April 18, 2012

Best Middle Order Batsmen of All Time

In making a comprehensive list of the best middle order batsmen, it's incredibly tough to compare across different generations, and the varied styles. I found the best factor to focus on primarily is the level of dominance a batsman was able to achieve through a sustained period of international cricket (sustained means both in terms of number of years and number of tests). After that, the style of playing and their statistics come next. Let's hope that I am able to do justice to the great batsmen over the ages.

What I decided to do was make 5 brackets. So, I would not be actually ranking batsmen from 20 to 1, but putting them together in different brackets with 5th being the lowest. This is necessary because it is ridiculously difficult to decide who out of Viv, Hammond and Lara should be ahead, or to distinguish between Waugh, Dravid and Border. It is a task that is best accomplished by putting them under the same bracket. I am not going into details here. We all know what these players have achieved, and it would be a waste of space to just list their accomplishments. I will just be giving some personal opinions (which are based on facts).

Timeless Greats

5th Bracket

Stanley Joseph "Stan" McCabe (Australia)

The maverick of the great Australian side under Bradman. A maestro who could pay such extraordinary innings as to make the Don himself sigh with envy. Perhaps there had never been a finer innings played in test history than the run-a-ball 232 he scored against England in the first test in 1938 as the wickets tumbled about him on a dreary pitch. Len Hutton said that he possessed qualities than even the Don didn't and was the batsman to watch. Somehow, he couldn't manage to be as prolific as his talent foretold, but the very essence of the man was that he didn't much care about the stats, but more about enjoying batting and rising to the occasion. This was at its best display in the Bodyline series when he hooked and pulled Larwood and Voce on his way to a 278-ball 187 in the first test, thus giving a befitting reply to Jardine's tactics. McCabe is in the pantheon of the greatest Aussie batsmen, and will not bow before any of them.  

Mohammad Javed Miandad Khan (Pakistan)

A touch of genius in the Pakistani line-up of the 80s, Miandad, along with Border, was the world's leading batsman after Viv's and Gavaskar's peaks had withered away. His away record was slightly worse than he would have liked, but an overall record of 8832 runs @ 52.57 does justice to a talent whose angular glances, square cuts and reverse sweeps (surprise!) were a joy to watch.. His exploits in the 1987-88 series against the Windies finally put paid to years of doubt over his mettle in difficult conditions, although extensive home umpiring in his favor will probably stick in a lot longer. His performances against India were as successful as might be expected, and when asked to hit four off the last ball of the Australasia Cup Final, he walloped Chetan Sharma for a six. For Miandad was a man to watch out for, especially when you least expected it.   

Clyde Leopold Walcott (West Indies)

In terms of panache, perhaps the best of the 3Ws. With Weekes and Worrell, the Windies line-up averaged 47 during his reign, much more than any of their contemporaries in world cricket. He was a prolific run getter with an average of above 56. That he was a big occasion man is evident in the fact that he scored an awesome 168 in Windies' first test win on English soil at Lord's. At his peak, like Viv Richards later, he was one of those rare power-packed batsmen to whom bowlers preferred not to bowl on a long afternoon. Walcott gave up his keeping after having a torrid first tour against Australia against Lindwall and Miller. After that, though, he managed to have some extraordinary outings, especially against the returning Aussies as he scored 5 centuries and averaged 82 in the Caribbean. His love of laughter was well known, not to say that he wasn't menacing on the field. After finishing his career after 44 test matches, he worked for his native Barbados and Antigua. An unforgettable mix of silk and gently rolling thunder was one Sir Clyde Walcott.

Rohan Bholalall Kanhai (West Indies)

Perhaps the most underrated Caribbean batsman of all time. Kanhai was the driving force in the Windies' middle order in the 60s, and a pivotal member of the 1975 World Cup winning team. It would be difficult to imagine a more entertaining batsman from his era. Kanhai played with Sobers, Weekes and Worrell in his first test, and Lloyd and Kallicharran in his last. His first century was a smashing 256 at the Eden Gardens, and he never looked back. He was somewhat daring and quite sublime in stroke-play. Another player who believed in using a good defense in positive, run-getting ways. Some very formidable people rate him as high as Brian Lara, and Sunil Gavaskar claims to have learnt a lot about his technique from watching Kanhai.

