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