April 11, 2014

Fifty for the pantheon

What if you had to narrow all of cricket greatness down to 50 names?

Worrell (left) and Weekes: what's an all-time list without the Ws? © Getty Images

When Sachin Tendulkar was recently awarded the title of cricketer of the generation, it made me wonder who exactly the other greats are who preceded and surrounded him.

Firstly, what defines a great player? It has to be an exclusive club, the hardest to break into. A player who gets in has to reek of richness, genius, the extraordinary, excellence, the X factor. He must inspire reverence.

In this exercise of mine, which is highly subjective, the only rules are that the cricketers picked had to have played Test cricket for their country, that they are judged or selected by the standards of the eras in which they performed, and that they be retired. It's not an exercise in comparing eras, for that is too hard in a world where the landscape has changed so much, at times dramatically.

I will go back, towards the very beginning, back to 1877, in the search for my 50 greatest cricketers of all time. It's no easy task, yet it is highly enjoyable and enlightening.

At the ESPNcricinfo Awards in Mumbai recently, Tendulkar pipped Shane Warne and Jacques Kallis to the title of cricketer of the generation. Nominated alongside those three were Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan and Brian Lara. I would like to add a few more from the Tendulkar-Warne-Kallis era to get my list of 50 going. I would include Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Allan Donald, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Curtly Ambrose. That makes it 14 greats from over the last 23 years.

It is easy to go to the records and see where they all sit - at the mountain top. However, it is necessary to add the dynamics of longevity, impact, influence, match-winning ability, opposition strength, versatility around the world, skill set, individuality, team work, and leadership.

On the batting side, Tendulkar, Kallis, Lara, Ponting and Dravid stand tall, fulfilling all these requirements. Their hunger for large scores, and for making them often, was unrivalled in this period. Lara scored the largest, Tendulkar the most, Kallis was the surest, Ponting the most energetic, Dravid the most stoic.

Gilchrist and Kallis stand out as the generation's greatest allrounders. Gilchrist, a fine wicketkeeper, stamped his mark on the game with breathtaking lower-order innings, often snatching the initiative back with clean counter-attacking strokeplay. The best tribute to Kallis, such was his incredible 18-year return, is that he is mentioned in the same breath as Garry Sobers.

Of the bowlers, Wasim Akram led the way with raw variety and skill. His left-arm swing, at pace, for long periods, made him one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest left-arm exponent ever. His cohort, Waqar, provided the other half of an irresistible combination: fast, late swing targeting the feet or the stumps with missile accuracy.

McGrath and Kumble were honest, resilient, tall, disciplined operators, relying on bounce and accuracy. They could not be moved or shaken. They kept coming in with purpose, steadfast focus and perseverance, nipping it this way and that, like a persistent dog at the heel.

Donald and Ambrose had the mongrel, the killer instinct and the wherewithal. They spent a lot of energy sneering and eyeballing, and never wavered from the role of the intimidator, looking to demolish all in their path. They tormented opposition batsmen and became feared the world over.

Dropping a generation back, we find arguably the finest era for allrounders. All-round as in the ability to be two players in one. Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Ian Botham stole the show through the period 1970 to 1990. They captivated crowds with their daring audacity to impose and dominate. The broke the back of the opposition with their constant presence: bowling feats of exceptional skill, then batting blitzes to steal the show. Take your pick, any one of these four would walk into any dream team.

Then came Vivian Richards. From 1976 to 1986, no one came close to the master blaster from Antigua. He, as his nickname stated, smoked the living Joe out of any fearful attack. And just to rubber-stamp his greatness, he smoked one DK Lillee, the finest fast bowler of this time, a few times too. Viv was way too hot to handle.

Then we have the genius of Greg Chappell, Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Allan Border and Javed Miandad. This special quintet influenced any who saw them up close. They all offered different approaches to batting and run-scoring, showing that different backgrounds, cultures and learnings can succeed with a sure, uncomplicated mind driving them on. Incredible skill and courage.

Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding were undeniably the great bowlers of this era. Fast, clever, and downright scary to face. They sent the cricket ball on a journey never seen before.

And then there was Alan Knott, transforming the wicketkeeping bible, following the pioneering of Godfrey Evans prior.

