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So, after responding to the incongruities in ICC’s year-end awards, we look at Cricinfo’s new list of the “Greatest Test Performances” of the last fifty years. The irrationalities are no fewer here.

While exercises such as these are always likely to trigger debates, it continues to confound how romance rather than competition, determines such lists. An eminent jury constituting 25 writers and former players are collectively responsible for this collection of performances, many with a shockingly familiar disregard for context.

It is very odd that the people who extol the virtues of Test cricket and hail it as the best format in the greatest sport in the world actually disregard the most fundamental thing about it – the series context. Test cricket is nothing if not seen from the prism of home-and-away series. That is its real tradition and its most unique property.

To ignore that series context entirely is actually to disregard the predominant preoccupation of all the great cricketers being honoured in lists such as these. All of them played to win the series – that was always the big picture for them too.

This lack of imagination, merely because it has been hard to quantify the series aspect previously, seems to have rubbed off on most followers of the game too. The general culture around cricket continues to hail meaningless, or less meaningful, aggregates and averages over the really substantial performances.

There also seems an inability to grasp the idea that in a team game, the individual performance has to be seen within the context of what it did for the side, and whether anyone else also contributed to the side’s strong position. The preference of Laxman’s 281 over all else exemplifies this – Dravid’s 180 is merely seen as a support act, not even worth mentioning. That the two great innings are acutely interlinked is surely straightforward common sense?

We discuss Cricinfo’s list by only comparing the 15 “greatest” performances according to them and Impact Index’s 15 highest impact performances, both in a match, then series context. And we leave it to you to decide which has more weight.

First let’s look at Cricinfo’s top 15.

1) VVS Laxman: 59 and 281 vs Australia, Kolkata, 2001.
2) Ian Botham: 50 and 149 not out vs Australia, Headingley, 1981.
3)Michael Holding: 8-92 and 6-57 vs England, The Oval, 1976.
4)Brian Lara: 153 not out vs Australia, Bridgetown, 1999.
5) Ian Botham: 114, 6-58 and 7-48 vs India, Bombay, 1980.
6) Richard Hadlee: 54, 9-52 and 6-71 vs Australia, Brisbane, 1985.
7) Bob Massie: 8-84 and 8-53 vs England, Lord’s, 1972.
8) Muttiah Muralitharan: 7-155 and 9-65 vs England, The Oval, 1998.
9) Graham Gooch: 34 and 154 not out vs West Indies, Headingley, 1991.
10) Garry Sobers: 174, 5-41 and 3-39 vs England, Headingley, 1966.
11) Anil Kumble: 4-75 and 10-74 vs Pakistan, Delhi, 1999.
12) Allan Border: 98 not out and 100 not out vs West Indies, Port-of-Spain, 1984.
13) Imran Khan: 117, 6-96 and 5-82, vs India, Faisalabad, 1983.
14) Viv Richards: 291 vs England, The Oval, 1976.
15) Brian Lara: 400 not out vs England, St John’s, 2004.

 

Let’s get this out of the way first – all of these are great performances. All of them, except Bob Massie, are all-time greats. So, there is no slur intended on anyone or any of these performances when we argue against them. It’s just that there are other performances that were quite simply more substantial (or had a higher impact) – you will be able to see that with the naked eye. We are not going to quote a single Impact number in this piece.

First, the absurdities. There are three of them in the top 15.

In 1976, the series had been won 2-0 by West Indies when they faced a demoralised England at The Oval for the final Test. First, Viv Richards produced 291 out of West Indies’ 687 for 8 declared. Then, Michael Holding took 8-92 and 6-57 as West Indies won by an innings and then some. So, this jury has actually included these two individual performances (Nos. 14 and 3 respectively) from this match. In a dead rubber, against a side that had nothing to play for but pride – not quite the ingredients for an all-time great performance, are they?

In 2004, West Indies had lost 0-3 in the series against England. In the final Test, West Indies batted first and scored 751 for 5 declared, with Brian Lara scoring 400 not out. England batted out 236 overs to draw the match quite comfortably in the end. A dead pitch in a dead rubber produced Test cricket’s highest individual score. And it is on a list of greatest all-time Test performances. Wow.

Three utter absurdities in the top 15 – that’s 20 percent. This is why we haven’t bothered with the remaining 35 performances on the Cricinfo list. In any case, there’s still something to be said against some more of these top 15 performances here.

