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Greatest All-Rounders in Test Cricket History

Cricketnext Staff | Updated: December 3, 2018, 4:42 PM IST
Greatest All-Rounders in Test Cricket History

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All-rounders represent the best of cricket. Adept in more than just one skill, the greatest of them can turn matches with bat or ball. When they’re not excelling in both, they usually end up making up for one with outstanding performances in the other. MS Dhoni’s entire Test career as captain was spent wishing for a genuine all-rounder in the Indian, especially when touring. But he never did find one. India has only ever had the one truly world-class all-rounder. Australia, West Indies, England and South Africa seem to produce them in spades - supremely talented individuals who excel in multiple disciplines, if not multiple sports!

In this podcast, we’re taking a look at the greatest all-rounders in Test cricket’s history. Sobers, Imran, Botham, Kapil, Hadlee, Flintoff, Pollock, Kallis...there have been many great all-rounders in Test cricket. It is easy to name all-rounders, of course, but it is far less easy to pick the best of the lot. Some are terrific batsmen but less splendid with the ball. Others are truly great bowlers who also flourished when batting. Limited overs cricket also gave rise to some incredible fielders but few cricketers are picked for fielding skills alone, so we’re going to leave that parameter out for now. So here are the greatest all-rounders in cricket, who rose to the occasion and turned matches in their team’s favour when it was most required.

Sir Garfield Sobers

We’ll start at the top. It’s a pretty obvious choice, really. This player’s greatness on the field has been extolled by many opponents and teammates. Ian Chappell, not a man given to flattery or fulsome praise, describes him as the best batsman he has ever seen. And that’s just the batting. Legends abound of him, at his peak, cavorting until 5am and showing up at 9am to score a Test century with a trademark nonchalance. We are speaking, of course, about Sir Garfield Sobers.

Aside from the fact that he shares a name with a sarcastic cat, there’s little that’s laughable about Garry Sobers. Well, okay, the surname was a bit of an irony at one point in time. But there has rarely been a more natural cricketer. Everton Weekes, who saw Sobers play cricket from the age of 12, recalled, “We never had to teach him anything. He taught himself. He started making runs, taking wickets and holding catches to overcome that nervousness.”

The reason Sobers is the greatest all-rounder - and consequently, the greatest cricketer to many lovers of the sport - is that he was, on most days, three cricketers rolled into one. Most top flight all-rounders can lay claim to being excellent in two disciplines, as we’ve discussed earlier.

Garry could bowl fast medium or spin, depending on the match situation, or his mood. And he was very effective with both. Surprisingly, it was spin bowling that got Sobers a place in a West Indies team. In his debut Test in 1954, Sobers came in to bat at no 9, and scored 14 runs. He later took four wickets conceding 75 runs, and followed that up by scoring 26 runs in the second innings, albeit for a losing cause.

In a remarkable turn of events, he would essentially be remembered as a batting all-rounder.

He played 93 Test matches, scoring 8,032 runs at an average of 57.78. This is still among the best batting averages of all time. He scored 26 centuries and 30 half-centuries in Test cricket, none more memorable than the famous 365 not out he scored in 1958 against Pakistan.

In the third Test played in Kingston, Sobers came in at number three with the score at 87/1. In the 614 minutes he spent at the crease, he struck 38 boundaries and West Indies eventually declared at 790/3. They won the match by an innings and 174 runs. The 365 was a world record that stood for 36 years, until it was broken by Brian Lara in 1994. It is still the fifth highest individual score ever in test cricket.

Aside from excelling with the bat, he took 235 wickets at an average of 34.03. He was an excellent fielder and also served as captain.

The numbers say it all - Sir Garry Sobers is, by some distance, the greatest all-rounder of all time.

Richard Hadlee

The second place on the list of greatest all-rounders is a pretty contentious one. Some would put Ian Botham in second place; others would favour Imran Khan while a minority of fans would pitch for Richard Hadlee. New Zealand's greatest cricketer, Richard Hadlee was often the difference between New Zealand being a pushover or world-beaters during his days as a top all-rounder.

