The battle for a middle-order spot is exceptionally fierce, with the likes of Tendulkar, Chappell, Compton, Border, Waugh and Walcott not having reached the final 28-man shortlist. Essentially, the question is effectively which two middle-order players will join Don Bradman (at three) and Garfield Sobers (probably at six) who are fundamentally must-picks; their places in the pantheon was illustrated by them receiving 100 and 90 of the 100 votes for Wisden’s Five Cricketers of The Century. No one else received more than 30 votes.
George Headley was often referred to as the ‘Black Bradman’, having played in the same era as The Don, but, crucially, in a much weaker side. He scored 10 Tests in just 22 Tests for his country; during this time, there were just five other 100s scored by Caribbean players. Renowned for playing the ball extremely late, technical excellence and astonishing on-side play, Headley’s pre-war statistics mark him out as perhaps the second best batsman in the game: 9,532 runs in first-class cricket with an average of 72.21; and an average of 67 from his first 19 Test matches. Though he played relatively few Tests, because of the era he played in, these figures were sustained over a decade, proof of his enduring excellence. Out of desperation as much as anything, critics often point to his average of 37 in Australia as evidence of his limitations; but, after failing in his first four innings, Headley, aged just 21, scored two hundreds in the last three Tests and over 1000 runs on tour in all.
Two other modern West Indian batting giants made the shortlist. Viv Richards was as terrifying for the opposition as their plethora of brilliant fast bowlers; with his swagger, arrogance and contempt for ‘playing every ball on its merits’ he could drive bowlers to despair. The Antiguan scored 24 Test hundreds, the most memorable perhaps a superlative 291 at The Oval in 1976, and came to embody the Windies’ relentless dominance of the world game with his sheer power. However, it is worth noting that, out of five nations, he only averaged over 50 against England.
Brian Lara, more or less, followed Richards in the side, which gradually became weaker. Like Headley, he should gain credit for bearing an extra burden, though his average of 53, with 34 hundreds, more than speaks for itself. An enigma until the end, Lara thrilled millions with his flashing blade and ability to take on the world’s best bowlers; yet he also had a Bradmanesque ability to amass gargantuan scores, as his 375, 400* and 501* (the latter for Warwickshire) illustrate. Two series, above all, stand as testament to his greatness: the ‘98/99 one against Australia, when Lara scored three hundreds, including Wisden's second greatest Test innings of all time (see below), 153*, to secure a one-wicket win chasing over 300; and, in ‘01/02, when he scored 688 runs at 114 in Murali’s backyard. Oddly, though, he averaged only 35 against India, though 14 of his 17 Tests against them were at home.
Ricky Ponting was a slightly controversial selection on the shortlist but his 33 hundreds and, especially, an average of 72 in his last 58 Tests, made him impossible to ignore. At only 32, Ponting could yet become an automatic selection in a side such as this; but, his meagre average of 12 in eight Tests in India means there is a slight question mark over his ability against top-class spin in testing conditions. Nonetheless, no one can doubt his relentless scoring of runs, his qualities all round the wicket and his single-minded determination. An innings of 156 at Old Trafford in 2005, made against top-class fast-bowling when Australia were entirely dependent on him, perhaps stands as his finest.
Graeme Pollock, owing to South Africa’s ban from Test cricket, only played 23 Tests, but still accomplished enough to be a true great of the game. Moreover, his average of 61 is even more impressive when it is considered that his Test career ended when, barely in his 27th year, he was not yet in his prime. Elegant, classical and seemingly unstoppable, Pollock was considered by Bradman to be the best left-hander in cricketing history – above even Sobers – and scored seven Test tons, including a phenomenal 274 against Australia; but, alas, he only played in two more Tests.
Wally Hammond is the sole Englishman in the list. In 77 Tests until 1940, Hammond averaged 61, with 22 hundreds. Of course, he had an excellent technique; but he also had the rare ability to adapt his game it to different conditions. On his first tour to Australia, in 1928/29, for instance, Hammond decided he would be best served scoring primarily in the ‘V’; and was stunningly vindicated with 905 runs at 113. He also had a temperament well-suited to scoring long innings, as his astonishing haul of 36 first-class doublehundreds, six in Tests, is testament to. Hammond was a tremendously powerful player, to supplement his other qualities, a brilliant fielder and an under-rated bowler. The only slight caveat is an average of 35 against the West Indies.
The Wisden 100 greatest innings of all time
Regarding the point of playing in weaker sides, it is interesting to note that, as a percentage of team runs, the leading batsmen are Don Bradman (23%), George Headley (21%) and Brian Lara (20%)
Sobers will be analysed amongst the other all-rounders on the shortlist.
Who do you think should join Bradman in the middle-order for the Greatest Test XI of the last century? Leave a comment below.