Every generation is inspired by those who graced the great Test grounds in the decades prior. It seems likely that Sobers and Keith Miller inspired the allrounder boom. Or Fred Trueman the Lillee mode. Or Denis Compton the Chappell way. The three Ws, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, lit up the Caribbean; Graeme Pollock did the same for southern Africa; Jim Laker and Godfrey Evans the mother country.

Cricket took its time adjusting to a new way of life after the Second World War. It was at times slow in maturing, but by the turn of the '70s had kicked into a gear that would thrust it into a spectacular mode, and herald the advent of the shorter, faster formats. During this growth no one stood out more than Sobers. His awesome talent and attitude towards enjoying life and to self-expression as a sportsman, showed cricket as not just a gentleman's game but a vigorous, athletic sport.

Between the wars came the Bradman generation. There is no other way to describe it. It was a watershed. He broke the mould, the Don. No one before or since has dominated the game, and arguably an entire sport, as much as Don Bradman did. He left in his wake the three Hs: Wally Hammond a tenor, George Headley the magician, and Len Hutton the artist. In another world those three would have been the main act; instead, they played the supporting role. The mantle of the finest bowling wizards of the age belonged to Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett, two unique legspinners who brought the most difficult art to the fore. On their day, which was often, they simply destroyed a batsman's spirit.

As we head back through time the lists get smaller. From 1900 to 1930, an era halted by war, four players dominated proceedings: Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe and Sydney Barnes from England, and Victor Trumper from Australia. Hobbs and Sutcliffe formed arguably the greatest opening partnership of all time, and Barnes and Trumper carved out a legacy in their respective roles that would leave an imprint on those to come.

Which leaves one more. From 1877 to 1900, there was only one who really stood out, the grandfather of the game - WG Grace. During that early period of the game's infancy, he gave it direction and meaning. Cricket came alive under Grace's watch, and for that we are forever grateful.

I believe all these gentlemen depict endowment, a gift of nature. They oozed influence over their time and place. Their impact on all those around them, all those who watched, was boundless and timeless. They left a colossal impression on the game. You don't need to look at statistics or records to know why these players stand out; they simply hit you between the eyes. Even the shortened careers of Pollock and Richards for South Africa, or the seemingly lesser deeds of Grace and Trumper in the early days, can't be ignored, considering the mana they carried everywhere. It's a formidable elite club, as it should be.

Overall these 50 - 23 batsmen and 23 bowlers (some who could also bat) and four wicketkeeper-batsmen - have all had an undeniable effect on cricket followers. There will be others who come and go in discussions, yet these folk are sealed, covering six generations, in my mind, for good.

Finally, to the greatest XI. I am going to choose a mix from the last five generations.

Hobbs and Gavaskar will open. Bradman, Tendulkar and Viv Richards come next. The batting allrounder is Sobers, who can provide spin or swing, the wicketkeeper-batsman is Gilchrist. The king spinner is Shane Warne. The opening bowling combination is Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall, with Wasim Akram as the third prong in a lethal attack.

In a dream Test they can play the Rest. Trumper and Barry Richards to open. Headley, Lara and Greg Chappell control the middle order. Imran Khan is the bowling allrounder, Knott the keeper. The spinners are O'Reilly and Muralitharan. The opening attack is Trueman and Hadlee.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kenso on April 14, 2014, 22:00 GMT

    @Sauron... Its certainly an artcile that promotes discussion. In hoping to convince you to go with Walsh over Kumble I looked at the stats. Ill admit I was very suprised to see Kumble ending up with as many wickets as he did. In saying that I just cant remember a great Kumble performance aside from his century! Maybe thats because im australian and did not see enough of him at home but 619 wickets certainly puts his name in the conversation. Kumble also played for a longer period in the batsman era. I think this may be a matter of exposure I just never remember Aust going into a test series and seeing kumble as the threat. It was always Harbajian. End result his figures are impressive but IMO just was never dominant and lacked impact. He flies under the radar as he is not as flamboyant as warne or as contraversial as murali...tough one closer than I first thought. Id still take Walsh for his stats, longevity relative to other pacemen and threat v aust but you can make a case either way

