Who Is Cricket’s Ali?

No, I don’t mean Moeen Ali. I’m talking about Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, who sadly passed away on Saturday morning. Mo might have scored a few runs up at Durham, but he’s got a long way to go before he can be compared to the sportsman of the century!

Watching all the media coverage of Ali’s death, and seeing the old footage and evocative tributes, got me thinking. Has cricket ever had a personality so large and influential? It wasn’t just Ali’s natural talent and showmanship of course. Because of his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, and his very public support of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s, he was well known to people around the world who didn’t follow boxing. In many ways he transcended the sport.

I have to admit that I’m struggling to think of any good comparisons in cricket. Sachin Tendulkar is probably the most famous batsman of recent times, but although he’s worshipped like a god in a similar way to Ali, and has turned his hand to politics too, Sachin’s so well-mannered and humble that direct comparisons seem absurd.

Another cricketer who might be compared to Ali is Imran Khan. Imran became an absolute icon in Pakistan, won the World Cup, turned his hand to politics, and also had a penchant for making comebacks. But although Imran had some of Ali’s arrogance, he never had the same charisma. In many ways he’s always seemed a bit aloof (a bit like royalty). He’s never really been a man of the people. Nor is he loved by people outside his own country.

Although cricket has had many showmen – from Viv Richards to Kevin Pietersen – it’s hard to find someone who was box-office both on and off the pitch. It’s also hard to find someone who was principled and known for taking moral stances. Someone like Basil D’Oliveria was a gorgeous player to watch, and became enormously important politically, but this was down to what he represented rather than who he was. Dolly never courted controversy like Ali.

Shane Warne is another larger-than-life cricketer we should consider. After Sachin, he’s possibly the second most famous cricketer of the last two or three decades. However, although Warney was a genius like Ali, he was often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Who can forget his ban for taking banned substances, the lewd text message scandal, or the controversy when he have information to bookmakers? Shane was a showman who revolutionised the game (or at least made leg-spin fashionable again) but he was more punk than principled pugilist.

In terms of trash-talking, or winding opponents up, I suppose Glenn McGrath should also get a mention. His 5-0 predictions weren’t exactly poetry, and he never came up with anything remotely as good as ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ (Glenn was more gallop like a giraffe and pout like princess), but he did grab a few pre-series headlines.

I think the closest we’ve had to an Ali in England is probably Ian Botham. I accept the parallels aren’t exactly (Beffy has never been a political animal to my knowledge) but he certainly had the flamboyance and fame beyond cricket. Although Sir Ian didn’t refuse to fight in Iraq or anything like that, he has done some absolutely tremendous work for charity – which shows a benevolent side in addition to his rebellious streak and distain for authority.

I’d love to hear your own suggestions. I doubt we’ll find a precise comparison to Ali but there are certainly cricketers that share similar traits. Perhaps, at the end of the day, cricket is just too stuffy, in this country at least, to produce such a transcendent personality.

Imagine an Ali type character coming through the England ranks today? I suspect he’d ruffle a few feathers at HQ and have his card marked fairly early on. Can you imagine Muhammad Ali at an ECB media training session? That would be fun.

James Morgan


  • In terms of strength of personality, self-belief and the ability to transcend the sport, I’d go for WG Grace.

    • I’d agree with Dennis here.

      Nowadays, most of the cricketers (male) are terribly afraid to actually voice their opinions on a stage that matters and take a stand and make a difference. Cricket has yet to see someone who completely changed the face of the sport and also made a massive impact in their country’s politics or even a shift in global politics.

      • You are so right about today’s cricketers. I look back with much fondness to Jack Richards, a man so prepared to speak out that he was sacked by Surrey in 1988 and blacklisted by the counties, despite playing tests up to 1987. This attitude is probably why Surrey have been such a shambles for years (I speak as a local).

        • I barely listen to player interviews these days. They rarely give you a glimpse of their real thoughts and personality. It’s so boringly stagemanaged / scripted. All that media training makes everything so corporate imho. I wish players could / would just speak their mind.

  • You are whistling in the wind James. We have never had anyone remote like Ali at the cricket, at least not someone with a very public face, but we are not alone in that.

    Thanks for the first Sunday morning laugh! Mohammed Ali at an ECB media trading session. ?

  • I was thinking Beefy is the closest we have ever had but not a global character like Ali. The fact that cricket does not transcend the planet (America north & south, most of Africa, not to mention China and most of Europe don’t know the game) means that no one in cricket could be considered in that vein.

    In fact in sport or in general the only candidate that could rival Ali is Neldon Mandela

    • (Different Andy!). We are all guilty of placing too much emphasis on more recent personalities. It is arguable that just in boxing Jack Johnson was the equal of Ali. He broke the colour bar in sport in the USA and became the first coloured champion. He refused to bow to authority or societies rules and was jailed on trumped up charges and forced into exile for years. In terms of sporting dominance at the time he was the equal of Ali. The only thing he lacked was being loved – and that was because he was an intelligent man who did his own thing at a time when the Klan was mainstream politics in much of America.

