Don Bradman's star would shine in any era
The former Times Chief Cricket Correspondent identifies his top 100 cricketers of all time
1 Don Bradman
From the late 1920s until his retirement in 1949, the greatest of all specialist batsmen had a wider role as a hero of popular culture and the unwitting symbol and unifier of the Australian nation. Bradman's unequalled batting achievements, and the fact that he was playing at a time when his country was asserting its right to complete independence, made him the most famous cricketer since W.G. Grace. Like the champion himself his steely determination, hunger for success and genius for sport put him in a different class from any contemporary. By a whisker, if that is the appropriate phrase, he may be deemed the greatest of all cricketers, because his superiority over all contemporaries was even greater.
He was brought up in the country town of Bowral in New South Wales, where he taught himself to bat by hitting a golf ball rebounding from the brick stand of a water tank in his parents' back yard.
When he came to England as a 21-year-old in 1930, he had already scored the highest Australian first-class score of 452 not out for New South Wales against Queensland. He scored a century in the first Test, a double-century in the second, 334 in the third at Leeds (the world-record Test score at the time) and another double-century in the fifth at the Oval.
At Headingley he had scored a hundred before lunch, another in the middle session and a third between tea and the close.
Against the South Africa touring team in 1931-32, he was still more merciless, scoring 1,190 runs against them in eight innings, three for New South Wales, at an average of 170. In five Test innings his average was 201.5. Such brilliance and remorselessness spawned Douglas Jardine's ruthless strategy in England's return series in Australia.
Bradman was merely scathed by bodyline bowling but his batting average of 56.57 in 1932-33, 14 runs higher than anyone else's, represented failure, embarrassment and defeat for him. Had he not been so cut down to size in that series, his final Test average would have been more than 100. Famously, it was 99.94, and in first-class cricket he scored 117 centuries, on average a hundred every third time that he batted.
He continued to dominate through the 1930s, to some extent a man apart in the dressing room because of his single-mindedness and his controversial move to Adelaide to accept a lucrative job as a stockbroker in 1934. At the end of his tour to England that year, he had an emergency operation to remove an acutely inflamed appendix and only narrowly avoided the peritonitis that might have been fatal.
This was a front-page drama, with his young wife, Jessie, summoned to travel by sea from Australia. He had a long convalescence but in 1936-37, inevitably, became Australia's captain.
When G.O. Allen's England side arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, they were greeted with the news that the new leader's past seven first-class innings had been 233, 357, 31, 0, 1, 369 and 212. Australia came back from defeat in the first two Tests to win the series 3-2. Bradman had innings of 270, 212 and 169 in the three games that transformed the series.
Used as a PT instructor early in the war, he was invalided out of the Army in 1941, but returned to cricket afterwards almost by popular demand. He captained his unbeaten team to England in 1948 with pragmatism and made a great diplomatic success of his final visit.
Such were his reactions, fitness, keenness, intelligence and deep determination that he would have been a champion in any era since, not least the present one. It is true that the need to change tempo for 50 and now for 20-over cricket against defensive fields and often on slower pitches would have tested even so fast a scorer as the Don, but in his prime he would have relished and risen above the challenge.
His speed of foot and eye, not to mention modern bats, would have enabled him to compensate for a slight physique compared with some of the muscular players of today. His preference for keeping the ball along the ground would either have been tempered by a calculated decision to hit some balls for six - no batsman ever played the percentages so shrewdly as Bradman - or by his skill in finding gaps in the field with full-blooded strokes played late.
Short-pitched bowling would have been no handicap given the extra protection of a helmet. His powers of concentration - he scored 37 double and 12 triple centuries - would have ensured the same prolific achievements in first-class cricket now as then, especially given covered pitches. That he could not bat on wet or sticky pitches was a myth based largely on a couple of failures against Hedley Verity on the drying pitch at Lord's in 1934.
There was another paradox: he was a hero with the masses but not a popular man with most of his team-mates and opponents. He was too private and single-minded for that. Bill O'Reilly, his rival from boyhood, said: “He felt it his bounden duty to reduce every bowler to incompetency.”
2 W.G. Grace
Grace was no saint, sometimes pushing gamesmanship to the limit, but for the last 30 years of the 19th century he had been the country's greatest batsman and most famous sportsman. He made plenty of money from cricket but these days the agents and image-makers would have multiplied his wealth many times.
3 Garry Sobers
No cricketer has so often and so easily reached sublime heights as batsman, bowler and fielder as Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, a lithe Barbadian of sunny temperament who found cricket as easy as walking. There was about him that air of supreme natural talent that has only been equalled in any sport since by Tiger Woods.
4 Shane Warne
Comfortably the most influential Australian cricketer since Don Bradman, he experienced notoriety as well as adulation and fame. The more his fame and success grew, the more he tended to push gamesmanship to the limit in talking to umpires and opposing batsmen. He had such charm that he generally got away with it.
