Decade Review 2009

The joy-givers of the decade

Sehwag takes the bronze, Ntini the silver. The gold goes to an underdog with a social conscience and magic at his fingertips

Rob Steen

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Captains Brian Lara of the West Indies and Ricky Ponting of Australia share a joke as they leave the field after the 2nd One Day International between the West Indies and Australia on May 18, 2003 at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica.
Lara and Ponting: not top of this particular heap © Getty Images
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It's that time of year - and that time of decade. Best Ofs R Us. Awards, though, can be capricious beasts. Monuments to meritocracy they are not.

Hollywood's Oscars were the prototype, focusing on celebrity, sentiment and profits at the expense of artistic merit. Those of a sporty nature tend to be juster. Trophies, medals and records are the pounds, shillings and pence. They also cover a broader canvas. In the Times' decade-spanning Top 100 Sporting Moments, Usain Bolt's staggering 100m at the 2009 World Athletics Championships finished seven rungs below Alex Ferguson scolding David Beckham with a flying boot, 20 below Gary Pratt's run-out of Ricky Ponting and 32 beneath Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee, the overall No.4.

Then there's one of television's most durable pageants, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, dogged by allegations of fixing two weekends ago. Upon learning he had won the main prize, Ryan Giggs, the evergreen Manchester United winger, could barely disguise his amazement (the United supporters who voted en masse may have been somewhat less surprised). After all, beyond surpassing various club appearance records, he hadn't achieved that much. His team's most conspicuous act? Humiliation by Barcelona in the European Cup final.

Several others harboured vastly stronger claims: world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis; Formula 1 champion Jenson Button; David Haye, who beat a 7ft 2in Russian to claim a timeshare in the world heavyweight boxing title. Nor has Giggs ever imprinted any sense of "personality" on the British public besides being fast and fancy with a pig's bladder at his feet.

The BBC award has always been something of a misnomer. It salutes and celebrates achievement and nation, not personality. Jim Laker won in 1956 even though, when he popped into a pub on the way home from his miraculous Old Trafford stint, not a single soul recognised him. (Incidentally, it says something unusually nice for sportswriterhood, that last bastion of cultural sexism, that this year's Sports Journalists' Association Team of the Year were not Andrew Strauss's Ashes winners but Charlotte Edwards'.)

So what should we call cricket's ultimate Noughties accolade so as to avoid equivocation? Most Influential Force? Lionise the instigators of Twenty20 and the decision review system by all means, but those same chaps have sold the game halfway down the river while scorning those ultimately responsible for those plush paydays. Man of the Decade? Too dismissive of Edwards, Belinda Clark and Claire Taylor; too open to Rupert Murdoch and his satellites. Cricketer of the Decade? That would let in Hansie Cronje (Time magazine did seriously consider anointing Adolf Hitler Man of the Century). Sport's chief raison d'etre is to lighten hearts and raise crests, so let's plump for Joybringer.

It isn't easy to decide on the most amazing aspect of Sehwag's achievement. That he has yet to challenge Viv Richards' record 56-ball 100? Or that, even after the 146 in Rajkot he was still averaging 50% fewer in ODIs than Tests? Living proof of sport's glorious unpredictability? Yes. A tonic for all, even in the Age of the Bat? You betcha

IT'S A HUGELY COMPETITIVE FIELD. For scruples and bravery, look no further than Henry Olonga and Andy Flower. Ever since Tommie Smith and John Carlos were flung out of the Olympic Village in 1968 for highlighting the plight of the black man, sportsmen have run scared of political statements; the ceaseless pursuit of a sanitised image has been embodied most dismayingly by Tiger Woods. Yet here were two Zimbabweans at their own World Cup, ebony and ivory in perfect harmony, denouncing the tyranny of Robert Mugabe, a man with more than enough dangerous friends to leave both fearful for their lives. Now Flower is infusing Englishmen with that same unflinchingness.

Inside the boundary, the footprints promise to be long and deep. Forenames and nicknames should suffice. The runs and majesty of Brian, Ricky and Sachin; the wickets and sorcery of Murali and Warney; the unflappable constancy of Jacques, Kumar and The Wall; the brutal pace of Brett and Shoaib; MS and Gilly - redefiners of all-roundness; Harby and Swanny - Renaissance Men of finger-spin… what, stop there?