  • No there isn’t one. But I guess Imran Khan & Sachin are the closest.
    Sir Viv united a few Caribbean islands.
    But no-one has gone global.

  • I’d agree that there isn’t anyone in cricket’s history to match Ali. Partly it’s that cricket doesn’t have the broad crossover appeal that boxing had (like football or athletics) – there is a large section of the population who simply have no interest in cricket. The same is true of rugby and tennis. Partly it’s a matter of timing – modern audiences are more segmented and there aren’t the common unifying experiences that there were in the 1970s.

    The nearest in my lifetime would be Viv. He had some of the wider political resonance that Ali had – albeit more through his demeanour than his words. It’s easy to forget how poisonous some of the background was, especially in 1976. His career record (while still impressive) doesn’t do justice to quite how good he was at his peak (1975-85). There’s a tribute from Scyld Berry here that captures some of his importance:


  • In his day, and in a different way, W G Grace perhaps. Someone once said hs was the ‘second most famous person in Victorian Britain’, after only Gladstone ((who was, let us remember, Prime Minister on four occasions!) In more recent years Viv Richards managed to grow to represent his country in a way few others have, but even more so did, I suggest, Sir Frank Worrell.

    • In a purely sporting sense, Grace had every bit as much, if not more impact. Which is remarkable considering cricket is a team game, not an individual sport like boxing. Allowing for the absence of a global mass media, he was every bit as much a celebrity – and is probably the only Victorian cricketer that most could name.

      He had neither Ali’s eloquence (to put it mildly), nor his moral/political influence.

  • No one, not even close. Refuse military service, go to jail at the height of his career, lose all titles and the chance to practice his sport – all because he did not want to kill “brown people in a land far away” when the good people in his nation treated him no better? You are joking or you know something I don’t. There is no world champion cricketer who did that or anything comparable or in rhyme.

  • Wow this is a hard one! Like some of the other posters, I’m starting to think it can’t be done. In terms of universal appeal, someone like Richie Benaud springs to mind. Steeped in the game as a player, captain and of course commentator, he became a much-loved legend. But his understated nature was the antithesis of Ali’s in-your-face style! Also not sure how much was known about him personally, or how much non-cricketing folk were aware of him. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to do for other sports too. Easier to find the ones who are globally popular, but their iconic status is more to do with their supreme (often record-breaking) skill or celebrity lifestyle, rather than any significant socio-political impact. I’m thinking of the likes of Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Jonny Wilkinson, Jonah Lomu and Usain Bolt…

    • I think Jonah Lomu is an interesting call. A revolutionary on the pitch, became a household name (despite coming from a sport with narrow appeal), and he missed many years of his career due to illness (rather than a political stance). Lomu was also a Pacific Islander which made him symbolic. He never had quite the international resonance of Ali, because boxing was such a big deal in the 1960s and 70s, but he’s still an absolute giant in his own sport.

  • The nearest is Sydney Barnes. I just love the idea that the man who all the experts agree was the best bowler of all time (the agreement is even greater than for Bradman) would put two fingers up at authority at a time when the rule was that professionals were seen but not heard and doffed the cap to any gentleman – however incompetent. He established the principle that a great cricketer is worth his money by choosing to play (better paid) club cricket instead of county. He was so bloody minded that his own captain (McClaren) was heard to say in a storm on the way to Australia that at least if the ship went down ‘that bugger Barnes will go down with us’. He took 12 wickets in a game against the touring Windies at age 55 and an 8 for in an innings against the touring Saffers at age 56. And he always believed he was the best. I would have loved to see Botham try to get the new ball off him. If Beefy was afraid of Willey (which he was by repute) he would have had no chance with Barnes. A true great, player, personality and example.

  • Nah, there isn’t one.

    Keith Miller would be my nearest pick, though.

    Cricket produces a lot of flat track bullies, a lot of guys whose good days are all about taking advantage of weaker players in good conditions. Miller wanted none of that, which infuriated Bradman.

    Part of Ali’s greatness is his refusal to fight for an unjust cause. Part of Miller’s is his service as a pilot in a war that was unavoidable.

    • I always liked the story that Miller set his field as captain by announcing ‘scatter guys’ when he led them onto the field. Apparently he believed that if you were good enough to play at top level you should know where to field.

      • Yeah, there are loads of great Miller stories. There are a couple from the Invincibles tour that I really like.

        Against Yorks, on the sort of Headingly mire you’d never see in modern cricket, the batting average for the whole game was less than 10, and wickets were going down every few overs.

        Reasoning that attack was the only chance, Miller hit his first ball for six and made 34 of the next 48, in a score of 100.

        When they crushed a hapless Essex side and set a record score for a single day’s play on the other hand, Miller wasn’t having any of it, and just watched his first delivery onto his stumps.