5 Jack Hobbs
No bad word was ever published or, apparently, spoken about a batsman who wearied bowlers for 30 years by the unrivalled mastery of his batting. It marks Sir John Berry Hobbs as little less than a saint, as well as a popular hero. He was the model of cricket's art and spirit.
6 Viv Richards
A proud and passionate man with the physique of a heavyweight boxer, he would saunter to the wicket like a gladiator entering the arena without a thought of failure. The faster his opponents bowled at him, the more fiercely he hooked and drove them.
7 S.F. Barnes
A giant in every sense, Sydney Barnes, of Staffordshire, was to all batsmen like a judge to a convicted felon or a dentist looming over a patient who knows he has neglected his teeth for too long. He extracted 189 batsmen in 27 Tests and his contemporaries knew him simply as the greatest bowler of all.
8 Walter Hammond
Hammond in command at the crease was one of the most majestic sights in cricket: a galleon in full sail. Withal he was England's surest slip fielder and capable of devastating spells as a fast-medium bowler.
9 Sachin Tendulkar
Compact power, perfect timing, the ability to hit good balls for four, humility, discipline and extraordinary concentration have made Tendulkar the highest run-scorer in international cricket. It is doubtful whether any great sportsman has conducted himself better despite a career spent constantly in the public eye.
10 Adam Gilchrist
For the first seven years of the 21st century, indeed, he was the game's greatest match-winner. A keen-eyed, agile wicketkeeper of high quality, he also took control of many a one-day international as a barnstorming opening batsman.
Distinguishing the great cricketers from the goodChristopher Martin-Jenkins
Accepting a commission to select the top 100 cricketers of all time was at once hard to resist and very unwise. It is one thing to try to please some of the people some of the time. To annoy all of them some of the time is probably foolish, even for a broadcaster, for whom “one who irritates people by words or mannerisms” might almost be a definition.
The selection will inevitably offend some. It was a challenge to be asked, however, and a pleasure to sift the assortment presented by the game’s long history, even if it felt a little like choosing between the peppermint and strawberry creams in an irresistible box of handmade chocolates.
How do you compare the worth of bowlers, batsmen, wicketkeepers and all-rounders? How can you evaluate men of different eras playing differing amounts of cricket on different pitches with different equipment under different laws? You cannot, and nor can a computer, because whatever the parameters, a machine cannot assess human qualities: the character, style and aesthetic appeal of a cricketer, all things that are part of the equation.
The hardest aspect is judging between those one has seen playing and those about whom one has only read. To take one relatively obscure example, Sri Lankans who saw him still revere the memory of Mahadevan Sathasivam, who “used his bat like a wand”. He was a hero before his country began to participate in Test cricket and, incidentally, moved to Malaysia, having been falsely accused of murdering his wife. Frank Worrell, the great West Indian, was quoted as saying that “Sathi” was the best batsman in the world, but he had no chance to prove it on a grand stage.
The same is true, alas, of Vintcent van der Bijl, the giant but genial South African who was not allowed to play in Test cricket because of the political sins of his country’s government when he was causing havoc in domestic cricket. One season for Middlesex in 1980 in which he took 85 championship wickets at 14 each, and a first-class record of 767 wickets at 16.54, suggest that he could have been another Ken Farnes (who at 6ft 5in was three inches shorter) or even better.
Black and Coloured South African cricketers before the end of apartheid were even more sadly destined to waste their sweetness on the desert air. No doubt there were many others whose fame remained local because of the social conventions of their time, such as Palwankar Baloo, the Indian left-arm spinner, who took more than 100 wickets on tour in England in 1911.
I made two early decisions: to stick to men’s cricket and to Test cricketers, so I have not attempted to consider players before the dawn of official international cricket in 1877.
Thus there is no Alfred Mynn, John Small, Billy Beldham, David Harris, William Clarke, Fuller Pilch or John Wisden. Would that this had proved the end of my problems. It is a chastening thought for me that I have been alive for about half of the 132 years since Test cricket started. Human nature tends to err towards those of whom one has had personal experience, but so far as natural frailties allow I have tried to be objective in choosing between ancients and moderns, fast bowlers and slow, the pioneers from England and Australia and one-day champions of today hailing in so many cases from the sub-continent.
The sheer volume of contemporary professional cricket and the availability of a variety of statistics add to the difficulty. The main criteria, however, have been character, class, temperament, the ability to entertain and the capacity, above all, to win matches by personal performance in a team cause.
But where do you start and where do you stop? What is a “great” player? Is he one touched by genius, whether completely fulfilled or not? Is he one who has achieved great things? Must he have courage as well as exceptional talent and the hard-learnt qualities of discipline and patience that successful cricket demands? All those selected certainly have great success in common, but all, too, have something else, that special element that sometimes makes both spectators and fellow players catch their breath in awe.
©Christopher Martin-Jenkins 2009. Extracted from The 100 Greatest Cricketers Of All Time, to be published by Corinthian Books on May 21.