What Kapil Dev was to India, Hadlee was to New Zealand. Maybe even better.

Another accomplished bowling all-rounder, he took a then-world record 431 wickets at an average of 22.29. That is a seriously impressive average for an all-rounder.

Hadlee started his international career as a tearaway fast opening bowler. He later shortened his run-up and concentrated on moving the ball, a skill at which he is arguably among the greatest of all time. On his day, he could make it seem like he had the cricket ball on a piece of string. And that’s not an exaggeration. His best bowling performance was an incredible 9/52 against Australia at the Gabba in 1985. The only other batsman whose wicket he didn’t take was caught by him. He finished that match with figures of 15/123! He played 86 Tests and ended with 431 test wickets, and an average of 22.29.

Hadlee was also a useful lower-order bat. While he was decidedly a bowling all-rounder, he was also a more than capable batsman who could be depended on to add crucial runs towards the end of an innings. He made 3,124 runs in his 86 Tests at an average of 27.16, including two centuries and 15 half-centuries. His highest score was an impressive 151 not out.

Very few cricket players can claim to have been so singularly crucial in their team's outcome. Of course, as Indians, we can appreciate such prodigious talent and skills, given our propensity to seek such heroes in every generation of cricketers. New Zealand’s greatest cricketer, Sir Richard Hadlee, is also amongst the great all-rounders of the game.

Imran Khan

Number three on the list is the man who put the flair, and fight, in Pakistani cricket. Imran Khan - talismanic player, inspirational leader and all-round badass, whether with bat or ball.

He is remembered as a champion bowler who could bat pretty well. Imran has 362 test wickets at an average of 22.81 from 88 Test matches. He was a genuine pace bowler, regularly clocking 140ks, and even opened the bowling for Pakistan. At his peak, Imran could go toe-to-toe against the great bowlers from any era. His best bowling performance was 8/58 against Sri Lanka in 1982.

However, he was susceptible to injuries as his career progressed. As the number of injuries began to increase, he seemed to focus on his batting. As his powers began to fade with age, he made the national team solely as a batsman!. The true mark of a world-class all-rounder.

Imran finished his Test career with a batting average of 37.69, with 6 centuries and 18 half-centuries. He was, at the time, one of only eight players to achieve what was known as the 'all-rounders triple' - 300 wickets and 3000 runs.

Even as his Test career waned, Imran became an inspirational ODI captain who led by example. He had an eye for talent that led to future legends like Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq being drafted into the Pakistan team. Indeed, there have been few captains with leadership skills of the same calibre.

His successful career was crowned with the 1992 World Cup win when he was 39 years old.

In true all-rounder style, he has taken on a new challenge, and is now the serving Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Keith Miller

The next on our list is a throwback to a different era. Some say this man was a better all-rounder than Garry Sobers. Keith Miller, the premier Australian all-rounder of the post-war era, is widely regarded as Test cricket's first genuine all-rounder.

Best known as a quick opening bowler, he partnered Ray Lindwall to become famous as one of the great test-match opening bowling pairs.

His wickets haul of 170 doesn't truly reflect his skill. World War 2 got in the way and he lost out on many years of cricket. But a bowling average of 22.97 is a good indicator of his skill with the red cherry. HIs best performance? 7/60 against England. There is a hilarious anecdote about Miller from that match, his Ashes debut. Miller drew the ire of skipper Don Bradman by refusing to bowl fast and short to English batsman Bill Edrich. He said, “I’d just fought a war with this bloke. I wasn’t going to take his head off.” He bowled cutters instead and took 7 for 60 in the first innings, the best bowling performance of his career. What a bloke!

As a batsman, he scored 2958 runs in 55 Test matches at an average of 36.97.  That included seven centuries and 13 half-centuries, with a highest score of 147. He was a classical batsman but also possessed the ability to take the game away from an opponent with quick attacking innings.

Miller also served in WW2. He was a Flight Lieutenant Miller with the Royal Australian Air Force, and participated in air raids over Germany. While with the air force, he also played cricket. In 1945, at Lord’s, he scored 185 runs in 165 minutes for the Dominions (a team comprising mainly Australian services personnel). His century came in just 75 minutes, and left quite an impression on the British spectators. That form earned him a place in Australia’s tour to New Zealand in 1946.

