Two truisms. One - potentially any cricketer has the ability to replicate his most outstanding performance several times. Two - many players (batsmen particularly), despite a mediocre career overall, have that special day or two where they look as formidable as the very best.
Both these statements above, despite being conflicting, can each be furnished with many examples. Their contradiction only underscores the point that at this level of the sport, natural talent is just one of components of success. What goes on between the ears along with how that ticker responds below - these differentiate between the very good and the great players.
And this actually makes the task of comparing players of different eras quite simple. Moreover, the aggregate standards for great bowlers and batsmen have not changed in the last 130 years. A good batsman has always averaged between 40 and 45 runs per innings and a great one 50 to 60. A good bowler has always averaged 27-32 runs per wicket and a great one between 20 and 25. This has not changed in many, many years - and the higher the sample size of tests, the more this gets borne out. The only one who does not stay within these figures is a certain Donald Bradman, and this is why he is the true Colossus of the game. A great player is one in any era.
They say bowlers were better in the 1970s and 1980s, but that doesn't reflect in the overall records of the players, as mentioned above. It is also true that fielding standards are much higher now as are fitness levels. On the other hand, the quality of equipment (especially cricket bats) has improved enormously. There may have been uncovered pitches previously, but there are far more result-oriented matches now. The limitation to bouncers per over and the front foot no-ball rule seem to favour batsmen but the lbw law of being given out outside the line of the off-stump if not offering a stroke kicked in gradually only in the 1970s. Clearly, they all even out as extraneous influences in the longer version of the game, as opposed to ODIs and T20, where standards keep changing every few years; in fact, ODIs are largely responsible for the impression that batting has become easier over the years.
What remains here is the mental and the desire.
While the quality of bowling faced by a batsman (or reputation of batsmen dismissed by a bowler) has a say in the ranking, as mentioned above, records and statistics do not support the view that bowlers were significantly better in one particular era compared to another. Changing fitness standards also suggest that the prism to indulge in cross-era analysis is dodgy. It is also useful to remember that at this level of the game, pitch and weather conditions play a big part in the mix. Often, bowlers with a small reputation do big things combating which can require even greater application and talent than neutralizing the deeds of much bigger names under more benign conditions.
The ability to absorb pressure and deliver when the team needs it the most, perform when the match is on edge - that is what reveals true character in a sportsman. This quality does not usually reflect in the averages. A player's contribution to a match that is still at stake is more valuable than a bigger numerical contribution in a match which is either headed for a draw or certain defeat. The latter is usually a great opportunity for natural talent to showcase itself without the edge of match pressure. These are akin to Tennis without a net in a way, since the true edge of competition is missing, and those performances do not get a high rating on our book.
We have also tried to get past the sentimentality involved in evaluating players from a bygone era. Many were legends because of their performances on the domestic front (Vijay Merchant) or the indisputable talent they had (Lala Amarnath) but their sample size of international matches is often too small to make it to the main list. We have paid tribute to them elsewhere.
Finally, just to reiterate, this is a ranking based on black-and-white performances, not reputations. Style of play is of no consequence, nor is its aesthetic or spectacle value. We've just taken what is recorded in the history books of cricket, and run it through our prisms that combine objective analyses and solely based on those, made some subjective judgments. Fundamentally, this is a qualitative analysis juxtaposing parameters rather than developing formulae to determine rankings.
So, here then are the parameters of our ranking.
- Overall consistency.
- Performances abroad, in matches away, outside the player's comfort zone; in different pitch/ weather conditions.
- Performances in matches won - usually a good indicator to a player's true value in a team.
- Match-winning ability - the solo contribution a player makes in winning efforts and how often he makes them.
- Match situations taken into account to determine how a player performs under pressure.
Under these parameters, this is the ranking we have. To read our observations on each cricketer, please click on each name.
- Rahul Dravid
- Sunil Gavaskar
- Virender Sehwag
- Sachin Tendulkar
- Kapil Dev
- Bishen Bedi-BS Chandrasekhar-EAS Prasanna (as one bowling unit)
- GR Viswanath
- Anil Kumble
- Vinoo Mankad
- VVS Laxman
- Sourav Ganguly
- Md. Azharuddin
- Dilip Vengsarkar
- Mohinder Amarnath
- Vijay Hazare
- Subhash Gupte
- Polly Umrigar
- Javagal Srinath
So, there it is. India's 20 greatest cricketers in 18 places.
Most players fell into their spots easily enough, given the parameters and the hard, cold statistical means to measure performances. In the few areas of serious doubt (Sachin-Sehwag, arranging Ganguly, Laxman, Azhar, Vengsarkar and Amarnath amongst themselves) where the players have tied everywhere, we have had to create some new parameters (for example, impact as a captain for Ganguly). We've argued amongst ourselves furiously for weeks to reach this conclusion. In the end, we're pleased to say this is not a compromise list but one unanimously agreed upon.
An elaboration of the rationale behind the ranking is available in detail here and it brings to life many of the debates we had amongst ourselves. For more about the e-book version of this whole exercise, click here
A special vote of thanks to Cricinfo's Statsguru and their never-ending gallery of Match Archives for making the research so much easier. Also, our thanks to Dr. Kalyan Mukherjea for sharing perspectives that only come when you have been a student of the game for over 50 years.