What makes a cricketer great?
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.
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