Miller also became famous for a memorable quote about cricket and pressure. He said, “I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt (a German combat aircraft from WW2) up your ar*e. Playing cricket is not.”

Touché, Mr Miller. There’s never been an all-rounder quite like you.

Ian Botham

Next on the list is Ian Botham. The great English hope of the 1980's, Ian Botham was a key figure in the turnaround of cricket's mother country.

His Ashes heroics are the stuff of cricket legend now. Botham, or Beefy as he was known on the ground, was the difference between Australia and England in the series that became known as 'Botham's Ashes' in 1981, where England would beat Australia 3-1.

Botham’s claim to greatness was the memorable 149 in the Headingley test.  England followed on from 227 behind and some bookies were offering odds of 500-1 against a home side win.

As England slipped to 135 /7 in the second innings, several players checked out of their hotel.

Beefy had other ideas. He started to hit out, and England dragged themselves to 356, with Botham unbeaten on 149 from 148 balls. Australia had to chase down 130 to win the match. Bob Willis – almost dropped from the game because of issues with his knees – tore into the Aussies, finishing with 8/ 43 as the crowd went berserk.

The Telegraph described Botham performance thus: “Not only was he England’s greatest sportsman, he was also (in his own words) its most famous person bar Mrs Thatcher and the Queen. This assault on the Australian bowling encapsulated everything that is most thrilling about sport: physical presence, instinctive brilliance, guts, the sense that it is all just a great joyous thrill and you might as well have a go because we’ll all be dead one day. Of course, he came into the match having lost the captaincy after a pair at Lord’s and when he came to the crease in the second innings as England followed on, the situation was hopeless. Only nobody had told Beefy that.”

Beefy was the fastest to the double of 1000 runs and 100 Test wickets. He finished his Test career with 5,200 runs from 102 matches, with an average of 33.54. He scored 14 centuries and 22 half-centuries, with a highest score of 208. This was an all-rounder with incredible self-belief who rose to the occasion, and could be counted on when the chips were down. As a bowler, he took an impressive 383 wickets at 28.40. That middling average was after Botham suffered repeated injuries and lost his shine. At his best, he averaged closer to 21. A true match-winning all-rounder.

Kapil Dev

Kapil Dev is India's greatest all-rounder and India's greatest fast bowler. One of the great 1980s all-rounders alongside Hadlee, Imran and Botham.

Kapil Dev had a terrific Test career spanning 16 years, earning glory with his consistent bowling and his hard-hitting batting. Kapil was the second bowler in the history of the game to take 400 wickets, eventually surpassing Hadlee's world record of 431 in his final test. He finished with 434 wickets at an average of 29.64.

While that bowling average seems pretty high, I must point out an obvious constraint - Kapil played a lot of his cricket in India. Our wickets aren’t exactly seamer friendly. Kapil succeeded on pitches that were far more conducive to spinners and batsmen. If anything, the pitches tended to hinder rather than assist seam bowlers.

His best bowling performance was the 9/83 against the West Indies at Ahmedabad in 1983. In the second innings of the 3rd Test, he dismissed 9 of the 10 Windies batsmen as India restricted them to 201. India had a target of 241 but were dismissed for 103. That’s the thing about Kapil Dev. At his peak, he could turn matches on his own, but never had quality backup from the other end.

With the bat, he was a tour de force in his heyday. While the average says 31.05, he did score included eight centuries and 27 half-centuries. His most memorable innings in Tests was where he slammed four consecutive sixes off Eddie Hemmings to help India avoid the follow on in a match against England in 1990. India were 430/9 and needed 24 to avoid follow on. Kapil paaji had had enough and struck four sixes off four balls from Hemmings to make England bat again.

An accomplished Test player, he is also remembered for his devastating 175 not out against Zimbabwe at the 1983 World Cup, that kicked India’s campaign into high gear.

India would go on to win the tournament in a huge upset over the two-time defending champion West Indies, with Dev being the key figure in the tournament.

