Who are the top five cricketers of all time? It is a debate that sends names and statistics flying at pubs up and down the country every weekend. For our purposes, we will focus largely on Test cricket; so many of the greats never played the short form, after all. Some huge names will miss out, but them’s the breaks when there are only a handful of spots to fill. And if we have left out an absolute monty, we are certain you will let us know about it.
And so, without further ado: our top five greatest cricketers of all time.
As far as no-brainers go, this is the king of the lot. ‘The Don’ is, and probably always will be, the greatest cricketer who ever lived. The Australian’s career statistics remain a marvel of the modern world and, many would argue, define him as perhaps the single most dominant performer in any sport, in any era. That legendary batting average of 99.94 is a high watermark that will almost certainly never be matched.
Exactly how good are Bradman’s numbers though? Well, let’s put them into perspective, shall we? Among players who have scored at least 2,000 runs in Test cricket, the next highest batting average is Graeme Pollock’s 60.97 over 23 matches. That leaves a margin of some 38.97 runs per innings between Bradman and second place – which is more than Shane Watson (36.33), Australia’s incumbent number three, has averaged over his entire Test career to date.
The term ‘all rounder’ is thrown around loosely these days, but in the case of Garry Sobers it is an understatement of epic proportions. ‘Complete’ would be a more apt description for a man who, besides scoring more than 8,000 Test runs (including 26 centuries), also took 235 wickets while employing just about every bowling style under the sun – from slow left-arm orthodox, up to genuine fast-medium seamers. Add to that his world-class fielding – whether around the bat or in the outfield – and a will to entertain at all times, and nobody comes close in the all-rounder category.
Besides the raw figures (impressive though they are), it was Sobers’ unique blend of style, charisma, and brute force that earned him legend status – along with a happy knack for the extraordinary. What manner of genius sets a world-record 365 not out – a benchmark that stood for 36 years – with their maiden Test ton at 21 years of age? The Barbadian left-hander was also the first player to tonk six consecutive sixes in an over in first-class cricket, obliterating Glamorgan’s Malcolm Nash at Swansea in 1968 while playing with County club Nottinghamshire.
Forget the mountains of runs and the record number of international centuries – Sachin Tendulkar’s greatest achievement is that, for the first time, there is a debate over who is the greatest batsman of all time. Bradman is still a clear and uncatchable number one, of course, but the exploits of the ‘Little Master’ mean that the unthinkable has at least been thought.
No player has dominated the modern era of the sport quite like Tendulkar, who hung up his bat in 2013 to end the most prolific career in cricket history. Aside from nearly 16,000 Test runs with some 51 centuries, the India superstar ruled One Day Internationals with over 18,000 runs – including a staggering 145 innings of 50 runs or more in 463 games.
Tendulkar had plenty of contemporaries who might lay claim to his spot in this list – most notably South Africa’s Jacques Kallis, former Australia captain Ricky Ponting, and the inimitable Brian Lara. But the numbers do not lie, and Sachin’s world records for most Test runs, tons, and caps – besides a slew of first-class and ODI achievements – make him a lock for the top five.
They call him the ‘King of Spin’, and for damn good reason. Shane Warne took exactly 1,000 international scalps (708 in Tests, 292 in ODIs) during a 15-year career in which he was the most lethal weapon in an all-conquering Australia side. The Melbourne native revived a dying art-form to become the finest leg spinner the game has seen – and perhaps the greatest bowler, period. Just watch THAT ball to Mike Gatting at Trent Bridge in ’93 (among many, many other crackers), and ask yourself if anyone else has ever been able to do that.
Some would claim that Warnie isn’t even the best spin bowler of his generation, considering Muttiah Muralitharan has him covered on wickets taken. There is an argument for saying the Sri Lankan off spinner was a better bowler – numbers are numbers – but there’s an even more convincing one for saying Warne was the better cricketer. For while Murali’s game was almost solely dependant on wickets, he was clumsy in most other aspects – an unreliable fielder, a poor batsman, and lacking leadership qualities. Warne, meanwhile, was a mainstay in the Aussie slip cordon, a hard-hitting number eight, and a tactical wizard.