Frank Mortimer Maglinne Worrell (West Indies) 

The Classiest Captain Ever

The ease with which this man took the immense pressure on his shoulders as the first black captain of the Windies was remarkable. Frank Worrell batted with an elegance so superb as to set an example for his fine side. Ever the gentleman, he never let any controversy upset either his side, or his crafty batting. His partnership on the field with Sobers was fantastic @ 76.93, and their relationship off field helped Sobers become a future leader for the Windies. In their first series down under, he was the only of the batsmen to stand tall against a rampaging Lindwall-Miller, thus paving the way for future invasions. Worrell could bat anywhere, and sometimes opened the innings to great effect as well. A truly world class batsman. The man to unite Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad; the man respected and loved by everyone. 

4th Bracket

Kumar Chokshanada Sangakkara (Sri Lanka)

When it comes to Sangakkara, perhaps the most unfortunate fact is that he is automatically ranked below some of his contemporaries like Kallis and Dravid. This despite the fact that he has a better specialist batting record than both of them, indeed better than anybody including Ponting, Tendulkar and Lara during his reign as the pivotal block of the Sri Lankan team. After giving up the gloves, as a specialist bat, Sangakkara has averaged 69 in 63 tests. That is a remarkable feat. The only blemish, by no fault of his own, against his stellar record is the fact the Sri Lanka have played very little cricket with Australia, South Africa and England and hence he hasn't really got a chance to prove himself against them. The other most obvious reason for underrating him is that as a keeper, Kumar was not as successful with the bat and hence may have gotten pigeon-holed early. Also, he is not as aesthetically pleasing to look at as good left handers usually are (Border excluded), but his cover drive can be a thing of beauty. It is high time to acknowledge that he happens to be a major cricketing colossus, and the best batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced by far and away.

Stephen Rodger "Steve" Waugh (Australia)

The lower middle order giant of the 90s where he went toe-to-toe with the likes of Ambrose-Walsh, Wasim-Waqar and Donald-Pollock. Not a hint of backing down in him, especially when the going got tough, which it did quite a number of times in the early to mid 90s.

In Fine Flow

Waugh rose up the ranks by shedding his attacking outlook for a constrained approach. Mark might have been the poorer brother had Steve's initial devilry produced consistent results at the highest level. There came a point when dislodging Steve Waugh's wickets was the toughest job in test cricket; this during the rise of Tendulkar and Lara.

After taking over the captaincy, Waugh became more intensely associated with grooming the side to become the champions that they would eventually go on to. His tenacity with the bat was a major factor. I always admired the way he would milk runs through singles and twos, especially through the off-side. The mid-wicket was another favorite region of his, and the sweep a glorious stroke.

He scored runs by the bountiful, almost 11000 @ 51. At last count, you would always find Waugh battling at his end for the Aussies. 

Allan Robert Border (Australia)

The Atlas in a line-up which was ordinary for too long. Border is the undisputed king of the modern fight back. Too often, his crusade ended before reaching the century mark, but the crusades never stopped. Even after the blossoming of Boon, the Waughs and Deano, he continued to puddle runs away. If Border ever seemed too strict, it probably had something to do with how the Australians went from being kings of the hill in the 70s to down in the mud-pie by the early 80s. It was a tough era, with Imran-Miandad's Pakistan, Hadlee's New Zealand, and Gavaskar-Kapil's India presenting unique challenges at the world stage, let alone the Windies. With a lack of majestic match-winners, I always felt Border felt himself unable to instill the charges with the required amount of pep talk.