Glenn's immaculate control; Daniel's indomitable wiliness; AB's Velcro hands; Shahid's effervescence; Colly's grit; Shivnarine's cussedness; Vaughany's cover-drive; the exquisite flourishes of VVS; the wristy lustre of Hashim, Mahela and Yousuf; the pioneering audacity of Ajantha, KP and Mr Dilscoop; Shakib - Bangladesh's first world-beater; Freddie - comic-book hero from West to East. Above all tower the munificent, magnificent three.

Bronze goes to Virender Sehwag, the first batsman since Bradman to combine speed and gluttony. Bringing a one-day mindset to the Test crease, he has made outlandishly merry: only man bar Bradman to reach the 290s three times; two of the three quickest triple-hundreds in terms of balls faced; three scores of 250-plus at better than a run a ball; five of the 10 fastest double-tons. Among specialists with 2000 Test runs, he leads on strike rate, at 80.44 runs per 100 balls, with Clem Hill (74.91) a distant second. And still he averages over 54 for India, second only to Len Hutton among openers topping 5500 runs. The solitary consolation for bowlers is that he seldom detains them for longer than two sessions. Still, if any contemporary batsman can outstrip Lara's 400, he can.

It isn't easy to decide on the most amazing aspect of all this. That he has yet to challenge Viv Richards' record 56-ball 100? Or that, even after last week's 146 in Rajkot, he was still averaging 50% fewer in ODIs than Tests? Living proof of sport's glorious unpredictability? Yes. A freak? Time will tell, but quite possibly. A tonic for all, even in the Age of the Bat? You betcha.

Muttiah Muralitharan enjoys his nets session, Lord's, May 30, 2009
Muralitharan: humility, dignity and an unquenchable competitive zeal © Getty Images

SEPARATING SILVER medallist from gold, however, is the stiffest ask. In one corner bobs Makhaya Ntini: cattleherd turned shining, smiling symbol of the Rainbow Nation. South African cricket's first black icon, and only the third bowler of express pace to play 100 Tests, he may yet supplant Shaun Pollock as his country's greatest wicket-taker in Tests (not bad, given that his modus operandi all but rules out lbws). Imagine predicting that little lot in 1968, or even this time last decade.

He owes plenty to an astonishingly resolute body (Richard Pybus, a former coach, originally suspected he was made of titanium and carbon fibre). No less essential has been the inner strength. To the South African authorities, craving a champion of transformation in an era of quotas, what could have proved more embarrassing than picking someone unworthy? As Michael Atherton reasoned in the Times, that would have been worse than no role model at all. Fortunately - and despite being found guilty, however briefly, of rape - Ntini had the skill, the application and the fortitude to spare blushes. As someone who once thought nothing of warming his feet in cow droppings, he is also sufficiently aware of the obverse of life's coin to withstand the intense pressure that has so long resided on his shoulders. Perish the thought, but if the award of that 100th cap was based on either politics or sentiment, as some have whispered, so be it. For all the no-cap wonders he represents, he's earned it 10 times over.

And then there's The Artist Known As Murali, owner of another pair of staggeringly sturdy shoulders. Long the lone bowling threat and lonely Tamil in a Sinhalese dressing room at the height of a civil war - that, surely, was burden enough. Muttiah Muralitharan's entire career, moreover, has been clouded by condemnation, for an action dictated by a deformed elbow yet always approved when scientifically examined. But it's that rubbery right wrist that has propelled him towards 800 Test victims, not a bent arm. That and an unquenchable competitive zeal, even if the only visible hint is that single jagged tooth, lending him the look of a habitually famished shark.

Nobody in cricket history, not even Lalit Modi, has so constantly courted controversy, nor so divided opinion. Is it a matter of principle, of racism, or simply resentment at Sri Lanka's improbable march on the game's summit (entering the decade with 16 Test wins from 99 matches, they ended it with 60 from 192, overtaking India and New Zealand in the win-loss column)? Probably a bit of all three.

Through it all, the humility and dignity have dimmed not a watt. Only once, fleetingly, has Murali allowed himself to be provoked into anything even resembling trash talk, and it took that consummate pot-stirrer Warne to do it. Only very recently, in his 38th year, has he failed to meet the colossal standards he has set himself. Only now, with a guarantee-nobody'll beat-'em 61,880 deliveries and 1315 wickets on his international clock, does he finally look vulnerable.

