Short Of Greatness: Why Hasn’t England Produced A Transcendent Test Cricketer For Decades?

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.

James Morgan


  • A fair assessment of the last few decades of English cricket. You did not even mention spinners, for the very good reason that the only English test spinner in that period whose record even comes close to deserving a mention is Graeme Swann (Leach and Bess do not as yet have the quantity of achievement, though the latter in particular may do in future). I was recently shocked to hear the England had been trying to persuade Moeen Ali, whose red ball record is very ordinary (batting and bowling averages not only both firmly in that ordinary bracket but the wrong way round to boot), to make himself available for test cricket.

    • They were trying to persuade him to be available for next month’s tour to Sri Lanka; given that he was the joint-top wicket taker last time We went there in November 2018 it seems not too unreasonable…

  • In defence of Jimmy – the slightly haphazard start to his Test career takes the shine off his figures. He averages 21.44 in the last five years and 23.92 in the last ten. Which is at least flirting with greatness.

    • That’s a very good point. It’s remarkable that age hasn’t diminished Anderson’s skills. But then again, all cricketers have their relative lean spells. Career records take this all into account.

      • True – but I think Jimmy is a bit of an odd case because rather than having good and less-good patches, he started fairly averagely and then has basically been consistently brilliant since he hit his peak ten or so years ago. Career records of course do summarise the whole lot, but given he’s had such an extended career, even the latter (and best) part of it is longer than a good many other quicks.

        • Before replying, I accidentally clicked “report” on Michael’s comment when I meant to reply, if admin’s reading this, it was a complete accident, and I had no issue with the comment, my apologies.

        • If he truly had been a great he would have taken more 5-fers outside of England. His record, alongside R. Ashwin’s is among the most lopsided among bowlers with averages below 30 and taking 200 wickets over the course of their careers.

          Worldclass at home, good abroad does not make a world class player.

    • Most players can have their careers sliced to produce better figures like that. There’s often a leaner spell at the start as they’re learning the ropes and/or at the end as they close in on retirement.

      For example, Malcolm Marshall was pitched in prematurely by the WI when their top players were away with Packer. Take his his first ten or so Tests away and his average would be astounding. Viv Richards averaged around 58 for most of his career but dipped down to its final fifty because he played on a little too long (fearing what would happen to WI when he retired – rightly, as it turned out).

      Anderson had done very well to sustain his performances as he’s aged. However he has benefitted from an era where the Tests have been deliberately slanted in favour of the ball and from the declining quality of opposition outside the Big Three. He also is highly unusual in not having to bowl in limited overs’ cricket – or in f/c cricket unless he wants to. I don’t recall Walsh, Ambrose or Hadlee declining in quality (if not in pace) in their 30s and they carried those additional burdens.

  • I’d probably say that Anderson and Pietersen do sneak in as true greats of the game – Anderson because of the approvement of his statistics in the back end of his career – he has the statistics of a great within the overall picture …
    and Pietersen because of his exceptional level across three formats, the way he changed batting, the number of great innings, so I rather think he gets in as an exception, a bit like Adam Gilchrist
    Also, longevity is a factor alongside average – while Barnes’ 189 at 16 are exceptional, I think McGrath’s 500-odd at 21 are better

    • Barnes longevity was limited by the available opposition at the time (and his personality!). A more relevant fact in assessing Barnes may be that when he took 12-118 in the match for Wales against the Windies in 1928 (at age 55) and 8-41 against the Saffers in 1929 (at age 56), both opponents agreed he was the best bowler they faced on their tours.

  • Pietersen qualifies in my opinion. His average did dip from fifty because of a bad final year but he was consistent enough to average 47 across over 100 tests, that is pretty consistent. And played so many incredible innings.
    In any match I can think of during his career he was always the one to watch no matter who else was playing. Take the 2005 ashes. He was the newest player there but in terms of pure brilliance I would have picked him above any other batter.
    His ODI and T20 careers I think are much further down the pecking order but as a test batsman he was incredible at batting at high risk, with arrogance and flair and still achieving amazing consistency. Him are Lara will always be my two favourites.