He retired after playing 131 Tests, scoring 5,248 runs and 434 wickets.

Jacques Kallis

Jacques Kallis is a highly underrated all-rounder. After all, if a cricketer like Steve Waugh names Kallis as the greatest cricketer ever, it tends to carry some weightage. Waugh said, “You only have to look at the runs he has scored, the wickets and the catches he has taken for South Africa.”

Unlike most all-rounders, Kallis is a technically proficient batsman. While many all-rounders tend to score runs in a rather unorthodox fashion, Kallis has a very classical approach, playing a range of controlled shots. Almost Dravid-esque. And he prized his wicket just as much.

In a Test career spanning 18 years, Kallis has scored an incredible 13,289 runs, with 45 centuries and 58 half centuries, at an average of 55.37. That’s third on the all-time list. Yes, he wasn’t the most dominating batsman but he was an important cog in the South African line-up, often the glue holding the score together. And he did that for nearly two decades over 166 Test matches. His highest score of 224 came in 2012 against Sri Lanka. But his performance against India in January 2011 stands out. Playing with damaged ribs, he scored 161 and 109 in both innings in the final match of the series. In the second innings, South Africa were on the brink at 130 for 6, but Kallis had a 103-run partnership with Boucher to stave off the defeat.

He also had an amazing series against Australia in 2008. Two half-centuries, three wickets and two catches. South African fans have argued that such a performance by Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff, England fans would have demanded a statue of one of them outside the WACA stadium. Kallis’s second innings on the penultimate evening took the initiative away from the Australians. Graeme Smith, AB De Villiers and JP Duminy made good contributions but it was Kallis, pounding fours and sixes that evening and dropping the required number of runs to less than 200, that created the belief that chasing 414 was possible.

Kallis’s bowling too goes unappreciated. He has taken 292 wickets in his test career, with an average of 32.65. Add to this the 273 wickets and 11,000-plus runs in ODI cricket, and we have a true all-time great. Oh, he also was an accomplished fielder, taking 200 catches in his career. That, once again, is third on the all-time list. But Kallis being Kallis, it all flies under the radar.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan told the BBC, “I don't know of an all-round cricketer in my time who has been as good as he has. Many of the great all-rounders - Sobers, Botham or, more recently, Flintoff - generally bat at five, six or seven.

"But Kallis has batted at three and four throughout his career in all forms of the game. He stands at second slip and bowls 85mph.”

Richie Benaud

We know Richie Benaud as the eloquent, polite voice of Australian cricket. Quick of wit, and generous with praise. Benaud seemed a throwback to a more genteel era when men played cricket with camaraderie and respect, quite unlike today’s cricket with it taunting, overgrown schoolyard-like bravado.

Before he earned his place in cricket as a legendary commentator, Benaud was an accomplished all-rounder who also served as Australia’s captain for six years. In fact, he is counted among the greatest ever all-rounders of the game. He made his debut in 1952 at the age of 22 as a leg spin bowler who could bat well in the lower order. Richie came from a cricketing family - his father Louis played in Sydney Grade cricket and his brother John played three Test matches for Australia in the early 1970s. No, they didn’t play Test cricket together, thanks to the 13-year difference in age.

Rob Smyth, who wrote and compiled the book Benaud in Wisden, chose to describe Benaud’s contribution to cricket in this manner: “His Test statistics are excellent – 24.45 with the bat, 27.03 with the ball – but they do not portray the extent of his impact. And they tell almost nothing of his performance as captain from 1958 to 1963, when he resuscitated Australian cricket and cricket itself.”

After a slow start to his Test career, he came of age during the tour of South Africa in 1957-58. Over 26 months from the start of that tour, Benaud played 18 Test, scored 636 runs at an average of 31.80 and took 108 wickets at an average of 20.27. He was an entertaining batsman, a skilled close-in fielder and an intelligent leg-spinner who planned and executed traps for opposition batsmen. Those qualities made him a match-winner, an observation supported by statistics: in 24 Test wins he averaged 31 with the bat, and 18 with the ball. In 13 defeats, those averages were 16 and 43 respectively. Let’s put it this way - Australia never lost a match in which Benaud scored a century or took a five-for.