What is most telling of the man is that he averaged 56.57 in overseas tests, almost 11 points higher than his home record. Runs made during Ashes in England came at 65. Incredible stuff. Barrington is perhaps the only bat who can hold sway over Border in this respect. As an artist, he possessed a brilliant hook shot, and one of the punchiest cuts in the world. In the mid 80s, the best bat in the world along with Miandad.

Kenneth Frank "Ken" Barrington (England)

A colossus in the middle, Ken Barrington is surpassed in English middle order history only by Wally Hammond. He was a stonewaller of Boycottian standards. He started out as an attacking batsman, who then completely changed his playing style to suit the requirement of the team (seems to happen a lot, doesn't it?). The revised method cost him his place once, by way of punishment for taking 435 minutes to score 137 against a humdrum New Zealand attack at Edgbaston in 1965, but overall it served him brilliantly. When the chips were down, he was the one who could be relied upon to give his best, his uttermost. He was much loved by everyone in England, and served English cricket brilliantly for 82 tests, averaging 58.67 and scoring 20 centuries. The man's greatest feat was perhaps, that he averaged around 69 with the bat in overseas tests, a feat of titanic proportions. 

Everton DeCourcy Weekes (West Indies)

The third of the Ws is Everton Weekes. Weekes' career was a fine one, coinciding with those of Worrell, Walcott and Sobers. He was quick-footed and possessed an admirable variety of strokes, almost all of them attacking. In England in 1950 his rich form amassed him 2310 runs at 79.65 on the trip, including a triple hundred against Cambridge, although in the Tests he made 338 at 56.33. With an average of 58..61 after 48 tests and 15 centuries, he once scored five hundreds in consecutive tests in India, following a debut in which he scored 141 while being booed by the home fans in the Caribbean who wanted to see John Holt play instead of him. Nobody ever made that mistake again. Very fine indeed.  

Rahul Sharad Dravid (India)

Rahul Dravid is difficult to place on this list, to be very honest. I could have him lower and not many would complain. I , though, remain firm in my opinion that Dravid is as classy, as technically perfect, as proud and ambitious as any other batsman you will ever meet. With the integrity of a Supreme Court Justice, Dravid made the number 3 position all his own for India in their finest ever team. So bright did his star shine in the 2000s that he even eclipsed the great Tendulkar through the decade. His overseas performances against England, Windies and Australia were the base on which India built its finest victories. 

Nobody valued his wicket more than Dravid, whose reservoirs of concentration and determination seemed limitless. He was a team man through and through, opening when they needed him to, keeping when he was asked, and what not. Probably one of the last classical test batsmen, Dravid ended his career with more than 13000 test runs at an average of 52.31 with 36 centuries. More than the numbers, he was a man who would not submit to defeat, most notably showcased in his defiant partnership with VVS Laxman in Eden Gardens in 2001. With him gone, cricket has lost something special, something from a bygone era, something which is worth preserving.

3rd Bracket

Jacques Henry Kallis (South Africa)

That Kallis is a great batsman is widely acknowledged. That Kallis is the bedrock of the most solid South African team since 1970 (or perhaps ever) will never be denied. That Kallis is the most dependable man in world cricket will also scant be questioned. Then there is the fact that he is the fourth highest run getter in test history, also the second highest centurion with 44 test centuries to his name, with a batting average of 56.10 after 162 tests having scored 13,128 runs. Still, Kallis is routinely and regularly kept away from discussions regarding the best batsman of modern times. He is held behind Tendulkar, Ponting, Lara, as a matter of course. As much as I hate saying it, it may be somewhat justified.

Although Kallis is an imperious batsman, he is pretty much the Ken Barrington of the modern generation. He scores at a strike rate of just a little over 45, and can seem to be more of a defensive player. Add to that, he plays great shots too infrequently to draw an adoring admiration from the cricketing fans. Having said that, Kallis' upright booming cover drive is a thing of beauty from the shadows of the past generation, just like him, and I make room for him at the upper echelons of batting greats.