Bob Massie’s performance (No. 7 on this list), is remembered for the catchy 16 wickets on debut, but not for Greg Chappell’s performance which had almost the same impact as Massie’s haul. Chappell walked in at 7 for 2, as Australia replied to England’s 272, and made 131 out of his team’s 308, which played a huge part in Australia’s eight-wicket win (with the fourth innings largely a formality). Massie and Chappell both shared most of Australia’s impact in this match, which no one today remembers. The Cricinfo write-up doesn’t even mention Chappell’s performance. And if we point out that 6 out of Massie’s 16 wickets were lower-order wickets and that Dennis Lillee took 4 of the 8 top-order wickets in both innings, that will probably be dismissed as nerdy nitpicking by many.

This whole business of sharing impact – this is also why VVS Laxman does not top the Impact charts. The undeniably compelling flowery Cricinfo write-up on that does not even mention Rahul Dravid who made 180 in that same innings. It is a pity that Dravid did not make 20 more runs, as the milestone-obsessed cricket intelligentsia would be forced then to look at Dravid as more of an equal in that epic partnership, simply because both would have made double centuries then. This is what it ostensibly comes down to. Double wow.

Contrast that with Ian Botham’s Headingley performance. Botham’s famous unbeaten 149 came in an almost-solo flight – Graham Dilley with 56 and Chris Old with 29 the only ones to give him support. Both Laxman and Botham scored fifties in their first innings and both their historic second innings performances came after following-on. And both turned their respective series on their head. But even just on batting alone, in a considerably lower-scoring match, Botham is ahead because he did not share impact with anyone like Laxman did with Dravid. Add to that Botham’s seven wickets in the match and the top spot is really a no-brainer.

Does it even require analytics to see this?

Or to spot the incongruously shifting goalposts on a list where from match entries, suddenly at No. 4, we see a solitary innings? Brian Lara’s 1999 Bridgetown 153 not out is undeniably one of the great batting innings in Test history, but it is the only performance on this list (Cricinfo’s top 15) that deliberately avoids the match. All we are asked to remember is that West Indies needed 230 to win when Lara walked in at 78 for 3. We are not told that Steve Waugh got 199 in the first innings, Ponting 101 in Australia’s 490, then Campbell 105 in West Indies’ 329, and then with West Indies 161 runs behind after the first innings, an inspired Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Pedro Collins dismissed Australia for 146, which transformed the fourth innings target into at least a conceivable 308. We are not told that Lara made 8 in the first innings. It is just about the romance of the fourth innings chase here. If this had been a list of great innings, this would surely be up there, but on a list of match performances? Or does Cricinfo, or the jury, choose not to distinguish between the two?

Much the same for Anil Kumble’s 10-74 in Delhi, 1999. At least, here they’ve included the first innings haul of 4-75, probably out of convenience.  After all, it was a significant haul as Pakistan were dismissed for 172, conceding an 80-run first innings lead, which wasn’t insubstantial in those conditions. Then, S Ramesh, playing just his second Test match, top-scored with 96 (he had also made 60 in the first innings) and led the way for an Indian total of 339, making the fourth innings target of 420 a mere formality. Half that score in those conditions would have been a fighting total; this was just a matter of time. No team had crossed 300 in the fourth innings to win in India ever, (and since 1999 too, it has just happened once). Of course Pakistan lost (by over 200 runs) and while Kumble’s 10-74 was a historic feat, prevented a hard-fought (but unlikely) draw in fifth day Kotla conditions, and leveled the series 1-1, is it worthy of being on an all-time list?

Take Muttiah Muralitharan’s 16 wickets at The Oval (No. 8 on this list). He took 7-155 in the first innings as England got 445, an example of the only world-class bowler in that side (Vaas did not play that match) getting the majority of wickets, four of which were lower-order ones. Then followed two batting masterclasses under the pressure of that big English score – from Sanath Jayasuriya who got 213 and Aravinda de Silva who made 152, as Sri Lanka got 591, a lead of 146, rather substantial in those conditions. Most teams would win from that situation and Sri Lanka did too – the fourth innings target of 36 a mere formality for them. Sure, Muralitharan got 9 wickets in the third innings but is it the significance of his performance or the excitement of seeing a single bowler get 16 wickets in a match that put him on this list?

Many of these above entries are clearly more about the romance associated with landmarks rather than elite cricketers prevailing under intense competition and revealing their characters – surely this is what “great sporting encounter” is supposed to mean, is it not?