  • An interesting read. Greatness requires both the presence of world class ability and the nurturing of that ability by the selectors. I would suggest that the lack of greats is as much due to the failure of selectors as to any lack of ability. Two examples from my home county come to mind, one recent and one from years back. The latter is Dennis Amiss, forever being dropped to make way for Lord Boycott (and sometimes for others). Yet he had a test average of 46.3 in 88 test innings (good but not great). But his average when opening (which he did in 69 of those innings) was 53.7 – far better than Boycott and proof that he was badly served by selectors either dropping him for inferior players or asking him to bat out of position. The other case is Woakes. As a 19/20 year old he was swinging and seaming the ball around corners at 80mph (taking 45 wickets at 20 as a 19 year old in 2008) – only to be told he was too slow for tests. So they made him put on 5mph with the result he became a quicker, but less controlled, seamer. As a young player he had all the skills to be an English Philander, and was ruined by selectors too short sighted to see that skill can outweigh sheer speed.

    And now we have Mr Ed. Enough said.

  • Good piece James as always. I share others views above that to me KP was the best batsman of recent times. All the shots. A bit up himself, but badly managed by England (who drops their best player for whatever reason?) I saw him make 300 not out for Surrey at Guildford a masterclass. I would add that it’s not always about stats though. A great player is a game changer, and often a proper all rounder: Botham, Hadlee, Imran ,Gilchrist come to the forefront for me, with Stokes almost in that company but probably won’t make it.
    Try this one: best bowlers who hardly played any Internationals? Sylvester Clarke, fastest I’ve ever seen and Martin Bickell who should have played for England for 10 years. Potentially as good as McGrath in my book

    • Best bowlers with few tests? I would have to choose between the medium pacers of the 50s and 60s – Cartwright, Shackleton and Appleyard. I saw the first 2 late in their careers (and Cartwright captaining Old England in the 90s), but only know Appleyard by reputation. Cartwright, who I saw most of, was the most controlled bowler I have ever seen (including spinners) – and gets a bonus point for withdrawing from the 1968 tour and precipitating the South African boycott.

    • I should have added Bob Massie based on that one debut test. He may never have bowled like that again, but he was utterly unplayable that test.

    • Sylvester Clarke was an awesome bowler (Steve Waugh wrote some interesting things about him from his one season in county cricket). Most of the available footage doesn’t do just to how good he was except one delivery where he hits Peter Kirsten.

      Vince van der Bijl has a strong claim to be the best bowler never to play Tests. He played one season of CC and from memory I think he took something like 85 wickets at about 16. Franklyn Stephenson would be the next strongest candidate and George Ferris was briefly very quick. Mike Procter was also an amazing bowler and only played 4 Tests. Schultz and Ngam were also very pacy for a short time before injury struck them.

      • Fair assessments of the Saffers, but I would exclude them as they had a short test career for non-cricketing reasons. They would undoubtedly have played many tests if the Saffers had been a test nation.

  • Why aren’t there any great test cricketers produced anymore. Easy! They all want to be white ballers

    • This..

      The system is broken and has been since at least 2000. Name more than the freakish odd batsmen (or bowler) who has been produced since 2000 ish (who wasn’t already in the game so had fallen in love/seen test cricket).

      2005 was the last hope for the system and they squandered it royally. That generation are leaving the game now in droves to leave the last generation and generation white ball (who also quit the game easy as they will get bored of 2020 by 21yr old)


      For me The following are in and about the label of England greats

      Cook – longevity mainly as his stats are boosted by weak oppos but still.. decent stats and longevity
      Anderson – simply has the stats and keeps producing.
      Swann – probably not there statistically but he’s the best I’ve seen for England. Not really a great but good
      KP – not a single England player comes close to him really. Some pretenders like root or stokes but they are simply not as good

      That’s it

      Trott, Strauss, tresco, broad, root, Stokes, bell and co are good but maybe not really quite in the aboves class.. some could get there

  • Add me to the people advocating for Anderson – as others have said, in the last ten years, he’s taken 436 wickets (the vast majority of his record breaking wicket aggregate) at an average of 23 – that’s up there with the greats, in my opinion – if any cricketer had had a ten year career taking more than 400 wickets at less than 25, they’d be considered up there with the best.