Ricky Thomas Ponting (Australia)

The batsman of the 2000s with an awe-inspiring record during his peak. A very attacking batsman with the most brilliant pull shot I have ever witnessed. Perhaps Australia’s greatest in the modern era. Slightly suspect early shuffle tended to get the better of him sometimes, but aside that, not much. Quintessentially modern, and an uncompromising plunderer of runs, Ponting has hit 41 test centuries, bringing him third on the all time list. Between 2002-06, he was in phenomenal form, averaging 70.93 in 2002, 100.20 in 2003, 67.13 in 2005 and 88.86 in 2006. The only issue is that outside of this purple patch, his numbers ob both sides are quite less daunting. He is the most successful test captain in history, a three time world cup winner, and one of only four batsmen to have scored 13000 test runs. At his best, he was like a thunderstorm, gathering everything in his wake. At his worst, not too bad either.

Robert Graeme Pollock (South Africa)

Even a career cut short could not diminish the greatness of this man. A master craftsman, an artist in the super league of left-handers. His profound command and aura at the crease were unmistakable. Bradman certainly thought him to be the best left hander he had ever seen along with Sobers. He destroyed Australia in 1970 along with Barry Richards. In 23 tests, he scored 2256 runs @ 60.97 with 7 centuries. Pollock was an extremely powerful batsman, very positive in his outlook, although his timing was perhaps his most obvious natural asset. He would probably have been regarded much higher on this list had he played more.

In Port Elizabeth, where he played the finest years of his first-class career, you can still almost picture people dashing off to see him play at “the Pollock position” at the Old Grey. If you need any confirmation of his greatness, look at the freaking gene pool, Peter Pollock and Shaun Pollock.

Gregory Stephen "Greg" Chappell (Australia)

The Silky Aussie

Beautiful to watch, very elegant with a great technique. His record is very, very good (average 53.86 and 24 100s), but more than anything else, Chappell was, aesthetically, the best batsman to watch in the 70s. He dominated Australia's batting for more than a decade in a show of supreme batsmanship. Never played ugly shots, never will. As time went by, he became better defensively, and imposed more self discipline upon himself. He influenced the side in other positive ways too. Ian, his brother, seemed twice the batsman with Greg in the team than without him. A master of the leg side, with his wristy upward flicks and a wonderful driver of the ball. Laxman would come close as a modern equivalent, but not close enough.

George Alphonso Headley (West Indies)

The Black Bradman. For some, he is the greatest West Indies Batsman of all time. Playing at number 3 in a modest Caribbean side, George Headley shone like a bright diamond. George Headley was unstoppable at every level of the game, making runs with a style and brilliance few have ever matched, and setting the standards for generations of West Indian players to follow. Headley's average at the outbreak of war was 66.7; among team-mates who played as many as five Tests, the next highest average was Clifford Roach's 30.7. Headley scored 10 centuries with a high score of 270. The unassuming genius comes across when he asked questions like, "Why doesn't he want to bat?", referring to a fellow batsman who got out playing a foolish shot. The first black superstar.

2nd Bracket

Walter Reginald 'Wally' Hammond (England)

The Man Who Liked a Shag

But for Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton, Hammond would have an automatic claim to be England's best batsman ever. He could still lay claim to be its best cricketer ever. A great slip catcher, and a useful medium pacer, and a colossus with the bat. He had established himself as the best batsman of his era, when suddenly the title was taken away by the boy from Bowral. He lived his entire career in the shadow of the Don, but was instrumental in English triumphs in that era. It is a truly unfortunate that Hammond never truly got the adulation he would have definitely received in any other era.

Supremely skilled on sticky wickets, and a marvelous exponent of the off side, Hammond scored runs in heavy showers, finishing with a staggering 36 first class double centuries and the highest test score of 336, then a world record beating Bradman's 334. His 7249 test runs came at 58.45 with 22 hundreds in 85 matches. Till his 77th test, though, he averaged 61, again quite incredible.

