July 10, 2012

Five to do it all

Allrounders who could bat, bowl and sometimes field their sides to victory

There are two certainties in this cricketing life: Don Bradman was the greatest of all batsmen, and Garry Sobers was undoubtedly the game's best all-round cricketer.

Sobers was cricket's lion, and he heads my pride of the five best allrounders I've seen. Because of his mercurial all-round ability, Sobers must be crowned the greatest player in cricket history. Statistics don't always tell the full story, but his stats aren't half bad: 93 Tests, 8032 runs at 57.78, with 26 centuries and a career best of 365 not out. With the ball, bowling left-arm fast, wrist- or orthodox spin, he took 235 wickets at 34.03 with six five-wicket hauls and a career best of 6 for 73.

He also took 109 catches, some of them seemingly impossible ones at backward short-leg. During a charity match in Adelaide in which I played alongside Sobers, he took a catch off my bowling at short midwicket. There was not the hint of a sound. Another catch, again no sound. Twice the ball had disappeared into a pouch of fur: Sobers was the epitome of the iron fist in the velvet glove.

Bradman reckoned Sobers' 254 against Australia for the Rest of the World team at the MCG in 1972 was the "best innings I've seen in Australia".

Sobers had a sense of history and of fair play. When South Africa played South Australia at the Adelaide Oval in 1963-64, he sidled up to his state captain, Les Favell, and asked: "Is it okay, skipper, if I wear my Test cap?" Favell said he couldn't care what cap Sobie wore, but he was intrigued as to why his great allrounder wanted to don the West Indies cap. With a not-so-subtle swipe at the injustices of the apartheid system, Sobers said: "I believe it is time these Springboks got a good, long look at the West Indies cap I am wearing." He got a big hundred.

There have been a few better batsmen than Sobers, also a number of superior bowlers, but as a complete package - batsman, bowler, fieldsman, cricket thinker - he reigns supreme. There was an ease of motion to this man which bordered on the poetic; in a cricketing sense Sobers on the prowl was something to behold.


Second to Sobers, in terms of skill and an innate ability to perform when needed, was Keith Miller. Miller was right out of the Boy's Own Annual. He was a war hero and a supreme athlete with the sort of star quality we associate with stage and screen. In 55 Tests he hit 2958 runs at 36.97, with seven hundreds, and he took 170 wickets at an average of 22.97, with a career-best 7 for 60 among his seven bags of five wickets or more in an innings.

Sir Leonard Hutton told me that the best bowler he ever faced was SF Barnes. Barnes was 62, Hutton a boy of 16, but on the Test stage, Hutton said, "the most dangerous bowler was undoubtedly Keith Miller". He was just as likely to bowl a legbreak as he was a fast outswinger in his first over of a Test match. He batted and bowled on whim and the need of the side. If Australia were in trouble he lifted a few gears and got the job done.

In 1969, Miller turned up to take part in a coaching film. All he had to do was to bowl three balls at an unprotected set of stumps. He walked past me where I stood some seven paces back from my mark and said, "Ahem, son, I'll pitch leg and hit off." His first and third balls did precisely that: the ball was propelled at a speed at least as fast as Graham McKenzie, who was a fast bowler for Australia then. The seam was perfectly upright and it pitched on both occasions on the line of leg stump and broke like a Shane Warne legbreak to hit the top of off stump.


Imran Khan was a warrior cricketer if ever there was one. He was blessed with great strength and a calm temperament, and could "lift" as a batsman or bowler. In 88 Tests, Imran hit 3807 runs at 37.69, with a highest score of 136 among his six hundreds. With the ball he took 362 wickets at an average of 22.81, taking five or more wickets in an innings 23 times. He was also a born leader, a trait that has stayed with him in his political quest to try and steer Pakistan towards a democracy of sorts.