    That’s very distinct from any other cricketer who had a great period – I remember in the 2009 Ashes, Michael Atherton broke down Flintoff’s career to three sections – 1998-2002, 2003-2006, and 2006-2009. In 2003-2006, he average 40 with the bat and 27 with the ball – a truly great period, but the other sections – his early career struggles to make a mark and his late career struggles with fitness – were comparatively ordinary.

    With Anderson, his “great spell” has gone on much longer, to the point where it’s not just a fleeting period in his career, has never been cut short, and defines him as a cricketer much more than the early struggles that bring his overall average down.

    • I think Jimmy is as close as we’ve had. He’s a remarkable bowler. I just doubt whether supporters of other countries would worry about him as much as we worried about the likes of Malcolm Marshall or Murali, for example. Jimmy can be blunted somewhat by conditions. I don’t think the same can be said for the all-time greats. The point about Jimmy averaging 23 over the last few years is a brilliant point though, and I must confess that it’s made me rethink my position somewhat! :-)

      • As an example of Marshall transcending conditions, he took 30+ wickets in a series in India which must be one of the greatest feats by any bowler in any era.

  • Great subject for discussion, but don’t over exaggerate to make a point – ‘ These cricketers all averaged comfortably over 50’
    Waugh 51, de villiers 51, Williamson 51, Border 51, Dravid 52, Yousuf 52, Flower 52. Since when has 51 and 52 been comfortably over 50 ?

  • On this analysis then a cricketer who could only average 33 with the bat and 28 with the ball is bordering on useless in the very top ecehelon of the game. Would anyone like to tell Sir Ian Botham he was useless. To the author, You have your right to an opinion however I disagree with your selection criteria for the adjective “Great”

    • Nope not useless. Just not an all time great in the same league as Viv Richards etc. Botham was brilliant at his best but was a bit like KP and Stokes in that he produced occasional moments of brilliance rather than consistent brilliance. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t bloody good though.

      • Botham 77-82 was genuinely great, but injuries and distractions meant he dwindled to self parody thereafter and his figures went downhill substantially.

  • I don’t subscribe to the Ambrose argument as In most sports like inspires like, so you have the glut of Windies quickies in the 70’s and 80’s. nowadays most Caribbean Ambrose physiques have been been poached by sporting scholarships on the basketball court and athletics tracks, where they can earn a better living and get more acclaim. Genuine quicks, who can trouble anyone on any surface, are a freak of nature, which is why you can count them on the fingers of one hand in most generations.
    All rounders are an even rarer commodity. Dont know if you remember the 70’s when there was an annual tournament held in Hong Kong to establish who was the best. Similar to a double wicket competition, the likes of a young Botham, Imran, Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Clive Rice, Eddie Batlow, yes and even Dermot Reeve, who actually won it one year, which shows how realistic an indicator it was, all competed. If you did that now there would be a lot of bowlers who can bat in the lower order and batsmen who bowl 3rd and 4th change, but how many genuine all rounders.
    I hate using stats as a ‘can’t lie’ illustration of greatness. Viv Richards is the greatest batsmen I ever saw as he was always attacking, looking to wrest the initiative and consistently, so have the bowlers more of a chance, yet made decent bowlers like poor old Bob Willis, look distinctly average as he whipped good length balls on off stump over mid wicket. He had such a great eye he could do this time after time, it was only when he started to have trouble with his 20-20 vision he became noticeably less effective. When he came to the crease you could sense bowlers would not exactly be rushing to their captains for the ball. He is the exception for me as his stats were also the tops. Similarly with Warne as a bowler. Who really wanted to face him, even on a decent wicket? But these are freaks whose greatness cannot be coached.
    However, generally I think of greatness it’s not about consistent achievement, it’s about that ability on your day to be almost super human, where you’re playing a different game to the rest. KP is the nearest modern equivalent to this with Stokes close behind. With batsmen all bowlers become alike and with bowlers all batsman seem to wither before them. For a while the game becomes one man show. Flintoff became a great bowler but always seemed vulnerable as batsman, he was more of a hitter, though he played in the England set up as an all rounder.
    Not only aren’t we producing genuine all rounders but who else has a front line bowler who bats in the top 6 or a top 6 batsman who is a first or second change. The workload in this age of all year round international cricket means burn out is inevitable and it takes a special kind of determination to want to put yourself throw that? Woakes is the nearest potential we have to a geneuine all rounder now and though it would be interesting to see if he has the technique to bat in the top 6, I don’t think it will ever happen.
    The one area where we do produce world class talent is behind the stumps, but with the advent of white ball dominance most of those protagonists are not ‘all rounders’, they bat in the lower order. Hence we select the Alex Stewart’s of this world to give us an extra player in the line up. But they are batsmen’s who keep a bit. What we need is to recognise the importance of the position and go back to keepers who can bat a bit. Even in the 70’s Warwickshire had Humpage keeping better glovemen out of the side because he could bat.

