I have a confession to make. I can’t deny it anymore. I’m as English as a cup of tea in Buckingham Palace, and I’ve supported the England cricket team through thick, thin, and thinner, but it’s time to face the uncomfortable truth: my country hasn’t produced an all-time great cricketer for decades.
Now don’t get me wrong. We’ve produced some excellent players, world class ones even, since I started watching cricket in the late 1980s. One of them – the fantastic Jimmy Anderson – is still strutting his stuff and has beaten all kinds of records. Ditto the recently retired Alastair Cook.
But are they all-time greats? I’m afraid not. They might be English greats but they’re not exceptional by international standards. After all, their achievements are mostly the result of wonderful longevity plus the fact that England play a hell of a lot of Test matches these days. They’re not exceptional in the way that Sir Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, Curtly Ambrose, or Glenn McGrath were exceptional.
Much as I admire Anderson and Cook, they’re not amongst the top ten bowlers or batsmen I’ve seen. And their averages (which generally tell the story) are very good but also quite unremarkable by historical standards. The very best bowlers in history average in the low (or very low 20s), and the best batsmen well in excess of 50. Anderson’s 27 and Cook’s 45 therefore come up well short.
So why is it that England haven’t produced a single all-time great cricketer – the kind of player that’s revered the world over – for at least three or four decades? If we were having this conversation ten years ago, I’d probably argue that the problem is cyclical and the ‘greats’ would emerge in time. But they haven’t. And what’s more, there doesn’t seem to be a modern great on the horizon either – although Ollie Pope certainly has the potential to carve out a long career.
After his performance at Headingley last summer, some might argue that Ben Stokes is exceptional. But think again. Although I’m a big fan of Stokes, and nobody can deny that he’s box office, a career average of 37 with the bat and 33 with the ball just doesn’t cut it at the level we’re talking about. Compare Stokes to the great Imran Khan, for example, who averaged 38 with the bat and an amazing 23 (yes, 23!) with the ball, then there really is no comparison.
Although England players are often hyped up like politicians or film stars, we haven’t produced an all-time great cricketer for generations. I love Stokes – don’t get me wrong – but we need to be objective here. Statistically he’s no better than the excellent South African all-rounder Brian McMillan, who averaged 39 with the bat and 34 with the ball in his 38 Tests after readmission. The odd remarkable performance is certainly very welcome but greatness isn’t ephemeral. Greatness just is. It stares you in the face every day and it’s impossible to ignore. Greatness means consistency not occasional brilliance.
There was a time when I thought Joe Root could be exceptional – he did average over the 50 benchmark early in his career after all. However, poor Joe doesn’t convert enough fifties into match-defining hundreds to belong at the top table. Whereas the likes of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, and Kane Williamson have matured and are now within touching distance of greatness (if they haven’t got there already), Joe has been left behind and now averages 47.
The aforementioned Alastair Cook’s an interesting one too. Cook is adored in England. There’s never been a shortage of pundits waxing lyrical about his achievements. He was even the first England cricketer to receive a knighthood since Colin Cowdrey and Alec Bedser – Ian Botham, remember, received his for charity work. However, if we drill down into Cook’s statistics we see that he wasn’t close to being an all-time great cricketer either. For example, he never reached No.1 in the world rankings and was mostly outside the top 10 throughout his career.
It was Cook’s quintessential Englishness – his determination, his stiff upper lip, and his gentlemanly demeanour – that won him so many friends. The public also loved what he represented – a throwback opener who could bat all day – and they were quite prepared to overlook his technical flaws and long slumps (of which there were quite a few during his career). I always sensed that the public loved what they thought Sir Alastair was, what they assumed he was, or wanted him to be, rather than what he actually was.
In the scheme of things, Cook’s batting was very good but not exceptional in historical terms. His biggest assets were longevity and an excellent record in Asia. His average of 45, for example, doesn’t make the list of top 60 batting averages in Test history. In fact, the lists I’ve found online aren’t long enough to accommodate Sir Alastair. I’m guessing he comes out somewhere between 80th and 100th alongside contemporaries of similar ability like Justin Langer (45) or Mark Tubby Taylor (44) – those openers sandwiched just behind Graeme Smith (48).
Although Cook was an opener, and life can be tough at the top, there are plenty of openers on the top 60 list including Jack Hobbs (57), Herbert Sutcliffe (61), Sunil Gavaskar (51), Matt Hayden (51), Virender Sehwag (49), and David Warner (49). Yes it’s probably tougher to open in England, but Cook averaged less opening in England than Trescothick, Gooch and Vaughan. Plus he never scored an Ashes century in England of course.
The only other England batsman who’s come close to greatness in the last three decades is probably Kevin Pietersen. But ultimately the consensus seems to be that he was a player of great innings rather than a great batsman. His career average of 47 probably backs this up.
