Reverse swing: Three going on four
Early in one’s cricketing life, everybody feels they are all-rounders. The general impression is that if you can bat as well as bowl, you qualify.
This is, of course, a very inadequate description of what being an all-rounder in cricket really means.The proper definition of an all-rounder is rather more stringent. The term denotes mastery in all departments of the game — at a minimum in batting and bowling, but ideally also in fielding as well as captaincy. Many players who are excellent in one area but merely above average in another are often referred to as all-rounders. However, this is a misuse of the term.
Cricketing icon Wasim Akram, for example, was a phenomenal exponent of seam and swing bowling, while also a hard-hitting batsman in the lower-order of the middle order. Yet, strictly speaking, Akram wasn’t an all-rounder. Similarly, India’s master batsman Sachin Tendulkar has also taken many international wickets through effective spin and slow-medium bowling, but this doesn’t make him an all-rounder.
A genuine all-rounder is one who can be selected in the playing XI on the basis of either batting or bowling alone. This cannot be said of players like Akram or Tendulkar. Indeed, in the entire history of cricket, only a handful of players have succeeded in meeting this criterion. Their names are legend and their accomplishments stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Each of the major teams can boast of having produced a great all-rounder or two. West Indies produced Garry Sobers, who dazzled the world with batting, bowling and athletic fielding during the 1950s and ’60s. Australia’s greatest all-rounder was probably Keith Miller, whose career immediately preceded that of Sobers. India had Kapil Dev, New Zealand gave rise to Richard Hadlee and England struck gold with Ian Botham — all three reaching their peak around the same time during the 1980s.
Although Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq could make a credible claim to all-rounder status in limited-overs cricket, Pakistan’s only true an all-rounder in Tests (the highest form of the game) was Imran Khan. A contemporary of Kapil, Hadlee, and Botham, Imran excelled not just at batting, bowling, and fielding, but in captaincy as well.
If you combine career statistics (which is the most objective form of evidence), along with influence and overall legacy (which cannot be captured in numbers), it is the trio of Sobers, Botham and Imran that stands a cut above the rest, even amongst the highly exclusive club of genuine cricket all-rounders. Among these three, Imran was a far better bowler than either Sobers or Botham, and a better batsman than Botham, especially in the latter half of his career. He was also an outstanding captain, an area in which neither Sobers nor Botham tasted much success.
In terms of pure numerical accomplishment (runs scored as well as wickets taken), a few other more contemporary players stand out. Applying a qualification standard of at least 3,000 Test runs and at least 250 Test wickets, Daniel Vettori of New Zealand, Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka, Shaun Pollock of South Africa and Shane Warne of Australia also make the cut. While being excellent bowlers, however, their batting ability was, at best, above average.
In contrast to Sobers, Botham and Imran, it is difficult to imagine them getting selected for batting skills alone. The question of the greatest-ever cricket all-rounder has therefore continued to revolve around the names of these three.In recent times, a major new force has stealthily crept into this equation. Jacques Kallis of South Africa has so far amassed 12,561 runs at 57.61, and taken 278 wickets at 32.43. Of all the all-rounders who have taken at least 300 Test wickets, the highest career run aggregate is 5,248 (at an average of 31.05), achieved by Kapil Dev. If Kallis increases his wicket tally to over 300 (which seems very likely), he will enter a stratosphere of an all-rounded achievement where there is no other occupant. Kallis even has 183 catches as a fielder in Test cricket, which places him fourth on the all-time list — not just among all-rounders, but all cricketers.
Kallis is not a particularly charismatic player, which may explain why he has not really gotten due recognition as one of cricket’s most notable all-rounders. In fact, he has the career figures to credibly rub shoulders with the likes of Sobers and Imran. He is not yet 37 and could well play on for another couple of years. With more successes in the field, and with his reputation and legacy getting consolidated with the passage of time, Kallis’s impact and status may exceed all those before him.