A list that raises many a question

Published : Aug 11, 2001 00:00 IST


ON his day, Kenneth Farnes, 6ft 5in tall and banging the ball down from a great height of over eight feet, was as quick as anybody in the business. And this was a day when he was bowling at his very best, generating tremendous pace in the first Test of the Ashes series at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, in the summer of 1938.

With runs on the board - England had made 658 in its first innings - Farnes enjoyed the sort of freedom that bowlers always dream of. And things didn't look good for Australia on that Monday with five batsmen gone and the team still over 400 in arrears.

Then everything changed. What looked like England's and Farnes's day suddenly turned out to be a nightmare for the home team bowlers.

For, a short stockily built man chose this day - June 13 - to play the sort of aesthetically mystical innings that was matchless for its sheer audacity and brilliance even in the golden age of batting.

Trying every trick in the fast bowler's book and failing, and after being lifted for a six over square leg, a frustrated Farnes walked up to the non-striker, Bill O'Reilly, eyebrows arched in question marks, and asked: "What can I bowl to him? What can I do next?"

O'Reilly, never one to mince words, shot back: "Well, you could run down and get his autograph."

How many fans were lucky enough on that day to get Stan McCabe's autograph at Trent Bridge is not known. What is certain is that the few that did would have been sure in their minds that they had in their possession the autograph of the man who, arguably, played the greatest Test innings of all time.

As McCabe launched his offensive, Don Bradman called out to his mates who were inside the dressing room. "Come and look at this. You will never see anything like it," said the greatest batsman of them all.

When McCabe came back to the pavilion, caught by Compton off Verity for 232, made in 235 minutes with 34 fours and one six, Bradman patted him on the back and said: "If I could play an innings like that, I would be a proud man Stan."

A pity that the rest of the cricketing world could not see that innings in the pre-television era but those who did knew that they had been part of something very, very special on a sporting stage.

It was like watching Bob Beamon's jump in the Mexico Olympics, like being on the centre court at Wimbledon for Pete Sampras' demolition of Andre Agassi in the 1999 final, like the feeling the fans might have experienced watching Pele's great team of 1970 dance rings around Italy for a 4-1 victory in the Mexico World Cup final.

Great sporting moments seldom announce themselves. But the few lucky ones who get to witness them at once realise that they are very, very lucky indeed. The performer and the performance become one as it happens in the best of music and art and the act of genius elevates everybody present to an exalted realm.

"I don't believe anybody can ever bat like this. This was magic," said Farnes who later became Pilot Officer Farnes and was killed in action while flying during the Second World War.

Long after such a great moment enacted on a sports stage has passed, those who had watched it sit and ponder its transcendental quality, its sublime brilliance and how the light bounced off on them too.

Now, as a great debate rages in the world of cricket about the list released by Wisden Online - ranking Test cricket's 100 greatest innings and 100 best bowling performances - McCabe's masterly innings at Nottingham, of which one has heard time and again from cricket lovers of the previous generation, was the first thing I looked for in the list.

In the event, as my eyes travelled down the Batting list, it was a shock to find out that McCabe's Trent Bridge masterpiece was not in the top 10. Finally, after a few anxious moments, one found it perched at No. 41. What a travesty of justice!

Indeed, as millions of Indian fans wonder why none of Sachin Tendulkar's Test innings figure in the Wisden 100, in my own mind, what seemed strange was that Azhar Mahmood's 132 for Pakistan against South Africa at Durban and Kim Hughes's unbeaten 100 for Australia against West Indies in Melbourne are in the top 10, a good 30 places and more ahead of McCabe's 232.

How? But why?

The ones that came up with the lists have said that the ratings were calculated using a range of factors, including the context of the performance by the batsman or bowler in the match and the series, the pitch, the state of the game before and after the performance and, importantly, the quality of opposition.

But, as seemingly scientific as the calculations may have been, there are certainly some glaring omissions, not the least Tendulkar's, and several instances where the ratings are not in keeping with the quality of the innings, as in McCabe's case.

In fact, another McCabe masterpiece, his unbeaten 187 in the first Test of the Bodyline series, hasn't made the list at all. And that great innings, played when the batsman nicknamed Napper - he bore facial resemblance to Napoleon - was only 22, was described by S. F. Barnes as the "finest innings I ever saw."

McCabe was the sort of batsman who couldn't play a cheap shot to save his life. And surely at least one of the two great innings of his against England deserved to be ranked in the top 10, just as at least two of Tendulkar's great knocks should have found their way into the list with nothing but their own unquestioned brilliance to recommend them.

From David Frith, founder of Wisden Cricket Monthly, down to the panwala making a living in the din and bustle of Old Delhi, everybody who has anything to do with cricket has had something to say about the Wisden lists.