KP was superb to watch but he wasn’t as reliable as authentic all-time great cricketers like Sir Viv (50), Sachin (54), Brian Lara (53), Steve Waugh (51), Ricky Ponting (52), Rahul Dravid (52), Jacques Kallis (55), Allan Border (51), Javed Miandad (53), Kumar Sangakkara (57), or even AB de Villiers (51), Mohammad Yousuf (52), Smith (63), Kohli (55), Williamson (51) or, dare I say it, a certain Andy Flower (52). These cricketers all averaged comfortably over 50.
It’s a similar tale with England’s bowlers too. We’ve had some very good bowlers, of course, but how many of them are true greats by world standards? Jimmy Anderson is obviously the closest we’ve had but again it’s longevity, and rare ability in particular conditions (i.e. English ones), that characterise his career. His average of 27 is impressive but a long way short of the ‘best ever’ bracket. What’s more, we can’t ignore the fact that Jimmy is good but hardly sensational overseas.
Now I appreciate that I’m probably riling people up here. This is an English cricket blog, and doing down the considerable achievements of worthy cricketers like Cook and Anderson probably isn’t going to win me many friends. It’s a bit like turning up at a Brexit Party rally wrapped up in an EU flag and wearing a Donald Tusk mask. However, affection towards our favourite cricketers shouldn’t obscure the facts. Jimmy Anderson doesn’t feature in the top 80 list of best bowling averages in Test history. He’s no Michael Holding (24) or even Fred Trueman (21).
So where is this imaginary ‘all-time great’ bar set? It must be as high as Everest if good old Jimmy doesn’t make it. Well, here are some names that qualify: Wasim (24), Waqar (24), Ambrose (21), Marshall (21), Donald (22), Pollock (23), Hadlee (22), McGrath (22), Warne (25), Murali (23), and Imran (23). There’s even Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada (both 23) and Pat Cummins (22) to consider from modern times. They might get there one day.
All these bowlers, with the exception of Warne (who was a slightly different animal being a leg spinner), averaged in the low 20s. And that’s the benchmark of an all-time great cricketer – bowlers who were unplayable much of the time rather than just in conditions that suited them. Anderson is highly skilful, and a joy to watch, but he can be somewhat neutralised on flat pitches. Toss the ball to Malcolm Marshall or Murali and they’d be a real danger anywhere.
So what’s up with English cricketers then? I really can’t put my finger on it. The last three decades have mainly consisted of players who shone brightly for an instant but then largely fell away. Michael Vaughan had his year in the sun; Andrew Flintoff will always have the 2005 Ashes; Graham Gooch was arguably the best batsman in the world for a short time; Alec Stewart had those twin hundreds in Barbados; and Michael Atherton’s admirers can always point to Johannesburg. But were they ever as good (or as consistently brilliant) as the foreign legends above? Only the most myopic of England supporters would claim so.
One wonders if it’s the goldfish bowl of English cricket that does for our best cricketers. Graham Thorpe (45), for example, was a superb player – probably the best I’ve seen in recent times. But ultimately he played fewer games than he should’ve done due to mental health issues. It was the same with Marcus Trescothick (44). They could have achieved so much more. However, being a cricketer in England is a walk in the park compared to scrutiny faced by Indian players. The pressure didn’t ruin Tendulkar, Kohli and Dravid so can life in the spotlight (and the burden of expectation) really be a legitimate excuse?
When it comes to the bowlers, I wonder whether fatigue plays a part. There was a time when injury ruined every new ‘super star’ the English game developed. Darren Gough, Dominic Cork, Angus Fraser, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones – all of them promised to take the world by storm at one point but serious injury, or a succession of injuries, ultimately thwarted them. But were they ever as good as a Waqar or a McGrath at their peak? It’s highly doubtful.
So what’s up? Why haven’t we produced a single exceptional all-time great cricketer for decades? Where is the English Lara? Where is the English Ambrose? Is it a matter of genes? Is it some kind of gypsy curse? Is it the ECB? I’m afraid that I don’t have the answer. This isn’t some essay that discusses the subject and then gives a definitive answer at the end. I’m using this article to ‘phone a friend’.
We can only hope that the problem is indeed cyclical after all. Perhaps the next Shane Warne is currently playing street cricket in a suburb in Dulwich? Perhaps the next Viv Richards is currently breaking records at Smethwick College? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that we’re currently due an entire XI of all-time great cricketers to make up for the last thirty of forty years of relative, and I must stress the word ‘relative’, mediocrity.
Wouldn’t it be sweet if they all emerged at the same time and we witnessed a golden age of English cricket to rival Clive Lloyd’s West Indians or Steve Waugh’s Australians? It wouldn’t half be nice. But with the championship being pushed to the fringes of the season, and the Kolpak window shutting after Brexit, the chances of a England producing, or even manufacturing, a dominant Test team in the near future looks about as likely as Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales tying the knot.