    • This myth about West Indians all playing basketball is like a bloody cockroach, nothing can seem to stamp it out. Can you name all the top basketball players who were born in the West Indies? They don’t exist. Basketball isn’t that popular outside of Jamaica (and Ambrose isn’t Jamaican).

      I can’t think of any all-rounder with a substantial career who averaged 40+ with the bat and -30 with the ball (Imran comes closest and probably would have done if he hadn’t batted so low in the order of a strong Pakistan batting line-up in the first half of his career). Sobers, Kallis and Greig all averaged over 30 with the ball; Kapil, Hadlee, Botham and Miller all averaged -40 with the bat. We’ll never know how Mike Procter and Clive Rice would have done but I suspect the latter wouldn’t have averaged low enough with the ball and the former not averaged high enough with the bat.

      • The argument that young players deciding to play basketball or football rather than cricket is not a myth. The two sports in popularity have grown while cricket participation has sunk. That’s because of football/basketball’s bigger world popularity than cricket, and it’s cheaper barrier to entry. I asked Michael Holding about this when I met him and that’s what he said.
        I think we will continue to see excellent WI one-day players due to the money available for their skills (let’s face it, an IPL player is worth more green than a Test career) but not for a while in the longer format,

      • It’s not a myth as if you look at the entry stats on these scholarships there are plenty of West Indians enrolling in the programs. Where you get the idea that Basketball is only popular in Jamaica I don’t know, it is glabal thing amongst black youngsters. But it’s athletics and American football that have the most pull with a succession of Caribbean sprinters representing the USA colleges. Most don’t make the grade as there are so many and this seems to coincide with Windies cricket struggling to find young talent.
        The problem they have is political, since there is no such thing as the West Indies outside cricket, so there is little sense of belonging to any political or economic union.

    • A bit unfair on Humpage. Critics tended to dismiss him as a keeper because he did not fit the usual profile of small wiry glovemen. But his record says he was a lot better with the gloves than his reputation. Over 700 FC dismissals, and I have the 1986 Wisden showing him with 70 or so dismissals. You do not get those figures as a bat who can keep a bit. Certainly several classes better with the gloves than Buttler (or Bairstow), but not a Foakes/Knott/Taylor.

      • I always thought Piper was a much better keeper and he could bat a bit. I mentioned Humpage because for me he marked the beginning of the trend towards wicketkeeper batsmen in the county game. His stats were decent but I didn’t rate him much higher than the Bairstow dynasty beginning with dad in the 70’s. Quite simply his stats improved because of the relatively uninterrupted years of practice he was allowed by keeping the gloves against all comers, largely because of his batting. Bairstow and Buttler haven’t had that luxury, they’re part timers by comparison.

    • To be fair, 10 years is a pretty long period and covered more test matches than the careers of some of the players who are considered greats.

      I would say there is a pretty good case for saying Jimmy sneaks in there.

  • A lot of these cricketers, especially in the pre-2002 full neutral panel umpires will have benefitted from unconcious bias to the home team.

    Miandad was never out LBW at home for example, so that will inflate his statistics.

    England in the 1980s and 1990s were picking players out of a flawed team structure on top of a flawed domestic structure.

