//After Sobers, Who? The Telegraph

After Sobers, Who? The Telegraph

In one of the first books I read, the writer had posed the question: ‘Who was the greatest all-rounder in the history of cricket?’, before providing this answer: ‘He was a left-arm bowler and a right-hand batsman, who was born in the village of Kirkheaton’.

I now forget the title of the book, but remember the author. He was A. A. Thomson, a notorious partisan of Yorkshire cricketers. He had grown up idolizing Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst, who both played for that county, who were both born in the Yorkshire hamlet of Kirkheaton, and who both batted right-hand and bowled left-arm (with the difference that Hirst was a seamer and Rhodes a spinner). Hence that artful and ambiguous answer to the question of who was cricket’s greatest all-rounder. Thomson did not want to choose between Hirst and Rhodes—yet he was sure they were the only two legitimate candidates for the honour.

I owe my own identification with Karnataka cricket to my early reading of A. A. Thomson. It was he who encouraged me to put state/county over country/nation in my hierarchy of sporting fandom. Yet even at the time I could see that this was partisanship carried to excess. For Thomson was writing in the late 1960s, by which time it was apparent that there could be only one candidate for the title of greatest-ever all-rounder. He bowled and batted left-handed, and was born in the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados. Hirst and Rhodes had excellent county records, but their deeds in Test cricket were relatively insignificant compared to those of Garfield St. Auburn Sobers.

The great mathematician G. H. Hardy, a cricket nut, once remarked that Don Bradman was in a different class from every other batsman who had ever played cricket. Hardy died in 1947; had he lived another twenty years, he would have added that Sobers was in a different class from every other all-rounder who had ever played the game.

I came to appreciate Sobers’ uniqueness early, for the first cricket series I followed on the radio was played in England in the summer of 1966. This was won 3-1 by the West Indies, with its captain scoring (if memory serves) in excess of 700 runs, taking twenty wickets, and taking ten catches as well. The next winter the West Indians came to India, where Sobers again played a leading role in his side’s series win. Therefore, even though I was merely ten years old at the time, I could see that Thomson’s claim that the greatest all-rounder was born in the Yorkshire village of Kirkheaton was not just faintly but staggeringly ridiculous.

In their respective fields, Bradman and Sobers were in a class of their own, their position somewhat analogous to that of Shakespeare in the realm of English literature. There is, of course, a debate to be had about who was the second greatest English writer ever. Was it Wordsworth, Chaucer, George Eliot, Charles Dickens or someone else altogether? Likewise, it is eminently worthwhile to debate who was the second greatest batsman, and who the second greatest all-rounder, in the history of cricket. This column shall focus on this last question.

Garfield Sobers himself made his debut for the West Indies in 1954. The first Test match had been played almost eight decades previously, in 1877. In considering who was the greatest all-rounder before Sobers, some names that come to mind, apart from the aforementioned Hirst and Rhodes, are of a third Yorkshireman, F. S. Jackson, the Australian Monty Noble, and the South African G. A. Faulkner, all of whom had decent Test records. A persuasive case can also be made for Keith Miller, a key member of Bradman’s all-conquering Australian side of the late 1940s, who a magnificent attacking batsman, a fearsome fast bowler, and a superb slip fielder besides.

As for great all-rounders after Sobers, one must consider above all the remarkable quartet of the 1970s and 1980s whose careers so strikingly overlapped—the New Zealander Richard Hadlee, the Pakistani Imran Khan, the Englishman Ian Botham, and the Indian Kapil Dev. Hadlee was by some distance the best bowler of the lot. Kapil bravely bore the burden of bowling fast in Indian conditions and with the incompetent Indian slip fielders of that era. Most judges, however, would pick either Imran or Botham to head this list of four, because they were almost equally good with bat and ball.

I watched a great deal of Hadlee, Imran, Botham and Kapil, and admired them all enormously, albeit in different ways. But great as they were, above them in the rankings I would elevate that shy, understated, South African, Jacques Kallis. Kallis’s contemporaries included such hugely charismatic figures as Warne, Lara, and Tendulkar, which is one reason he never quite got the attention and respect he deserved from the global fraternity of cricket fans. However, he always commanded a special place in the mind and heart of this particular cricket fan. In a column published in The Telegraph in 2012 I wrote of Kallis’s prolific batsmanship, his skillful swing bowling, and his prehensile slip catching, and saluted him as ‘World Cricket’s Most Valuable Player’. I said that this term, borrowed from baseball, ‘fits Kallis better than any cricketer since the peerless Gary Sobers’. (https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/most-valuable-player-jacques-kallis-must-be-one-of-the-nicest-cricketers-today/cid/357051)

Jacques Kallis retired more than a decade ago. Who is the Most Valuable Player in world cricket today? My own vote is for the England captain, Ben Stokes, whose extraordinary abilities have been so abundantly on display in the ongoing Ashes series. Watching him bat on the last day of the Lord’s Test, I was reminded of the innings played by Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981, which however led to a happier result for his side. Nonetheless, in my mind Stokes is a finer cricketer than Botham was. He has shown his mastery of all sides and all conditions, whereas Botham had a very poor record against the West Indies, for example. Stokes is more physically courageous than Botham, is equally at home in Test cricket and the shorter forms of the game (Botham had a modest one-day record), and has been an inspirational captain as well (which Botham never was, or could be).

Till about 2019, one could confidently claim that the greatest all-rounder produced by England was born in the Cheshire hamlet of Heswall and played most of his first-class career for Somerset, and that he both batted and bowled right-handed and mostly fielded in the slips. After 2019 and what took place in the World Cup and Ashes series of that year, I think this claim has no longer been quite so tenable. I am myself increasingly of the view that the greatest all-rounder to wear England colours bats left-handed and bowls right-handed, and can field brilliantly anywhere. And that he was born in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand.

In this treatment of the great all-rounders who have graced the game I have thus far considered those known for their skills with bat and ball. There is, however, another kind of all-rounder, who is equally adept both before and behind the wicket, with bat and with gloves. If one introduces this category into the equation, then the discussion become more interesting still. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahendra Singh Dhoni would come into the picture, and more centrally perhaps, would Adam Gilchrist.

In considering the question, ‘Who was the greatest all-rounder since (or apart from) Garry Sobers?’, I have introduced more than a dozen names into the conversation. How does one narrow this list down to just one, or even two? The biases of cricket fans are heavily determined by considerations of nation and generation. One’s boyhood heroes always loom large in one’s consciousness; so too those who belong to one’s country (or state). Thus A. A. Thomson’s partiality for Hirst and Rhodes. However, in nominating the greatest all-rounder apart from Garry Sobers I find myself torn between Jacques Kallis and Adam Gilchrist, neither of whom are Indian, and both of whom are much younger than myself.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 15th July 2023)