Brian Charles Lara (West Indies)

The Michael Jordan of Cricket

On his best days, the most watchable batsman in history. It is as simple as that. If I was told to pick between him and Tendulkar if both were going to be at their best, I would probably know who to pick on an outright basis. He was absolutely marvelous to watch. Extremely attacking. He knew the art of scoring huge centuries while keeping his wicket safe, as showcased in his innings of 277, 375, 501 and 400 and the awesome 153 in 1999. But then came some days when he was uncharacteristic, especially during 1998-01, and looked extremely unmotivated. His constant squabbles with the Windies Board didn't help his cause either. His final 3-4 years were quite glorious as he averaged nearly 57 with 14 centuries in that period. 

He was an entertainer par excellence. Eloquently graceful, divine in stroke-play and a god against spin bowling. The fastest bat to reach 11000 test runs. Once called the "Michael Jordan of Cricket" by the most powerful man in the world. Lara was rated as the best batsman they saw by his great contemporary bowlers : McGrath, Murali, and Waqar. The best player of spin bowling in history. Wonderful, wonderful cricketer, and a very proud man.

Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander "Viv" Richards (West Indies)

Smokin' Hot!

Viv was a cross between Mohammad Ali and Barry Richards. What swagger, what a will to dominate, and what a player to watch. His hooking and pulling are up there as perhaps the best of all time. He feared no one, and was at his most fierce when antagonized. Oppositions quickly learned not to do that. Between 1976 and 1981, Viv was in a universe of his own, the way he dismantled attacks. It was always awe inspiring, and frequently he made the bowler want to hit the showers early. 

He could deflate oppositions like no other batsman in history. His overpowering theatrical displays of domination would really take over the entire game as long as he was there. He transformed West Indies from a good team to a world dominating side with his attitude and ambition, completing his career in 1991, though he was past his great days by '87. An overall test average of 50 falls woefully short of his real achievements. He walked the walked better than anyone else in the history of the game. A fighter to boot, with a huge will to succeed and win and dominate. When you have him in the batting line-up, you know the other side has a little bit of fear in their heart. That. Is. Dominance.

Sir Garfield St Aubrun "Garry" Sobers (West Indies)

Sir Garry Off-Drives!

A cricketing genius, Sobers was first and foremost a great batsman more than anything else. His exceptional Test batting average of over 57 tells little about the manner in which he made the runs, his elegant yet powerful style marked by all the shots, and most memorably his off-side play. Barry Richards once observed that Sobers was “the only 360-degree player in the game”; that is, his follow-through ended where his pick-up began, swinging “right through every degree on the compass”.

Sobers kick-started his batting career in 1957-58 against Pakistan with three fifties in a row, then made his first Test hundred at Kingston - the little matter of a world-record 365 not out. Two more hundreds followed at Georgetown, and he ended the series with 824 runs at 137.33. He was a very fine captain for the Windies side in an era where they found their first great team. Sobers could bat anywhere, and he did just that, alternating with the 3 Ws, even opening in a test once. Perhaps his best innings was the 254 in a WSC test against the Australians armed with a young, fiery Dennis Lillee.

Almost all his contemporaries rank him as the greatest batsman they ever saw after Bradman. Same goes for most people who played with or against the likes of Viv, Pollock and Chappell in the 70s and 80s. 

Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar (India)

I will let BBC Sports summarize for me:
Beneath the helmet, under that unruly curly hair, inside the cranium, there is something we don't know, something beyond scientific measure. Something that allows him to soar, to roam a territory of sport that, ...forget us, even those who are gifted enough to play alongside him cannot even fathom. When he goes out to bat, people switch on their television sets and switch off their lives.
The Glorious Master

First came the Prodigy. In 1988, when he was 15, Sunil Gavaskar was quoted as saying in a Sportsweek interview, "The two best batsmen in Bombay today are Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar." Full stop. Everyone knew he was going to be one of the greatest, including, in a strange way, he himself. In 1992, at 19, he played those innings in Perth and Sydney.