    These were big issues that prevented the England team being able to put its best XI on the field, let alone have them perform to the highest of standards.

    Botham is a great of world cricket. He took 27 five wicket hauls and scored 14 test centuries. That’s not been bettered has it? Considering the last 8 years of this test career he had numerous back injuries I’d say that was pretty good going.

    If Botham had central contracts and team doctors looking after him, he’d have switched from beer to wine early in his playing career and been a hell of a lot fitter.

    • Yet another myth repeated by someone who can’t be bothered to check the evidence.

      Miandad was given out LBW in home Tests (8 times in 73 innings). There’s a detailed analysis in a Cricinfo article from 2015 titled ‘The curious case of Miandad’s LBW rates’ by Kartekya Date.

  • Elsewhere I have been discussing the impact of Ben Stokes. As yet he doesn’t come into the frame as a test great, not only because of his averages but he still probably has at least another 5 years in the game. However, he has been a thrilling match winner in a tournament, and played one of the most dramatic test match innings in history. In my personal opinion, I would hope that these performances were remembered as great moments.

    I tend to largely agree otherwise with the premise that the best England players have largely fallen short of all time world great status.

    • We could add that KP and Stokes originally came from foreign shores. More than happy to claim them as our own, of course, but I still think England have generally under performed when it comes to developing/growing all time great cricketers considering our affluence.

      • Not sure that affluence comes into it. We have suffered some unusual problems with development of test players;

        * Mr Ed – is this selection so left field I will be applauded for my daring?
        * Ray Illingworth – can the suggested player recite the 3 Yorkshiremen sketch and claim it reflects his childhood?
        * Lord Ted – a fetish for fast bowlers, even when we had none to rival other countries.

        Perhaps the best of a bad bunch over the last 30-40 years was David Graveney. So, naturally, they sacked him when things turned sour against Australia and India. But at least he brought through some real talent (Bell, Flintoff, Vaughan, Cook, Anderson, Pietersen) and had the good sense to get rid of Ed Smith.

  • I think you’re right but its not always been that way. England provided the first great cricketer in WG Grace, churned them out fairly regularly pre WWII and after the war I’d say Compton, Hutton, Trueman and Laker were all great. But I’m not sure anyone after that makes the grade, there are quite a few you can make a case for, but if you have to make a case maybe the player is “just” excellent.
    As for why there has been a falling off probably just one of those of things but a couple of crackpot theories never hurt.
    1) Might the additional amount and quality of cricket played in Asia be a factor? Cricket on slow dusty pitches poses a whole range of different questions and perhaps would have caught out some of the greats of earlier periods. Fred Trueman never played a Test in either India or Pakistan, but averaged 14 with the ball against India.
    2) Maybe great players, come like buses in twos and threes, as one sets the standard and passes on tips. The West Indian fast bowlers were a good example of that, you pretty much had to be a great bowler to have a long term place in the team and as soon as standards dropped the player would be replaced, preserving averages.

    • Barrington. Anyone who averages nearly 59 in over 80 tests deserves the label, even if they are often overlooked or dismissed as boring. A better batting record (in tests) than Compton or Hutton.

    • That’s my point exactly. Why isn’t the nation that produced Grace, Barrington, Compton, Trueman etc producing absolute super stars anymore?

      • Sadly James, not enough people actually play the game. It really is a bit of a niche sport and the fact that there has been no live cricket on domestic television has only shrunk its popularity. I am lucky that I still play recreational club cricket and have enough people to talk to about the game. The general number of people who like the game has shrunk over time.

      • Fred would be turning in his grave, but the game is much more global and competitive than in his day. Indian cricket exploded in popularity after the 1983 WC win and their economy has come on enormously in that time too, meaning Indian resources far exceed those in Fred’s day. NZ ceased being the whipping boys in the 1980s (NZ population was tiny in Fred’s day and cricket exclusively amateur there as well) and Sri Lanka have fielded good sides too. Therefore it’s harder for modern players to stand out globally.

  • If you cast an eye over England’s recent women cricketers you’d find greatness there. So whatever explanation you come up with has to account for that.

