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The selection of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year has always been the perquisite of the Almanack's editor of the day. Perhaps he gets a little help from his friends. But the process has always been rather secretive, even mystical, and the choice personal, sometimes downright eccentric.
The system works and, over the years, has come up with more interesting and less predictable names than a committee might have done. But once the decision was taken for Wisden to choose Five Cricketers of the 20th Century, it seemed inadequate. There was a precedent. When the centenary Almanack was published in 1963, Sir Neville Cardus was asked to name Six [not, interestingly, five] Giants of the Wisden Century. He went for Sydney Barnes, Sir Donald Bradman, W. G. Grace, Sir Jack Hobbs, Tom Richardson and Victor Trumper.
But the cricketing 20th century was a much more global one than Wisden's first century. No list to cover the years 1900 to 1999 could reasonably include only white males: four Englishman and two Australians. And no one person's perception could properly cover the entire sweep of the game as it is now played. So it seemed right that, for the age of democracy, the choice should be made differently.
To reflect the pattern of cricket history, we established an electorate of 100, from all nine Test-playing countries but weighted to reflect each country's role in international cricket over the century, judged - very roughly - on the number of Tests played. So there were 28 English voters, 20 from Australia and so on down the line to just one from Zimbabwe.
The electorate comprised 97 men and three women (the doyenne of English women's cricket, Netta Rheinberg, the Pakistani journalist Fareshteh Gati and the Barbadian commentator Donna Symmonds). They were a mixture of cricketers, journalists (indeed many count as both), historians or even just expert observers of the game like Sir Carlisle Burton of Barbados. More than half had played Test cricket; all of them had watched copious amounts of it. There were many people whose broad knowledge and expertise would have added further lustre but who could not be squeezed in; to all of them my apologies.
Those who were asked faced a task that was essentially impossible. The major problem with this exercise is, of course, that no one watched all the cricket of the century. Some, however, came close, led by E. W. Swanton, whose first-hand knowledge of all cricket since the First World War was unsurpassable. We were fortunate that he was able to take part before he died in January 2000. We were also privileged to have three electors who played Test matches before the Second World War: Norman Gordon, Alf Gover and Lindsay Weir. It would be wrong, though, to have had this decision entirely filtered through the perhaps rheumy eyes of age. The current generation of cricketers, not all of whom have much feel for the game's history, was represented by the Australian captain Steve Waugh, who does.
|1.||Sir Donald Bradman||100|
|2.||Sir Garfield Sobers||90|
|3.||Sir Jack Hobbs||30|
|4.||S. K. Warne||27|
|5.||Sir Vivian Richards||25|
|6.||D. K. Lillee||19|
|Sir Frank Worrell||19|
|8.||W. R. Hammond||18|
|9.||D. C. S. Compton||14|
|10.||Sir Richard Hadlee||13|
|12.||S. M. Gavaskar||12|
|13.||S. F. Barnes||11|
|Sir Leonard Hutton||11|
|15.||W. J. O'Reilly||10|
|16.||I. T. Botham||9|
|R. R. Lindwall||6|
|S. R. Tendulkar||6|
|G. A. Headley||5|
|23.||R. G. Pollock||4|
|V. T. Trumper||4|
|26.||T. G. Evans||3|
|M. D. Marshall||3|
|29.||Sir Alec Bedser||2|
|C. V. Grimmett||2|
|F. S. Trueman||2|
|F. E. Woolley||2|
|33.||C. E. L. Ambrose||1|
|K. C. Bland||1|
|A. R. Border||1|
|B. J. T. Bosanquet||1|
|B. S. Chandrasekhar||1|
|I. M. Chappell||1|
|A. A. Donald||1|
|A. P. Freeman||1|
|L. R. Gibbs||1|
|M. A. Holding||1|
|C. H. Lloyd||1|
|S. J. McCabe||1|
|K. S. Ranjitsinhji||1|
|M. W. Tate||1|
|Sir Pelham Warner||1|
|Sir Alec Bedser|
|E. W. Swanton|
|Peter van der Merwe|
|Sir Carlisle Burton|
|Sir Clyde Walcott|
|Sir Everton Weekes|
|K. N. Prabhu|
|John R. Reid|
To avoid embarrassment, it was decided not to ask any of the most obvious candidates for the accolade to be voters themselves, even though this meant losing, most obviously, the unparalleled judgement of Sir Donald Bradman. Even so, there was some overlap, and half a dozen of those asked to cast votes also received them. No one voted for himself, though there was one near-miss, which we will come to.
During the World Cup and just afterwards, the 100 voters were asked "to set aside any bias towards your own country and your own era, and name the five whose excellence at cricket during the 20th century you think has made the greatest contribution to the game."
They were told not to put the players in any order of merit, just to name the five, and given only two pieces of advice. One was a general point that has always driven the selection of Cricketers of the Year. "Excellence can be interpreted broadly", we said. It is legitimate to take into account leadership qualities, personality, character and impact on the public. The second was more specific: "Please don't vote for W. G. Grace. We consider him a Cricketer of the 19th Century." They were given the option of explaining their choices if they wanted; some of the most telling remarks are quoted below.
There were no problems with the guidelines. A few (mostly journalists, of course) had problems with the deadlines. The terror on my part was that there might be a tie for fifth place, forcing us to find some kind of tiebreak mechanism. But it was not a problem: the final verdict was unexpectedly decisive, and there was a substantial gap between fifth and sixth.
It was not, of course, as great as the gap between second and third. The endorsement of Bradman was every bit as ringing as expected (I did wonder if someone, somewhere, might be contrarian, but no one dared). Steve Waugh summed up the consensus as eloquently as anyone: "Sir Donald really speaks for himself". "Only one Don", said Alan Davidson. No one can doubt, no one does doubt, that here was the greatest cricketer of the 20th century.