        • Another good Miller one is when he was asked about the “pressure” of playing in the Ashes. The reply was something like “Playing cricket is not pressure. Having a Messerschmidt up your a**e is pressure.”

          • And I think it really speaks to the character of the man, and the way he played.

            We love elite sportsmen who play without fear, who seem able to succeed despite levels of pressure that would be debilitating for an average person.

            Miller had looked real, honest to god shit-your-pants-and-die wartime combat right in the eye. Test cricket must have seemed like a holiday after that. And as long as Miller had ball or the bat in his hand, it really was.

      • When I first saw the title, Miller would have been my first thought for many of the reasons stipulated above in terms of personality and crowd pleasing capacity so I can’t disagree with much written above.

  • For pure genius, Bradman, no one comes close and was box office – the famous newspaper headline “He”s Out!”, says a lot for the genius that he was. Was no Ali off the pitch, but if one could have a hybrid, then a Bradman & Miller/Warne.

    • Bradman is just doing his own thing, really. Like Ali, very hard to think of an equivalent in other sports. Who else is so far ahead of his rivals on stats?

      Bradman is ultimately very enigmatic, though. His era was sufficiently different and modern video coverage so much superior that it’s hard to know exactly what his feats might represent in today’s currency.

      Bradman vs a 1970s WI 4 man pace attack? Bradman on flat 2010s tracks with far superior bats and protective equipment?

      • The obvious answer to the question ‘who else is so far ahead of rivals on stats’ is another Australian, Heather McKay. Unbeaten for 20 years as womens world squash champion, and that in a sport which requires maintaining the highest standard of fitness.

        • If we’re talking about fitness and general athleticism, surely Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor should be a shoe in :-)

        • I can’t remember ever having heard of her. Such is the injustice of excelling at less popular sports, I suppose.

    • For impact on a global stage and being such a national hero head and shoulders above all who came since, it would hard to go beyond Bradman in cricket. Just about every Australian knows the significance of 99.94 and he was still revered when he died over 50 years after he stopped playing.

  • I can’t think of anybody in any sport that comes close to Ali, never mind cricket. Has anyone else ever had such a combination of skill, charisma and good looks that he had as well as his impact beyond his sport?

    His impact was probably heightened because the 60s and 70s were the era when televised sport exploded globally and he was the perfect icon. The Rumble in the Jungle and Thriller in Manila (my first sporting memory) were global events before boxing became a circus.

    Add to that his civil rights and anti-war stance in uniquely turbulent times in the USA, and I’m not sure we’ll ever see anybody like Ali again.

    I would thoroughly recommend ‘The Tao of Muhammad Ali’ by Davis Miller. The author writes about his 30 year friendship with Ali, much of it after Ali’s career ended and how the greatest dealt with and drew inspiration from his condition.

  • No. Ali was unique.

    I’d give Tony Greig a mention for his game changing achievement with Kerry Packer. For the MCC it must have been more outrageous than refusing to go to war.

    For football, Pele was a global megastar and viewed as a special person.

    • Greig is worth a mention for the century against Lillie and Thompson, signalling his own fours. No helmet. Genuinely brave, audacious.

      But automatically disqualified for his incredibly daft comments prior to the 76 WI series.

  • For a number of reasons, I don’t think there ever has been, or will be, a cricketing Ali. Cricket is a team sport, boxing is individual. Cricket is not (and, if the ICC gets its way, never will be) a global sport. Ali was simply a one off. One man who might be worth adding to your “list”, though, is Frank Worrell.

  • Thinking beyond cricket (to answer the suggestion that Ali was unique in sport) the obvious comparison is Zatopek. 4 times Olympic gold medallist who stood up to the Soviet tanks as a Czech Colonel in 1968 and was only saved from the firing squad by his fame. Instead they put him to forced labour in mines. He was given a state funeral. His reputation in the ex-communist states dwarfs that of Ali and we should not be so parochial as to judge only by western acclaim.

  • How about Frank Worrell? He started out as one of the thrilling 3W’s in the 1940s but then took some time out of the game to study in England, supporting himself by playing in the Lancashire Leagues. When he returned to Test cricket, he was made the first black captain of the side and immediately proved to be a huge unifying force as well as an inspired leader. After retirement, he became Warden of the University of the West Indies and became a Senator. On his trgically early death, he was granted a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. People outside the cricket world knew about him and respected him – although he was obviously not as famous as Ali. However, I have never read a bad word about Worrell. This would not be true of Ali, which is something perhaps to bear in mind. The surviving friends and family of Joe Frazier are probably finding it hard to mourn.

    • As a cricketer, undoubtedly, Sobers was awesome. The first international match I ever went to (Lord’s, 1970, England v Rest of World, day 2), Sobers scored a magnificent 180 odd (having taken something like 6-20 in England’s first innings). But I don’t think Sobers transcended cricket to be known to a wider audience, like Ali did with boxing.


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