But Anthony Bouchier, Editor, Wisden Online, has defended the lists saying, "There is no omission (of Tendulkar) as such. He has not yet played an innings that merits inclusion in the top 100. He has just not played an innings like Lara's 153 or Botham's 149. Tendulkar has a long career ahead of him and I am sure he'll get there in the end."

Surely, Mr. Bouchier did not watch Tendulkar's 136 against Pakistan at Chennai or even his unbeaten 155 against the Australians at the same venue. Maybe he did not even get to see the Mumbai magician's unbeaten 119 at Manchester or his undefeated 148 at Sydney. And then, what of the 169 at Cape Town against Donald, Klusener and Pollock?

As Indians, we can bang our heads against the wall wondering why Tendulkar's genius has been ignored but his is not the only obvious omission. Dennis Lillee, arguably the greatest fast bowler that ever drew breath, does not figure in the Bowling top 100 which is headed by Hugh Tayfield. Nor is Courtney Walsh, the highest wicket-taker in Test matches, mentioned even once!

And, while Harbhajan Singh figures in four spots, the incomparable B. S. Chandrasekhar's six for 38 which helped India beat England at The Oval in August 1971, has not made the list. Surely, Chandra's great performance in tough conditions away should rate a lot higher than at least one of Harbhajan's four bowling performances, all of them achieved at home in familiar, helpful conditions.

Of course, Test cricket goes back a long way and whatever the criteria used, not every great innings that has been played or every great bowling performance that has been recorded can find a place in the top 100.

Yet, there are some innings of exceptional quality and some bowling feats of matchless brilliance that certainly deserve to be part of the lists...but are not.

Two great Test innings that immediately come to mind are Sir Gary Sobers' 132 in the first tied Test and K. S. Ranjitsinhji's 154 not out on debut against Australia at Manchester in July 1896.

The man whose leg glance was pure sorcery and whose quickness of eye defeated the best of bowlers, became the first man to score over a 100 runs before lunch in the course of that great innings during which he charmed fans with his artistry, daring and cavalier gaiety.

"No cricketer has possessed, or rather been more possessed by greater genius than Ranji; for his mastery was the most comprehensive known yet in all the evolution of the game," wrote Neville Cardus.

It was Ranji's economy of means, the effortlessness of his batting that made it such a spectacle on the English cricket grounds at the turn of the century.

And, down the years after Ranji departed from the stage, several great batsmen have shown the lyrical impulse that elevates the art of batting to heavenly heights. Our own Gundappa Viswanath was a batsman's batsman, a connoisseur's delight and his blemishless unbeaten 97 in the face of an inspired Andy Roberts at Chepauk in the 1974-75 series is one of only two two-digit innings that find a place in the top 100.

Sunil Gavaskar's final Test innings, a fighting, in-the-trenches 96 on a Bangalore minefield against the Pakistanis in 1987, does not figure in the list but his two double centuries, the spectacular 221 at The Oval against England in 1979 and the 236 not out at Madras against the West Indies in 1983, have taken their place in the top 100.

The 221, which almost helped India to what might have been one of the greatest Test victories of all time, was the sort of event that would make us say: Ah, I was here, doing this, when Sunil played that knock.

This writer was watching a Hindi film in Chennai - actually not watching it at all - and easing out of the seat every five minutes to listen to the BBC commentary at the movie-house tea-stall.

Such efforts were hardly necessary in the context of what Wisden rates as the best Test innings played by an Indian - V.V.S. Laxman's series-turning, epochal 281 at Kolkota earlier this year, which is rated No. 6.

In fact, as that great innings was being played, you could almost sense that you were witnessing a great piece of history. The flow of strokes from the gifted Hyderabadi's bat was like a great river in spate, sweeping everything before it.

The back-foot drives scorching through the covers, the leg side strokes that put the great Shane Warne in his place...this was not death-or-glory daring but a calculated assault from a batsman who knew he had the skills to do what he wanted to.

"Who cares about the tussle for championship points if a Ranji be glancing to leg?" wrote Cardus in an era gone by.

On that day, as Laxman played that epic innings, it hardly mattered to me that the 281 helped open a door - one that had seemed tightly shut after the Mumbai defeat - just that bit for the Indian team.

Who cares about results when you can feast your eyes on the poetic brilliance of a Laxman in full flow, on a Viv Richards striding down the field like Field Marshal Rommel ready to order the demolition of everything before him, on a Mark Waugh at his sublime best?

But, then, obviously people do care about results. Wisden Online especially. For, a big reason why Tendulkar does not find a place in the list is that India never won a famous victory overseas in the matches in which he played some of his great innings.

Surely, you cannot penalise a genius for the mediocrity around him!

That is exactly what the Wisden Online team seems to have done, although it must be said that this was a mind-boggling exercise and few would have even dared to attempt anything quite like it.

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