  • Jay on April 14, 2014, 16:44 GMT

    The 3rd K-star: Hanif Mohammad was also a rare product of his times. Born in Gujarat, his family emigrated to Pakistan after the 1947 India partition. It opened new frontiers for the 5 Mohammad brothers, 4 of whom played for the new nation. Hanif worked into world-class prominence over his stellar Test career (1952-69). Most notable was his 970-minute 337 vs WI in Bridgetown '58 - the longest Test innings ever (in the team's 2nd inngs at that)! He followed it a year later w/ a marathon 499 run out, surpassing Don's FC record of 452 n.o.! He could keep wickets & bowl with either arm. Later he captained Pakistan. This icon became so popular, he earned the original title of "Little Master", ahead of Gavaskar & Tendulkar. Along with Imran Khan & Miandad, he was in 2009 named in the inaugural batch of 55 inductees into ICC's Hall of Fame. So IMHO, this unique Kathiawari troika - Ranji, Mankad & Hanif - is worthy of a real close look for induction into Martin's "Fifty for the pantheon"!!

  • Jay on April 14, 2014, 16:32 GMT

    The 2nd K-star: Vinoo Mankad was a rare product of his times - pre-/post-Independence, his Test start delayed by WW II. Cricket took off in emerging India led by the new founding fathers: Merchant, Hazare, Amarnath, Phadkar & Co. What made Mankad (1946-59) stand out was his success in Eng & OZ, starting vs Hammond's team (1946) & Bradman's (1947)!! His superb performance - as a fine RH batsman/opener & a skilled left arm orthodox spinner - earned him world-class all-rounder status, second only to Keith Miller. Most notable were his 2 tons at MCG '48 vs Miller, Lindwall & The Don. As also his 72 & 184 (& 5 wkts) at Lord's '52 vs Hutton's stars: Trueman, Bedser, Laker, Compton & Evans! And his 12 for 108 at Madras '52 helped Ind beat Eng for the first time ever. His 413-run opening stint (his 231) w/ P Roy vs NZ in Madras '56 stood as a record for many years. Mankad also had "greatness thrust upon" him as he ran out Bill Brown at SCG '47 for what's now (in)famously called "mankading"!

  • Jay on April 14, 2014, 16:18 GMT

    Martin - A memorable pantheon of 50! Subjective as it is, there's room for worthy gods waiting outside. Consider this unique troika of K-stars: All 3 hail from the same small corner of India - Kathiawar, Gujarat. Yet they bravely broke new frontiers in 3 different nations! The 1st K-star: Ranji was born a tad great, a prince; but achieved true greatness in England. Neville Cardus called him "the Midsummer night's dream of cricket". Debuting under WG, he burst into Tests in 1896 with 62 & 154 n.o. vs OZ at Old Trafford. That season his FC aggregate of 2,780 broke WG's record. The next year, batting at No 7 a frail Ranji hit a fighting 175 at SCG to help win the Test. He was a prolific & popular batsman with an unorthodoxy that revolutionised the game, especially his signature leg glance. True, the prince had his controversies. Still this icon is revered for his breakthrough cricket feats in an alien land. This Cambridge man even produced a cricket classic: The Jubilee Book of Cricket!

  • John on April 14, 2014, 16:06 GMT

    One name I have yet to find in any list is Albert Trott,the only man so far in the history of the game to have cleared the Lords Pavillion.This feat was accomplished in 1899 with a bat which in this day and age would be considered a toothpick.Perhaps the modern day cricketer should give up their superlarge bats and return to the old fashioned 19 Century bats.This could possibly increase their averages and technique would overcome brute force and average modern day players getting an outside edge and the ball flying into the crowd would be a thing of the past.

  • Brijesh on April 14, 2014, 9:43 GMT

    @kensohatter - Great discussion. I guess I can get myself to agree on Jayasuriya revolutionizing ODI cricket. But G.Smith still falls behind. He probably could have made it to the list if he did play a few more years, but by modern standards his career is still short in terms of longevity. Langer, Hayden, Laxman, M.Waugh, KP etc probably needed more runs to be on the list-agreed. Thomo's exploits did not last long enough-agreed, but still feel he warrants a place in the 50 best for his role in revolutionizing fast bowling (like Jayasuriya did for ODI batting). On Healy - I would still not have a keeper among legends for his pure keeping skills. Then again like fielding, it's not measurable. I guess that's why Jonty misses out. If there was place for only 2 spinners from the last era-Murali and Warne would definitely be the two. But given a third slot, Kumble would be an automatic choice in my opinion. I guess Kumble vs Walsh is the only front we totally disagree on.