Nuff Respect: that's what Linford Christie, the former Olympic sprint champion and another polariser of public opinion, called his management company. Murali might wish he'd got there first. Has he been given his due? Not yet. Not by half. They may have flattered on occasion, but the stats don't lie. Subtract those 89 cheap-as-chips Bangladeshi wickets and he still averages a Barnesian 5.81 scalps per Test to Warne's 4.88. So long as you accept they were legitimately earned. This laptop's acceptance is wholly unreserved.

An underdog and outsider with a social conscience and magic at his fingertips: no sportsman has ever brought me greater joy. Let's leave it in posterity's capable hands.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton


Comments: 46 
Posted by Jeff on (December 26, 2009, 10:01 GMT)

@Ullas_79 - Ummm, it's difficult to give too much of the detail of a statistical analysis in this format but essentially the methodology was as follows: 1) work out what an average team and therefore average player scores in an ODI innings - the average ODI (50 over) score is approx 230/8 which essentially means that an average player scores at a rate of about 77 runs per 100 balls and lasts for approx 36 balls on average. 2) Substitute one of these average players with Sehwag to determine how many extra runs he would add to the team (SR= 103, BPD= 33) 3) Repeat step 2 for other players until you find the best. Note that the inspiration of this was some of the Sabermetric baseball stats, eg. "Runs Above Average". Using this methodology, Sehwag would improve the average team score to about 241. This is the best for modern players but if you equalise for the slower scoring rates in earlier times, then you could argue that Richards is better, but it's close...

Posted by bharadwaj on (December 25, 2009, 11:57 GMT)

Nice article Rob. Murali deserves the Gold. Kumble could have been accommodated somewhere, atleast a token mention in the article. Also thanks for keeping SRT out of the podium..

Posted by Omar on (December 25, 2009, 6:42 GMT)

Murali, the controversial genius, has done single-handedly to raise the joy-giving to a beleagured nation whose credo is cricket. 20 million people whether they be Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, or Burghers will vouch for Rob's verdict. No doubt all others will have their own favourites: after all beauty is in the beholder. For Murali to have trascended from the shores of an island to the realms of the world his jagged tooth bears testimony to the joy he has given others and if, it be just one person who has the decency and the guts to acknowledge it, then it fills my heart.

Posted by Yohan on (December 24, 2009, 21:56 GMT)

Hats off to Author. Murali is given the title which he deserves a lot after all critisisms throughout his career . At a time ahen batting dominaets cricket, we need more and more innovative bowlers of his calibre. Worth a small mention of Ranatunga who protects a career of a classy bowler.

Posted by Rajasundram on (December 24, 2009, 21:50 GMT)

If the emphasis is on 'the decade' then Tendulkar must be in and not Shewag. Sachin has (like Murali) been carrying India's batting on his shoulders for more than a decade. It is a pity that we have to stop at 3 - because there were other greats like Lara, Ponting. Ganguly, Kumble, Alan Donald, Waim Akram, Sanath Jayasuriya, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Glenn McGrath - all great entertainers in their own way. They have enriched the game. Siva from Singapore

Posted by lucy on (December 24, 2009, 18:57 GMT)

Enjoyed the swipe at Giggs' accolade - he's great, but it should have gone to Ennis. Also glad that two of your top three are bowlers, because batting's bloody boring.

Posted by CD on (December 24, 2009, 14:10 GMT)

Posted by ceedee980

Bowlers win matches. They do not entertain. Batsmen do.

Therefore, perforce the choice of best entertainer has to be a batsman. In which form of cricket. I am convinced it is Sehwag. There are others, but none with such a consistent performance

Posted by jamshed on (December 24, 2009, 12:00 GMT)

For me,Shahid Afridi is a great entertainer.You blink and he could be walking back to the pavilion.Seems he closes his eyes,puts his trust in God and swings his arms. But somehow,(I still haven't figured out how) he helped Pakistan win the T 20 World Cup.

Posted by Charindra on (December 24, 2009, 10:44 GMT)

Well done Rob, for your choice of Murali. As a man's importance grows, so does the need for him to be humble. Murali has managed to be so pure and noble (a bit too noble at times) amidst all provocation. And he has been the sole unifying symbol in a polarized nation. And I haven't even started on the wickets yet..

Posted by Quaid on (December 24, 2009, 8:12 GMT)

the gold medalist is shahid afridi bcus of his aggressiveness and no body is born like afridi.bcus of afridi t20 farmat launched and silver medalist is muralli and bronze medalist is yousuf frm my point iv veiw.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination"
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