Warne’s greatest asset was not his fingers, but his head. For all the controversies over the years – the drug ban, the bookmaking scandal, the paparazzi nonsense – the ‘Sheik of Tweak’ possessed one of the sharpest, most intuitive minds the game has ever seen. The saying goes that he could get you out without even bowling a ball (just ask Daryl Cullinan). And if it wasn’t for the sky-high ego and misdeeds off the field, SK Warne may well have become one of Australia’s great Test captains as well.
Imran Khan did for cricket what Che Guevara did for communism: he made it sexy as hell. Pakistan (and indeed the international game as a whole) could not have asked for a better poster boy, as the handsome, articulate, and hugely charismatic Khan played an enormous role in shaping the sport in his homeland. Oh, and he could play a bit, too – so much so that he beats out all-round giants Sir Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, and Jacques Kallis to make this list.
Why? Well, 362 Test wickets at an average of 22-and-a-bit is a good place to start. Khan’s accuracy, swing, and genuine pace revolutionised fast bowling in the subcontinent, where spin had (and largely remains) the dominant approach. It was Khan’s ability to get wickets out of dead, dusty pitches that directly inspired the next wave of Pakistani quicks, including the twin nightmares that were Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
Whereas other stars of his era declined markedly with age and the strain of carrying a nation’s hopes (read Botham), Khan saved some of his best work for the second half of his career. Nothing demonstrates this better than an examination of his batting stats: in 51 Tests from 1982 until his retirement in 1992, he averaged over 50 with the willow. Combine that with a bowling average of 19 over the same period, and inspiring leadership that steered Pakistan to glory in the 1992 World Cup, and you can see why the Lahore native gets the nod.
Sir Viv Richards – How did this happen? How is the ‘Master Blaster’ not in the top five? The most uncompromising batsman of the ’70s and ’80s, and a trailblazer in ODI cricket, Sir Viv’s desire to entertain (both himself and the crowds) resulted in a relatively unflattering conversion rate in Test cricket. For while 24 tons and 45 half-centuries is a superb record, it doesn’t quite stack up against the game’s all-time batting greats.
Jacques Kallis – Easily the best player to come from South Africa’s post-Apartheid era, Kallis’ 13,289 runs and 292 wickets in Tests makes him one of the great all-rounders in history – and perhaps second only to Tendulkar as an out-and-out bat. In a word: unlucky.
Sir Richard Hadlee – This is why top fives are so bloody difficult. Hadlee is without doubt the finest cricketer to come from New Zealand, and the first bowler in Test history to pass 400 wickets. A ruthlessly accurate seamer, Hadlee was by his own admission just an okay lower-order batsman – although two Test hundreds is certainly nothing to sneer at. Wisden named him the second greatest Test bowler of all time, ahead of Glenn McGrath and contemporaries such as Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram.
Sir Ian Botham – Botham was the mercurial talent upon whom England’s fortunes hinged between 1977 and 1992; and if ever a man carried a team, it was ‘Beefy’. Injury and off-field shenanigans hindered the latter part of the Yorkshireman’s career, however, and his Test averages – 33 with the bat, 28 with the ball – do not come close to describing the devastation and majesty of Sir Ian’s 14 centuries and 383 wickets.
Muttiah Muralitharan – So the world’s leading wicket taker in both Tests and ODIs doesn’t get a guernsey. The Murali versus Warne debate is one that will rage on for many, many years, but there is one significant argument against the former Sri Lanka spinner’s inclusion: there were never any questions about Warnie’s action. Besides, the Aussie leggy’s all-round game was far more impressive than Muralitharan’s.
There are so many more worthy of a spot: Brian Lara, Glenn McGrath, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond, Ricky Ponting, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev… but, alas, we can’t fit them all in. Who would make your top five?
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