  • “Who’s the greatest” – one of the most banal questions of modern times. In the BBC Music Magazine recently they published a list of the supposed top 50 composers of all time as chosen by today’s composers. Mendelssohn wasn’t in it!

    Cricket has statistics galore but it is dangerous to use averages to compare players from different eras. My favourite England batsmen that I have seen are Compton, Cowdrey, Dexter, May, Boycott, Barrington, Barber, Robin Smith, Gower, Atherton, Botham, Vaughan, Pietersen, Thorpe, Trescothick, Strauss, Stokes and a few more! Averages? Who cares? They entertained in their different ways. Won Test Matches. Got me out of the bar (except Sir Geoffrey, of course). Were they “greats” ? Again, who cares?

  • Anderson is 4th on the all time list of Test wicket takers, has a decent chance of getting to 3rd and a theoretical chance of getting to 2nd. You don’t get there without being very good at the very least. Having said that, for what little it’s worth my personal view has always been that the best shorthand way of rating bowlers isn’t average but wickets per test (for tests, anything above 3.5 and you’re good, above 4 and you’re at or nudging very good, anything over 4.5 and you’re in the realms of great, anything approaching 5 and you’re all-time great – of course this is a guide rather than being set in stone and there’ll always be debate around the margins). Anderson doesn’t do all that well on that measure, perhaps partly because England have generally gone with 5 bowlers (including another bowler high up in the all time list, Stuart Broad) through his career. Looking at the top 10 all time wicket takers – do you necessarily call all of them greats?

    • England have not played 5 frontline bowlers much. On occasion there was an allrounder (Flintoff, Stokes), but that also applies to South African, Australian, and West Indian sides of yore – not sure how often say Sobers was part of a four-man attack for example.

      McGrath and Warne also bowled together. One can also make the argument that bowling together may have improved their results as well. The West Indian pacers also bowled together a fair bit.

      Anderson is massively helped by:
      a) England playing plenty of Tests. Would have been a bit hard to clock up these numbers in say the 1930s. You can’t take wickets if there are no Tests played after all.
      b) not playing much cricket beside that (he has not even played 100 domestic FC games; Botham clocked about 300). Reduced risk of injury helps longevity.
      c) financially so well compensated that unlike most of his contemporaries he does not have to bother with ODIs and T20s. Also reduces risks of injury, but more importantly does not ruin his Test game (we can list dozens of people who have ruined their game in pursuit of T20 riches in particular).
      d) that averages mask his rather innocuous performances on the road. Just 7 5-wicket hauls in 110 innings on the road. That is not the stuff of all time greats. Jimmy does not exactly compare favourably with most others in the 200+ wicket category on the road. Even Kumble, who obviously was lethal in India, had 10 5-wicket hauls (incuding a 10-wicket haul for the match) outside of India (arguably against stronger opposition too; 4 5 wicket hauls in Australia vs 1 from 34 for Jimmy). Michael Holding 11 5-wicket hauls from 71 innings he bowled in outside of the Caribbean. And he was not exactly bowling with average compatriots either. Roberts, 9 5 wicket hauls from 56 innings on the road.

      In terms of effectiveness on the road, Jimmy and Ntini are not that far apart, and I don’t think anyone here would seriously consider Ntini as an all-time great.

  • Excellent post and comment thread.

    Pleased to see that wicket keepers are put forward, where Egland really have produced greats – although their real ability cannot be measured statistically (at least, not using the long term available data). The failure to appreciate how significant is the benefit of a top quality gloveman goes on and on and is simply stupid – most England teams could have performed better if we had picked one of our (great?) keepers like Russell or more recently Foster.

    But when all is said and done, there is no doubt that England underperform in this measure of greatness. Sri Lanka, with much less money and a smaller base, have produced two indisputable greats in this timescale – in Sanga and Murali. Indeed, I would regard Murali as the greatest bowler of modern times. Six (!) wickets per match at 22.7 and shouldering a really heavy load, covering for an otherwise weak bowling unit, in all conditions. Incredible.

