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August 4, 1998


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The next Garfield Sobers?

Harsha Bhogle

Shaun Pollock Earlier this year, when Bob Woolmer arrived in England with his South African team, he made two comments about his well-pedigreed all rounder Shaun Pollock. The eyebrows weren’t exactly hitting the ceiling after that, but his opinion evoked a fair amount of discussion.

Woolmer believes not only that Pollock is the finest all-rounder in the world today, but that he has it in him to match the deeds of the best there has ever been, Sir Garfield Sobers.

Now, Woolmer was either trying to ensure that the English press concentrated solely on his team (which wasn’t too difficult really!) or he was trying to fire Pollock into performing at one level higher than he had been so far.

Either way, that is a huge burden to carry and Pollock’s response was typical of someone who has his feet on the ground. “Oh, the coach has been shooting his mouth off again,” he said, though deep down he was probably quite happy that the comparison even entered someone’s mind.

But if you put hype aside, and resist the temptation of saying “sacrilege!”, you would realise that the wily Woolmer has probably thought a great deal before saying what he has. Certainly the first of his two statements should prompt a fair study.

All-rounders in world cricket are a bit like the money markets just now. The high was struck a few years ago and the downward spiral is fairly well-entrenched. Indeed, the business of all-rounders is in a deep recession at the moment..

If you want to make a list of those playing at the highest level in Test cricket, you would want to hold on to the bottom half of your bus ticket. India, Australia, Sri Lanka, England and Zimbabwe have none, New Zealand has Chris Cairns, the West Indies has Carl Hooper and Pakistan has Wasim Akram and Azhar Mahmood. That only leaves the South Africans Brian McMillan, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener and Jacques Kallis.

Remember though that it is not easy to qualify for the tag of all-rounder, especially by the prevailing definition which, you would have to believe, is the modern-day equivalent of a decathlete running like Carl Lewis, jumping like Javier Sotomayor and pole-vaulting like Sergei Bubka. The traditionalists have always said that an all-rounder should be able to win his place in a side as a batsman and as a bowler. It is a great definition if you are in the business of eliminating people, because very very few people in the history of the game would then qualify.

Straightaway, if you are not English and therefore not confined to those nineteenth and early twentieth century Goliaths who could take ten wickets in a session and hit a century in half an hour, you would struggle to look beyond Vinoo Mankad, Garfield Sobers, Keith Miller, Ian Botham and Imran Khan. If Mike Procter had played more Test cricket, he might have qualified as a sixth.

That is why I believe an all-rounder should be a cricketer who is among the best in his trade at one function, and who can then display a very high level of proficiency in his secondary function. So, if you are a top grade bowler, you should be averaging above 30 as a batsman and if you are a very high quality batsman, averaging over 40, you should be capable of taking 100 wickets in about 40 Test matches.

Even by these diluted specifications, I’m afraid our list starts to look very thin. Wasim Akram is a modern day titan and has a stunning 341 wickets from 79 Test matches but only averages 21.47 with the bat in spite of that colossal 257 in a Test match a couple of years ago.

Chris Cairns has 103 wickets from 33 Test matches, outstanding figures had he been a batsman but -- and this must disappoint him -- he only averages 26 with the bat.

Carl Hooper is clearly a batsman who can bowl, but even he only manages 35.10 with the bat and has a mere 80 wickets from 73 Test matches.

Brian McMillan hasn’t played a game for a while and is clearly in decline, though he probably had it in him to be an all-rounder by the classical definition as well.

Lance Klusener has 42 wickets from 16 games, which is probably not good enough for a front-line bowler, but he averages a very handy 28.65 with the bat.

And for a man who is so young in international cricket, Azhar Mahmood merits inclusion in this shortlist as well. Though regarded as a seam bowler, he has three centuries in 11 Tests and that gives him an average of 52.33 and with 24 wickets as well, he is doing pretty well for a start.

That leaves Jacques Kallis as a contender for Pollock. Here is a young man who takes some wonderful catches at second slip, is considered good enough to bat at number three for his country and can bowl 40 overs in an innings if required. On current form he would have to be among the best in the game today, though a tardy start is weighing him down. He only averages 29.64, which would require him to be a lead bowler but 22 wickets are not quite good enough as yet.

So Bob Woolmer was probably right because, before the start of the Test match at Trent Bridge, his man had 80 wickets from 23 Tests and averaged 31.39 with the bat. Pollock has already moved up the order to number seven and if he does settle down at number six, which is where people believe he will end up, that will make it easier for Woolmer to argue his second point.

Gary Sobers He is on shakier ground here, though, because Gary Sobers, after 93 Tests, hit 8,032 runs, averaged a mind-boggling 57.78, hit 26 centuries including that innings of 365 not out, and while that clearly puts him among the great batsmen of all time, he also took 235 wickets@34.04 and held 109 catches!

Enough reason for Pollock to be dismissive of his coach’s view? At first sight, maybe. A closer inspection though reveals that Sobers was a slightly late bloomer and that after his first few years, had figures that Pollock might be interested in seeing.

After 15 Tests, Sobers had 724 runs @ 31.48, was without a century, and only had 18 wickets after having taken 4 for 75 in his debut innings. In fact, by the time he had played 25 Tests, which is a figure comparable with the number of Tests Pollock has played, Sobers only had 31 wickets, though, by then his batting average had soared. How is this for a run of scores in that interim period? 52, 80, 365*, 125, 109*, 14, 27, 25, 142*, 4, 198 and 106*?

Now, if Pollock who is clearly a bowling all-rounder (Sobers would probably have to qualify as a batting all-rounder, since we are handing out tags), has to get into the dream team, he would need to be taking 5 wickets a Test to match Sobers’ batting average of 57. That would require him to be in the Lillee, Marshall, Hadlee class as a bowler while maintaining a batting average of 31 !

For all Woolmer’s bravado then, he is probably right on one of two counts!

But since we are talking numbers this week, I stumbled on a couple of others that are very interesting. After 23 Tests (Pollock: 879 runs and 80 wickets), Imran Khan had 766 runs and 97 wickets and Botham, who had a dream start in the Packer era, had 1068 runs and 118 wickets from his first 22 games.

But the comparison with Kapil Dev throws up stunningly similar figures. At an identical stage in his career (though in terms of time, he was a mere one year old in international cricket), Kapil had 893 runs@31.89 and 87 wickets@27.74.

It is pretty decent company, that!

Finally, a passing thought that might make for a decent academic exercise. Is this the worst period for all-rounders in the history of Test cricket? And does it have anything to do with this being the brighest phase for another breed of cricketers? Namely, those that can bowl 7 overs for 30 runs and score 35 at a run-a-ball? And, which of those is the more important cricketer today?

Maybe, with the World Cup coming up, Bob Woolmer might want to put one of his outstanding wards in contention for the title of the best one-day cricketer ever!

Harsha Bhogle

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