsmen - We would have to first find the best bowling lineups in the last twenty years and then find out who batted better. And most of us would agree to the fact that Australian bowling attack has been the most dangerous and consistent - and Ricky and all Australians never played them !!! And also for the fact that he has played English bowlers for most of the time....So he is out of the race right away. Then comes the other players and the debate is on - Wasim & Waqar, WI's pace quartet, New Zealand and Sri Lanka for some brief time, and the Australian Attack. Players eligible would be : Sachin, Brian Lara, Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Saeed Anwar, Laxman, Jayasuriya, Kallis, Smith, Jayawardena... Of which the first three strike to us when we talk about the Best Batsmen. My vote goes to Sachin. Choose for yourself...

  • Brij on February 2, 2010, 17:25 GMT

    I think Rahul Dravid with his solid batting performances has again put an emphasis back on having a really good No.3. Teams which really strive to do well in test cricket (england, new zealand, pakistan, bangladesh) are looking to bring in a player who is really good at no.3.

  • K. on February 2, 2010, 15:47 GMT

    @typos.the only time you are "guaranteed" a hundred is when watching old videos. So that is a nonsensical argument. As others have mentioned by the current fashionable logic the DON wouldn't be very great after all.He wasn't apparently very artistic or given to too much flair. But he is the greatest of them all. why? coz he scored runs-every time,all the time. I agree with some comments in here. All "secondary" traits must first sacrifice themselves to the altar of Performance.

  • Normal on February 2, 2010, 14:09 GMT

    Each individual has his/her own perspective. Therefore,how one feels about Ponting and Tendulkar would vary from person to person.But surely therez got 2 b a criteria which should include the core skills relevant with Winning & Winning & Winning.Now whatever happens whilst striving to win is a bonus.But winning has got 2 b the primary objective.Scoring runs under pressure, redefining batting/bowling/fielding styles is all paramount but all these would come in the package when the game is played to WIN.So,whoever plays to WIN is the one who should b rated as the PLAYER OF THE DECADE. Ponting,Sehwag,Vettori,Clarke,Dhoni are all WINNERS in my list.

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