So, that’s nine of these fifteen performances discussed. Now, here’s a peek at two sets of performances.

First, the highest impact Test match performances for the same period (the last 50 years) within only the match context (thus series status not considered).

VVS Laxman
VVS Laxman – an all-time great innings in Kolkata in 2001, but he shared impact with Rahul Dravid.

 

HIGHEST IMPACT TEST PERFORMANCES
(MATCH CONTEXT)

1) Ian Botham: 6-95 and 1-14, 50 and 149 not out vs Australia, Headingley, 1981.
2) Dinesh Chandimal: 59 and 162 not out vs India, Galle, 2015.
3) Abdul Qadir: 9-56 and 4-45, 38 vs England, Lahore, 1987.
4) Richard Hadlee: 99, 3-16 and 5-28 vs England, Christchurch, 1984.
5) VVS Laxman: 59 and 281 vs Australia, Kolkata, 2001.
6) Mushtaq Mohammad: 121 and 56, 5-28 and 3-69 vs West Indies, Trinidad, 1977.
7) Ian Botham: 6-58 and 7-48, 114 vs India, Bombay, 1980.
8) Richard Hadlee: 9-52 and 6-71, 54 vs Australia, Brisbane, 1985.
9) Stuart Broad: 169, 2-10 and 1-24 vs Pakistan, Lord’s, 2010.
10) Gordon Greenidge: 134 and 101 vs England, Manchester, 1976.
11) Narendra Hirwani: 1, 8-61 and 8-75 vs West Indies, Madras, 1988.
12) Pat Symcox: 81 and 55, 0-39 and 3-8 vs Pakistan, Faisalabad, 1997.
13) Tony Greig: 1-13 and 5-24, 29 and 67 vs India, Calcutta, 1973.
14) Jonathan Trott: 184 vs Pakistan, Lord’s, 2010.
15) Intikhab Alam: 3, 7-52 and 4-78 vs New Zealand, Dunedin, 1973.

 

So, there are four performances common with the Cricinfo list here, though in different positions.

Please just open the scorecards and see their significance for yourself, and compare those with the Cricinfo list.

Why has Dinesh Chandimal’s performance not been considered? Just because it is too recent, or that he is a not a highly regarded player yet, or that he is Sri Lankan? Look at what he did – almost single-handedly turned a Test match on its head. This is actually the greatest performance by a wicketkeeper-batsman in the history of Test cricket, along with the even lesser-known Denis Lindsay’s, as we will see later.

Or Abdul Qadir’s? Just because he took merely 13 wickets? But 9 of them on the first day decided the match for all practical purposes, as England tumbled to 175 all out. Then, those 38 runs from No. 9 as Pakistan went to a lead of over 200 had some weight too as they only had to bat once. Qadir’s four wickets in the second innings, none from the lower order, was just gravy really, regardless of what other landmarks he needed to reach in order to make the Cricinfo list.

Among the two performances by Richard Hadlee here (one of which is common to the Cricinfo list), why has the first one – at No. 4 here – been left out by the Cricinfo jury? Because he couldn’t get the hallowed hundred or ten wickets in the match? But look closely at what he did. From 137 for 5, he top-scored with 99 as New Zealand reached 307. And then, England collapsed for 82 and 93 – that’s how the conditions were. Hadlee took 8 of the 20 wickets to fall; Lance Cairns, Stephen Boock and Ewan Chatfield more-or-less evenly shared the rest. Hadlee still took twice the number of wickets as anyone else and scored more runs than England could manage in either innings. Is it even conceivable for such a performance to not make an all-time list?

The highly underrated Tony Greig‘s performance here (at No. 13) is the only one in a losing cause. But just take a look at what he did in the second half of the match. Meanwhile, the batting performances of Stuart Broad and Jonathan Trott (Nos. 9 and 14), however jaw-dropping, can be seen as anomalies as this was the infamous match-fixing game against Pakistan, and Pakistan’s horrific batting in the game obviously benefits Broad and Trott on an Impact scale.

Now, let us look at the highest impact performances in a series context, that is, performances that decided the fate of a series, by either directly affecting the series scoreline or changing the momentum in a series.

Ian Botham
Ian Botham – indisputably produced the most substantial performance in Test cricket history in 1981.

 

HIGHEST IMPACT TEST PERFORMANCES
(SERIES CONTEXT)

1) Ian Botham: 6-95 and 1-14, 50 and 149 not out vs Australia, Headingley, 1981.
2) Abdul Qadir: 9-56 and 4-45, 38 vs England, Lahore, 1987.
3) Richard Hadlee: 99, 3-16 and 5-28 vs England, Christchurch, 1984.
4) VVS Laxman: 59 and 281 vs Australia, Kolkata, 2001.
5) Narendra Hirwani: 1, 8-61 and 8-75 vs West Indies, Madras, 1988.
6) Pat Symcox: 81 and 55, 0-39 and 3-8 vs Pakistan, Faisalabad, 1997.
7) Intikhab Alam: 3, 7-52 and 4-78 vs New Zealand, Dunedin, 1973.
8) Iqbal Qasim: 5-35 and 4-49 vs Australia, Karachi, 1988.
9) John Lever: 53, 7-46 and 3-24 vs India, Delhi, 1976.
10) Denis Lindsay: 69 and 182 vs Australia, Johannesburg, 1966.
11) Angelo Mathews- 26 and 160, 4-44 and 0-16 vs England, Leeds, 2014.
12) Curtly Ambrose: 7-25 and 2-54, 9 not out vs Australia, Perth, 1993.
13) Javed Miandad: 211 vs Australia, Karachi, 1988.
14) Mushtaq Mohammad: 201, 2-15 and 5-49 vs New Zealand, Dunedin, 1973.
15) Kumar Sangakkara: 232 and 64 vs South Africa, Colombo (SSC), 2004.

 

Some of these performances are by less fancied players, some not even remembered today.

Like Pat Symcox. He was known more as a bowler, but just open that scorecard and see the context of his two batting performances in a series-deciding Test match in Pakistan and their overall importance. It defies belief. But not quite the sort of thing that inspires fancy literary writing perhaps?

Take the momentum-changing performances of John Lever and Denis Lindsay. England had not won a series in the subcontinent for 15 years and Vaseline or not (still disputed), look at what John Lever’s 7-46 in the very first bowling innings for England did to the 1976-77 series. Despite a legendary spin attack operating in home conditions, and two of India’s greatest-ever batsmen in their prime in that side, India lost 1-3.

And then, there’s Denis Lindsay. South Africa had not won a home series since beating a weak New Zealand side in 1953. In the first Test of the 1966 series against the best team in the world at the time, the South African wicketkeeper came out to bat at 41 for 5 and top-scored with 69 to take his team to 199. Australia got a 126-run lead and then Lindsay came out to bat, again at five-down, with South Africa just 142 ahead. His previously-unthinkable 182 runs from there flattened the Australians. They went on to win this series 3-1 and more famously, the next one against the same opposition 4-0 before South Africa was banned for Apartheid.

What about captain Angelo Mathews’ performance? An against-the-odds crucial third innings batting performance, supplemented by some wickets too, leading to a historic maiden series win in England. Not stylish enough for Cricinfo or the jury?

There are just two performances on this final list that are common with the Cricinfo top 15 list – the obvious ones of Botham and Laxman.

But interestingly, the first seven here are on the Impact match context list above as well, making them no-brainers on any such list.

If in the evaluation of cricketing performances we do not factor in the edge of competition to its fullest extent possible (which is all Impact Index really does, by the way), do we not push it more toward ballet dancing rather than sport? For those who think this is colourless accounting of the game, do the names on the Impact lists, or more pertinently the performances, suggest a lack of romance?

Why is it that such exercises in other sports do not display such an embarrassing lack of context? In a Ronaldo vs Messi debate, for example, we have everyday fans quoting the number of titles won by their club/country. And Baseball, the closest sport to cricket, is way, way ahead when it comes to factoring in context.

Guess how many of the above Impact performances, which merely factor in that context, made it to Cricinfo’s list of 50? Besides the two in the top 15 (the obvious ones of Botham and Laxman), just two more – Hirwani’s and Ambrose’s.

So, whether in match or series context, the most substantial performances in Test history have been ignored by this Cricinfo exercise. That’s our contention.

You decide. You have all the scorecard links here. Please go through them.

Do you see the triumph of romance over substance in the Cricinfo exercise, as we do? Does it make you now wonder about the version of history that has been fed to us or how we have been inadvertently trained to look at performances over the years by the cricket intelligentsia?

Exactly what has cricket been reduced to?

 

 

 

 

Jaideep Varma
(with inputs from Soham Sarkhel and Nikhil Narain)
Caricatures- Vasim Maner

 

Here is another take on the same subject, expanding on it further .