    So why Not England? Anderson is great IMO (his last decade – more that three career’s worth of matches for some past layers – proves it). But in general we don’t produce many great wrist spinners (or indeed finger spinners) or fast bowlers – and most of the greatest bowlers have been of these types (Murali being regarded as a backwards wrist spinner).

    Batting? – maybe it is the medium-pace seam/ swing-friendly conditions plus the introduction of covered wickets (H/T Sir Geoffrey) that creates a monochrome type of cricket which does not generate the highest level of skills and doesn’t travel well?

    Constructive idea? Pakistani cricketers learning with a taped tennis ball playing on concrete roads seem to have better flair than any other nation – and overproduce great players. I have a hunch that English children start playing with a hard leather ball way too young, and this – plus the soft, dodgy pitches, has all kinds of bad effects.

    If I wanted to improve genius-level English cricket I would ban hard balls until age 16, and maybe introduce soft ball leagues even for adults.

  • A very dispiriting article. English supporters do love to moan. During the 90s we did have poor sides but then a good fighting Test run until 2016. Counter balanced by a good ODI run from that date until winning the World Cup.

    All time greats by definition must be few and far between. Otherwise the words have no meaning.
    Cricket is a very complex and difficult game and simple stats do not tell the full story. There was a time when Asian players played each other a lot on batsman friendly pitches. English pitches due to weather conditions test batsman more. So England batsmen tend to have unfriendly home conditions and then unfriendly away conditions. They must spend their formative years dealing with swinging and seaming balls and then having to adapt for foreign pitches. It just means they don’t get much home advantage. You don’t get consistency that way.

    There are other criteria for admiring batsmen other than stats and consistency. Obduracy has been mentioned. Flamboyance. Add Elegance and style – Gower and Bell for example. A cricket match is about how you win and not just about winning. That’s because batsmen get the opportunity to show off their skills. This is thrilling whether it is to stay at the crease when being under fire from brilliant bowling or carving brilliant shots to the boundary in dazzling displays. Let’s not make the game reductive.

    I noticed that the Ashes weren’t mentioned which are always tough high pressure contests. When played in England we should have home advantage but Aussie bowlers always do well. I was surprised that no one mentioned 2013 or 2010-11 or 2015. Bell was the lone batting star in 2013 against a strong bowling attack and two sizzling bowling performances by Anderson then Broad. In 2010-11 a fabulous all round team effort led by Cook at his best. 2015 Root excelled plus that amazing bowling performance by Broad. In the 2011 home Series against a strong Indian side Bell and Pietersen outbatted the Fab 4. We became No 1. These were highlights. Shouldn’t we measure our cricketers by these good years? Our media were always downbeat. Nothing was ever good enough. When we won that marvellous Ashes Series in 2010-11 the media said that we had to wait until we were matched against India – then No 1. When we did and beat them the media complained that India looked tired at the end. Nothing to do with us of course!!

    If you want to consider the difficulty our players face you have to take into account the constant criticism of our media. It does put pressure on players. Fans too for that matter. They just don’t like heroes. Those days are over! Social media has added another layer of complaint. Are the English natural curmudgeons? Or has the media and social media created the climate for the miserable ☹️ in our opinions?

  • The Test players of the 50s were my heroes. But then I was young and not very cynical and the media, apart from the awful E W Swanton were largely supportive.
    Nowadays I have to like a player before considering them as great, so that rules out Botham, Stokes and Pietersen. Purely my view and I’m sticking to it. For various reasons, Boycott, Gower and S Broad qualify in my Hall Of Fame.

    • Boycott? A vastly inferior test average (as a opener) to Amiss, fielding ability which made Panesar look like Jonty Rhodes and a personality so abrasive that his own teammates saw him as fair game.

  • For a number of reasons the English system makes it very difficult for a true great to emerge, especially now there’s a vastly reduced interest by the ECB in county cricket. There’s also an innate conservatism (note small c) in England that tends to be wary of exceptionalism. That being the case, I would argue that Anderson, Broad, Cook must be great to have not only transcended the English system but establish themselves as top, top players.

    Besides it’s a bit unfair to regard the true greats as one offs and then ask where the next one is coming from. One offs can spring up in any country at any time.


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