But Sir Garfield Sobers was not far behind. He was on 90 of the 100 ballot papers and those who left him out must have wrestled with their consciences first. "If there's been a better all-rounder," as Dickie Bird put it, "I'd love to have seen him play." Thus the overwhelming majority of those who voted felt, frustratingly, that they did not really have five votes but three - because the top two were certainties.
Indeed, many felt the same applied to Sir Jack Hobbs. But here there was a complication. Most people wanted to include someone to represent the pinnacle of English batsmanship, and there were alternatives. Walter Hammond's statistics are overwhelming. Then consider impact on the public; on that basis it is hard to argue against Denis Compton. And what about Sir Leonard? Many exceptional judges did not vote for Hobbs. John Woodcock chose Compton for enchantment. Swanton made the case for Frank Woolley: "He scored more runs than anyone bar Hobbs and scored at around 50 an hour, giving more pleasure and for longer than any other English cricketer. And he took 2,000 wickets and 1,000 catches."
Enough, however, opted for Hobbs's quiet but devastating impact on the game. "He challenged the key assumption that no professional could bat as well as a thoroughbred amateur": said Gideon Haigh, editor of WisdenAustralia. And he was, as our long-standing Sri Lankan correspondent Gerry Vaidyasekera put it, "a batsman with a charming smile and a kind heart".
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the identity of the player in fourth place. There were people among our hundred frightened to make a judgement on players they had not seen, which might have given present-day players an advantage. With perfect knowledge, maybe there would have been more votes for some of the early players, for Barnes, say, or Victor Trumper. But there are always former players who scorn the moderns, and perhaps an equal number of ballot papers reflected this factor. In any case, the votes for Shane Warne came from across the globe and across the generations. If anyone doubts his status, listen to Crawford White, 88 last year and the former cricket correspondent of the Daily Express, who watched both Warne and Bill O'Reilly. "O'Reilly didn't rip the ball through like Warne does," said White. "And I don't think he caught the imagination quite as much as this lad."
The fifth selection turned out to be a third specialist batsman, Viv Richards, "a master of both versions of the game", in the words of the Pakistani journalist Omar Kureishi. No one better epitomises the ferocious nature of cricket in the 1970s and 1980s - except perhaps Dennis Lillee. No specialist fast bowler made the final cut, arguably the one flaw in our selection. But Lillee was by far the nearest, with a particularly high poll from those who saw him at closest quarters - "To me, the greatest fast bowler in history," said Dickie Bird - as well as votes from such luminaries as Sir Everton Weekes and Peter Pollock.
Others preferred Harold Larwood or Ray Lindwall ("the greatest quickie of all in pace, control and movement" - Tom Graveney). In the end, Lillee was not even outright sixth, but finished equal with Sir Frank Worrell, whose position perhaps bore testament to the concept of interpreting excellence broadly, and the near-reverence in which he is still held as a leader whose impact resounded far beyond cricket. "A great man," said Richie Benaud, his most worthy opponent, putting Worrell in his five.
Some voters - quite legitimately - used at least one of their picks to include their personal heroes. Fred Trueman chose Wilfred Rhodes; one South African sheet anchor, Russell Endean, voted for another, Bruce Mitchell; Bob Taylor struck a blow for wicket-keepers, not easy to do in a list of just five, by choosing Godfrey Evans.
Others honoured their contemporaries. Vic Marks had the chance to name two of his Somerset team-mates - Richards and Ian Botham - and took it, though he resisted including Peter Denning, Peter Roebuck and Colin Dredge as well. Peter van der Merwe, the former South African captain, picked out Colin Bland: "He revolutionised the attitude to fielding, and set a standard not yet equalled." Alf Gover named Maurice Tate. Brian Close went for Trueman.
But there were also some touching, and unexpected, tributes across the generations. The great New Zealand batsman John Reid voted for Malcolm Marshall, before Marshall's tragically early death: "He seems to have had everything: pace, movement, accuracy, and the right attitude, which is hard to say of some other fast bowlers." Ian Chappell, that bonny fighter for cricketers' rights, went for Barnes: "Statistically a great bowler and stamped his character on the game by demanding that he always be paid his worth." Jonathan Agnew went for A. P. Freeman: "His statistics blow my mind whenever I read them."
One member of the panel, however, went very close to home indeed. Walter Hadlee confronted the issue squarely as he cast his ballot for his son, Sir Richard. "This has to be embarrassing for me," he wrote. "But there's a job to be done. I will cite the bare facts." And he did: 431 Test wickets and the transformation of New Zealand's Test record. "I consider him to be marginally ahead of Dennis Lillee," he concluded. And a dozen other people - all unrelated - came to a similar conclusion.
Not one of our hundred voted for all the final five. Yet I don't believe anyone will argue that we have got it terribly wrong. At least one of the five played in every decade of the century. We have two Australians, two West Indians and an Englishman, which seems geographically right (though one suspects an Asian or three will be up there for the 21st century). A total of 49 players received at least one vote. And the difficulty of the choice can be gauged by the quality of some of those who failed to get on the scoresheet at all: Keith Miller (who received many mentions in despatches), Barry Richards, Greg Chappell, Gooch, Laker, Lara, Hanif, C. B. Fry...
It was enormous fun just counting the votes; I think almost everyone enjoyed the exquisite torment of making a decision. If there is a sadness, it is only that none of us can expect to be around to have a second bite in 2100. But I hope our successors will make the attempt, and (with more video to guide them) will have just as many great cricketers from whom to choose.
In choosing and contacting the electorate, I was given special help by Mike Coward, Colin Bryden, Tony Cozier, R. Mohan, Qamar Ahmed and Don Cameron. To these, and everyone else who took part, I would like to express my gratitude.