  • Kenso on April 14, 2014, 2:53 GMT

    @Sauron... Yep agree current crop cant be judged till they retire was simply pointing out who would be in the mix. Hayden and Langer are tough to judge as they are one of the best opening partnerships of all time yet neither really has enough runs to be considered a true great. Same goes for Laxman. Sure he had class (much like Mark Waugh) but there just isnt the volume of runs required. KP falls into this catergory as well (so do about another 50 batsmen like crowe himself, or Gooch, Haynes, Inzi etc etc. Prob with Garner and Thommo is longevity. I may be wrong but im not sure they dominated for a long time like ambrose or walsh. Bedi I agree probably gets a place somewhere but if he was in the era of warne and murali he like kumble should miss out. Its a solid list and everyone will have their opinion. The one glaring omission is S.Waugh. Theres just no argument to not have him there 10,000 + runs, almost 100 wickets, best test capt all time + couple of ODI world cups

  • Kenso on April 14, 2014, 2:39 GMT

    @Sauron... Yep confused G and I Chappell.. My bad. Dont agree with assesment of wicket keepers though. Sure these days wicket keepers must also be able to bat (at the detriment to the art of keeper but thats a seperate issue) but this has only been the case since Gilchrist. In Healys era nobody was a keeper batsman therefore he should go down as a great of that era as he was clearly the most proficient keeper. Also Walsh carried the WI team for years after ambrose retired. He had longevity. Sure he lost some pace but he continued to add to the wickets tally when other pacemen were forced into retirement. Jaysuria and Smith I believe warrant a spot because of their impact on the game. Smith for captaining records and SA readmission and Jaysuria for revolutionising ODI cricket. Kumble just is/was not a great. He didnt change the game and was nowhere near best in his era as warne and murali were far better. The problem with jonty is that fielding isnt really measurable.

  • Brijesh on April 13, 2014, 23:54 GMT

    @kensohatter - Jonty was brilliant, but no player would earn a place in a test XI for his fielding alone. Similarly, Ian Healy was brilliant behind the stumps, but a great keeper needs to bat as well as any batsmen - Healy in my opinion does not fit in the way Gilly does. As for Knott finding a place ahead of Healy-that is a close call. Kumble finding a place ahead of Walsh-The former was phenomenal towards the later part of his career (post 2003). Picked wickets everywhere. And as always was brilliant at home. Walsh was truly great early in his career. Him and Ambrose tore through batting line ups. But I feel he faded out as his career progressed (unlike Ambrose). But I agree, it's a close call. I don't think G.Smith and Jayasuriya deserve a place here. But S.Waugh does, although, not at the cost of Dravid. As for G.Chappell, I think you have him mistaken for I.Chappell. G.Chappell was part of R.Benaud's (a cricketer I have great respect for) greatest XI. That's good enough for me.

  • Brijesh on April 13, 2014, 23:19 GMT

    Another great article from Mr.Crowe. As for people questioning the exclusion of Sanga,Chanders,Clarke,Sehwag,Steyn etc.-They are yet to retire. The list includes only players who are done with their international careers. You cannot label a cricketer 'legend' until he is done with his career. However, notable exceptions in order are - Hayden (never seen an Aussie bat like he did in India), Laxman (great innings against the best team of his time, very often when the team was in dire need), Walsh (the last of the great WIan pacers), J.Thomson (never seen him in live action, but, supposedly pioneered the great pace era), S.Waugh (if you think RD was stoic, watch the elder Waugh), BS.Bedi (not one spinner in the 1970-90 era, when he weaved his magic), J.Garner ('no one hits Joel'-IB) and KP (his century at Mumbai was as good as any). And Pak fans, I feel Inzy deserves a place ahead of Miandad. Then again, my opinions are a little biased towards modern players since I've seen them in action