Imran succeeded with his pace bowling on all surfaces, even on the bone-dry parched pitches of home that powdered to the touch like some river bed in biblical times after 40 years of drought. While he batted with skill and good judgement, especially when he needed to guide his country out of the mire, it was his bowling which fired the imagination. Imran loved a challenge and was his best against the best batsmen, for they provided the greater challenge. He could be operating at a pace around fast-medium, and then, suddenly, without any obvious change in approach or action, he could deliver at savage express pace. When he was quick, he was seriously quick as he proved in Australia in the 1976-77 series.

Like a good-quality red, Imran got better with age. In his final 50-odd Tests he averaged a shade above 50 with the bat and just 19 with the ball. His stirring match figures of 10 for 77 against England at Headingley in 1987 gave Pakistan their first series win against the olde enemy on their home soil. And in 1992 he led Pakistan to World Cup glory.


Ian Botham had an outstanding all-round record. In 102 Tests he scored 5200 runs at 33.54 with 14 centuries, and he took 383 wickets at 28.40 with 27 bags of five wickets or more and a career-best haul of 8 for 34. He was probably lucky to have struck an Australian team mostly without its better players. Just after he began his career, Australia and West Indies lost their best players to World Series Cricket, and then came the rebel tours of South Africa.

Botham batted and bowled with great belief, but to me he seemed a better batsman than a bowler. He hit with explosive power, especially straight. As a bowler he seemed to bowl well within himself, but every now and then he would drive through the crease with amazing energy and produce a pearler of a delivery. It was this element of surprise that had batsmen guessing, and it often led to wickets. He wasn't in the class of Kapil Dev or Richard Hadlee as a bowler, yet he was a better bat than both men, and a brilliant slip fieldsman.

Perhaps Botham's magnum opus came at Headingley in 1981, when he flayed Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Co to the tune of 149, which turned the match on its head and won it for England - thanks also to an eight-wicket haul by Bob Willis - after the bookies were offering 500-1 against an England victory.


My fifth choice is a little controversial. Mike Procter played little international cricket, and in seven Tests he averaged a modest 25.11 with the bat, though he took 41 wickets at 15.02.

As a bowler, Procter came at you like a raging bull. He was full on, bustling towards the batsman with a determined glint in his eye. At the point of delivery he was very front-on, not unlike Malcolm Marshall, and he seemed to bowl off the wrong foot, the ball seemingly coming on to you in a big rush. His pace was around Marshall's but usually Procter's deliveries came in to the right-hander. He bowled huge, dipping inswingers and clever legcutters.

In England in 1972, I watched on television as Procter completed an unusual hat-trick, in that though the ball was bowled from around the wicket, every batsman was plumb lbw.

As a youngster Procter spent a season on the Lord's grounds staff with Barry Richards, another player who was denied a long and successful Test career with South Africa. Procter knew that apartheid in his country would prevent him from playing any more than his seven Tests, and his ultimate became first-class cricket - mostly for his beloved adopted county of Gloucestershire. In 401 first-class matches he scored 21,936 runs at 36.01 with 48 hundreds and a highest score of 254. He also took 1417 wickets at 19.53, with 70 bags of five wickets in an innings and 15 lots of ten wickets in a match.

That he was denied Test cricket could not dissuade me from counting Procter among one of the best allrounders I've seen. I place him above the likes of Kapil, Hadlee, Richie Benaud, Daniel Vettori, even Alan Davidson, who was most assuredly Australia's best allrounder seen since Miller.

Procter reckoned his loss of a long and successful Test career was little compared with the suffering of 40 million non-whites in South Africa. In April 1971, Nelson Mandela was spending his seventh year in a cell at Robben Island, just across the water from Cape Town, where a cricket match between Transvaal and the Rest of South Africa was about to start at Newlands. The players knew the John Vorster government had decreed that it would prevent the South African selectors from picking a non-white player in the national team for the coming tour of Australia. After one ball, four players - Procter, Graeme and Peter Pollock and Denis Lindsay - walked off the field and issued a press statement supporting the selection by merit regardless of skin colour. From that moment Procter and the others could walk tall forever.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell