Brian Lara talks to Garry Sobers

How many entries between the two of them in the top 50?

Ben Radford / © Getty Images


In praise of list-making

The joys of sitting in judgement on a half-century of Test match performances

Rahul Bhattacharya

There are the burning issues in cricket and then there are the really interesting ones, and I'm pleased to report that this edition of the Cricket Monthly is all the latter. I can also safely say it has been the most fun issue to put together yet.

Fifty years, 50 Test performances. The idea grew out of the last part. We have all obsessed over what we think are the greatest innings and the greatest spells; some of us have written books or designed statistical systems for them, and I am certain some have lost friends over the matter. But Test cricket is a four-innings sport, so why haven't we thought quite as hard about performances that span the entire breadth of the match? The same cricketer participates in all innings, after all, and we watch and understand each in the context of the same match. If multiple innings make a Test match interesting, they do too a player's performance.

So that was the first parameter. We'd tell our cricket-tragic team of panelists that they were free to consider all innings of a Test match when thinking about a performance. Which brought them to the really tricky part: weighing one against another using various combinations of batting, bowling, fielding, captaining, enduring and whatever else they liked.

Having opened up the scope this much in one direction, we had to limit it in others. Nobody, not even a single-organism amalgam of David Frith, Gideon Haigh, Statsguru and YouTube, could be expected to consider all of Test history. We settled on a period of 50 years. It's about as far back as a mix of lived memory and accessible research could realistically take us, and it encompassed as large a pool of performances (i.e. very large) as could be realistically processed. We then chose 50 as the number of performances because that felt about right for 50 years: neither meaninglessly selective nor over-comprehensively baggy. And also because, well, yeah, "50 from 50" does have a bit of magaziney zing.

Test cricket is a four-innings sport, so why haven't we thought quite as hard about performances that span the entire breadth of the match?

Our 25 panelists were drawn more or less equally from around the world. For having put themselves through the not-unpleasurable torture of decision-making, our sincere thanks. The list drawn up from their choices is published as our lead pieces - of which the first is here. It blends the views of the journalist, the cricketer, the aesthete, the statistician, the historian, and takes into account the individuality of each. You will have your opinions on the outcome. Mine, for what it's worth, is that it's a pretty cool list: less obvious than one expects, less eccentric than one fears. It is a little short on the past 10 years. I suspect this is not entirely a comment on the 10 years, or on the jury. My feeling is that observers tend to subscribe to the credo that distance lends perspective and there hasn't arguably been enough distance to come to a proper evaluation yet, so wiser to wait. Time will correct that.

On the whole, though, it is a capacious list, with fidelity towards a performance rather than a career. There is space for the one-off and the maverick, for the marathon and the sprint, for beauty and bloody-mindedness. It makes me want to watch over again each of the performances that I have had the pleasure of watching (well, except maybe Jayasuriya's 340), and pine for all those that I haven't had the fortune to.

Without meaning to sound glib, the spirit of the exercise was celebration rather than competition. For us the list was a starting point. The next bit of fun to be had was finding ways to toast the performances: that is, making the issue that is now on your screens.

So we have a kaleidoscopic rendering of VVS Laxman's 59 + 281 from around the pitch (as well as the dressing rooms, and a hotel room). There's a natter with Ian Botham, and an appreciation of him by Simon Barnes. Simon Lister turns back the cricketing and sociological clock on Michael Holding's exquisite pace show at The Oval. We try and sort of get into bed with a Brian Lara masterpiece. Osman Samiuddin and Jarrod Kimber have a spirited email discussion about the contemporary era. Four statsmen tackle our panel's task via original algorithms, and there are memorable essays by Christian Ryan and Siddhartha Vaidyanathan that ask, in different ways, what it is that really attracts us to a piece of cricket. We hope you enjoy all of it.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care



  • POSTED BY Vinod on | January 5, 2016, 5:38 GMT

    nice write up and sure doing the lists must have given the panelists gr8 joy as it was 4 most of us reading this and reliving those moments or learning about other performances which otherwise were not some prominent in ones memory...whilst @ this why not hve a go at the top 20 bowling, fielding, wicket keeping , catches et al.....that might make for an interesting excercise.....

  • POSTED BY Sushreyo on | January 5, 2016, 1:58 GMT

    I really enjoyed going through your list. Here's a suggestion, rather a wish. Why don't you bring out a list of those performances that were in contention but narrowly missed out. I am sure there would be so many!!

  • POSTED BY Prashanth Parthasarathy on | January 4, 2016, 22:30 GMT

    With all due respect, there were definitely quite a few performances that were ignored - funny that jayasurya's 340 and lara's 400 (both were on absolute flat decks and both the matches were boring draws) make it to the list - and not one of sachin's 51 centuries - the Madras test vs Pakistan, the 155 vs australia, 114 vs australia in perth were definitely way better than quite a few including a puzzling david gower 72 and 28 - so no - I don't really agree with all the selections in this list and also with 'distance lends perspective' - that's just ridiculous

  • POSTED BY Milind on | January 4, 2016, 15:08 GMT

    The names of the 25 panelists please....

  • POSTED BY Ananth on | January 4, 2016, 13:28 GMT

    Interesting list, seems the Jury has veered towards either the flair, watch out for me kind of performers (Viv, Botham, Lara, Warne, KP, Sobers) or the backs to the wall grinders (Waugh, Border, Dravid, Kumble). The artists and the tillers have been recognized and the craftsmen who lie somewhere in between (Kallis, Ponting, Sachin, Sangakkara, Miandad) have been mostly left out. You have to concede Lara's big centuries in Antigua were great, but did either result in victories, or was the pitch too difficult? To include one of them (400* maybe) was Ok, but adding both was bit biased. Same with some of the entries down the list. Roy Frederick's assault, Marshall Law in Kanpur, Kapil's spell on One leg to get victory in Melbourne, Dale Steyn's Nagpur special, Ponting twin centuries in his 100th Test and Andy Flower's Harare Special against SA are efforts which I can list immediately from memory as better than some of the entries in the list.

  • POSTED BY SUBRAMANIAM on | January 4, 2016, 9:58 GMT

    An excellent piece. Great job. There are bound to be some left-outs, as opinions differ. I feel, Gundappa Vishwanath's 97 not out and 46 in the Madras Test 1975 vs West Indies deserves to be included.