Next came the Master Blaster. Partly because of the one day game, he became an unstoppable force. He changed the face of Indian cricket single handedly. I will always say, like Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Bradman, Viv and countless others, that the best batsmen attack the bowling even if it is not there to be attacked. Enter Sachin. From 1996 to 2002, he was in imperious form. The Sharjah whirl-storms, the Chennai masterstroke, the dismantling of Warne all came in that era.

Last came the cerebral genius. Sachin Tendulkar has donned many personas in his awe-striking career. He has reinvented himself again and again. He is almost as good a player now as he was when he started, but in a radically different way. If longevity were the most important criteria here, Tendulkar would have a real shot at the first bracket. In fact, with overall judgement in terms of technique, success, temperament and dominance as well, Tendulkar is the one, along with Sobers, who really knocks strongly at the first bracket's door. 

The best aspect of Tendulkar is that he is a purist's delight. He possesses all the best features of batting: compact technique, minimal footwork, aggression, instinct. He is a joy to watch, and he possesses the knack of finding joy in every outing on the field. Where he ranks above Lara and Richards is as a technician. 

His record is, well, you know. 51 Test Centuries, 15470 test runs, average 55. 44, 49 ODI centuries, 18426 ODI runs, average 44.83. In one area, though, Tendulkar suffers when compared with other greats is his inability to make really big scores. He has never made a triple century, and "only" made 6 double centuries. Tendulkar played in a weaker side for the first half of his career, often being the knight in shining armor. His excellence in ODI cricket is better than any other batsman in the format's history bar Sir Viv, and it only adds to his legend. To the man who loves scoring runs, and winning matches, it's cruel that he has played many a great innings in losing causes, although some find it a flaw in him rather than his team. But he has never complained. He has never even given a hint. He marches on.


1st Bracket

Sir Donald George 'Don' Bradman (Australia)

The Invincible

99.94. The single most mind boggling number of cricket history. Home free. Bradman, the inexplicable phenomenon, had a technique which he himself has likened to being close to that of Tendulkar's. To be honest, I think he was flattering Sachin. Bradman mastered the art of scoring runs on uncovered and sticky pitches. He was the central point of the first  "Invincibles" side cricket has ever produced. He was hero worshiped during his entire career, as people flocked to the cricket ground to watch him score one of his great knocks, and he was made the brand ambassador of almost everything. The gold standard. The platinum standard. The einstenium standard. 

An attempt to bring forth some achievements of his: He once averaged 201 in a 5 match test series against South Africa. Another series against India, he averaged 178. He scored 29 centuries in 80 innings, 12 double hundreds, 2 triple hundreds and one 299*. His lowest point was averaging 56 in bodyline. Once scored 270 batting at number 7. Once scored 309 runs in a single day (a record). Bradman is (still) the fastest player to reach 2K, 3K, 4K, 5K, and 6K runs. He once made centuries in 6 consecutive tests. Averaged over 100 in seven different calendar years.

It is not just the dominance with the bat either. It is the context of those runs too. His Australian side destroyed England in all except the 'Bodyline' series, and he completely overshadowed one of history's great batsmen in Wally Hammond. His hunger for runs and victories led him to a point of intense rivalry with Hammond, who fought tooth and nail to best him. His incredible knowledge of cricket is admirably summarized in his book 'The Art of Cricket'. Read that properly and you can score a fifty in any Sunday league in any country. As a batsman, his technique can only be likened to Tendulkar by his own admission. 

No other athlete has dominated an international sport to the extent that Bradman did cricket, perhaps Michael Phelps and Jahangir Khan are the closest. That is why he is the only one in the 1st Bracket. If not for him, the 2nd bracket would have been the 1st Bracket. Want more? To end this, I will just write those few words again as I shake my head in wonder: ninety nine point nine four. Fetch that!

Batsmen who just missed out: Martin Crowe (New Zealand) - Dennis Compton (England) - Inzamam ul-Haq (Pakistan) - Neil Harvey (Australia)

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