He was also an astute leader. Australia never lost a Test series under his captaincy. How many captains can even claim such a winning record? He was made captain when Ian Craig suffered hepatitis in 1958. Benaud blossomed as a captain, revealing tactical flair and human understanding that few expected from a bowling all-rounder. Australia’s first series under Richie Benaud was a surprise 4–0 thumping of an England side that boasted of greats like Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Trevor Bailey, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Fred Trueman, and Brian Statham. Benaud’s team won their next four series as well.

Benaud was also particularly successful against India. On the 1956-57 tour, he had a career best bowling performance of 7/72 at Madras, his first five-for in Test cricket. He followed that up with 6/52 and 5/53 in the third Test at Kolkata, his best ever returns in a Test match. He bowled at an average of 18 against India over the duration of his career.

Benaud played 63 Tests and took 248 wickets at an average of 27.03. That was the highest number of Test wickets by an Australian bowler at the time. He scored 2,201 runs at an average of 24.45, including three centuries and a highest score of 122. Only Keith Miller had better numbers for an Australian all-rounder - not a bad comparison for a man who idolized Miller.

After retiring in 1964, Richie Benaud took to cricket journalism and commentary, eventually becoming the voice of many Australian cricket summers - mellow, genial, yet always sharp with his observations while lacing it with a gentle wit. Cricket writer Gideon Haigh described Benaud as “perhaps the most influential cricketer and cricket personality since the Second World War.”

There is never likely to be another cricketer quite like Richie Benaud.

Andrew Flintoff

Ninth on this list is England’s best all-rounder in recent times. A genuine pacer and batsman, Andrew Flintoff is best known for his heroics in the 2005 Ashes series.

Freddy helped England win the Ashes for the first time in over 20 years. England had failed to win the Ashes series since the 1986/87 season. He was a fast bowler capable reaching speeds in excess of 140 kmph, and took 226 wickets in 79 Tests at an average of 32.78.

While that isn’t the best average for a pace bowler, Flintoff could back that ability with his skills as fast scoring batsman. He scored 3,845 runs at an average of 31.07, including five centuries and 26 half-centuries. His highest score was 167.

But the statistics are only half the story with Flintoff. His presence influenced England's Ashes winning teams of 2005 and 2009.

Flintoff’s moment of greatness is worth a revisit. Nursing a shoulder injury, he bowled his heart out in one of the most memorable Ashes encounter as England sealed an important 2-run win. England scored 407 in the first innings, and dismissed Australia for 308, With a 99-run advantage, England managed to get themselves dismissed for 182. With a target of 282, Australia started well in the second innings, and were cruising along at 47/0 when Michael Vaughan threw the ball to Flintoff. The all-rounder got rid of Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting in the same over as England clawed back into the game. Shane Warne provided some resistance to help Australia get closer to the target. An improbable Aussie win seemed to be taking shape as the ever-belligerent lower order refused to cave. Flintoff had Warne hit-wicket on 42 and Harmison eventually dismissed Kasprowicz. England won the match by a mere two runs for one of the most exciting wins in Test cricket history.

Tony Greig

We know Tony Greig these days as the former English commentator who was the soundtrack to Sachin Tendulkar’s incredible innings in Sharjah in 1998. With his fame as a commentator superseding that of his playing days, it is worth recalling a remarkable Test career.

The 6-foot-5 Tony Grieg was a genuine all-rounder who played 58 tests for England in the 1970s. A batting all-rounder who scored 3,599 runs at an average of 40.43, he made eight centuries and 20 half-centuries, with a highest score of 148. That type of record would have provided him entry into a Test side as a batsman.

But Tony had a few more tricks up his sleeve. He bowled a mean medium pace and right arm off break, which fetched him 141 wickets at an average of 32.20. Not too many top flight batsmen can bowl such variety that successfully at the international level.

Tony Greig’s career lasted only five years - 1972 until 1977. If he had played longer, he may well have had impressive stats, and more records to his name.
First Published: November 23, 2018, 4:02 PM IST
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