The dearth of genuine Test all-rounders is a stark reality, a worrying fact, as not many cricketers offer consistent all-round quality these days, notes Shashi Tharoor.
The series between Australia and South Africa was notable for featuring two world-class all-rounders on opposite sides. Jacques Kallis and Shane Watson — the former for more than a decade, the latter for just over three years — are stand-out performers for their teams with both bat and ball. Each is a vital element of his team’s bowling mix, but if they were suddenly unable to bowl, both are good enough batsmen to be picked in their country’s first-choice XI for their batting alone. Their availability to ply both trades at Test level is a huge bonus for their teams, giving them, in effect, 12 players for the price of eleven. What is striking about seeing Kallis and Watson in the same Test is the realisation of how rare Test all-rounders have become. Look around the global arena, and you would be hard-pressed to find their peers.
Sri Lanka seemed to have unearthed one in Angelo Matthews, but he hasn’t been bowling this year; and though Tillakaratne Dilshan is undoubtedly a useful all-round player, if he suddenly lost his batting ability he would not be able to command a place in the side for his bowling alone. India hasn’t had a top-class all-rounder since Kapil Dev; Irfan Pathan seemed to be shaping up into one, with a Test century and a hat-trick under his belt, before he abruptly lost his mojo on a tour of South Africa and failed to rediscover it since. Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi no longer plays Test cricket, and Shoaib Malik has lost his place (though his off-spin had long fallen away before then). New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori has turned in some sterling performances with the bat but wouldn’t be picked if his bowling disappeared. England’s Paul Collingwood has retired from Test cricket; and the West Indies’ skipper Darren Sammy is the kind of all-rounder who isn’t good enough to command a place in the side as either a bowler or a batsman, but does so because he can do a bit of both (and he’s the captain, to boot.)
Only Bangladesh’s Shakib Al-Hasan seems to merit the designation — an indispensable bowler and reliable middle-order bat, he’d be picked for either skill in his country’s first-choice side. If you accept my definition of an all-rounder as one who is worthy of a Test place for any one skill but can master two, Kallis, Watson and Al-Hasan are the only three contemporary Test cricketers who merit the label. There are dozens of cricketers who are excellent at one skill and can manage an occasional triumph with the other, but that doesn’t make them true all-rounders. Vettori and Dilshan aside, India’s Yuvraj Singh, Pakistan’s Mohammed Hafeez and New Zealand’s Jesse Ryder (who has announced that he is giving up bowling) have played useful roles with the ball, but none would be picked for their bowling alone.
An occasional brilliant performance in the secondary discipline doesn’t make you an all-rounder: after all, Jason Gillespie has a Test double-century to his name but wouldn’t be relied upon as a batsman in nine innings out of ten, and Allan Border’s sensational 7/46 and 4/50 in his 100th Test in Sydney (against the West Indies in 1988-89) didn’t suddenly give the lie to a record of 16 wickets in his previous 909 Tests, hardly all-rounder material. Though both Ajit Agarkar and Anil Kumble have Test centuries in England to their names, neither would have been picked by India for their batting (and Harbhajan Singh has been dropped by India despite two Test centuries less than a year ago, since he is judged purely as a bowler). Consistent all-round quality is required, and there isn’t much of that around these days. What’s intriguing is that all-round excellence used to be a good deal less uncommon. It’s startling to realise that Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee — four of the finest all-rounders to grace the game — all had roughly contemporaneous careers, with the likes of Wasim Akram and Shane Pollock not far behind a few years later.
A couple of decades earlier, the world enjoyed the magic of Vinoo Mankad, who scored 72 and 184 and took 5 for 196 in the 1952 Lords Test (and attained the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in only his 23rd Test, despite making a late debut at 30 because of World War Two); and there were, as well, the contrasting talents of Trevor Bailey and Keith Miller. The greatest of them all, Sir Gary Sobers, was arguably in the top five of any category you could imagine — one of the five best batsmen in world cricket, one of the five best left-arm swing bowlers, one of the five best left-arm spinners, one of the five best slip fielders, and one of the five best captains. About all he couldn’t do was keep wickets, but with Jackie Hendricks and David Murray around, he didn’t need to. And alongside these great players were lesser mortals who were also genuine all-rounders: Sobers’s cousin David Holford was the West Indies’ first-choice leg-spinner and a Test-class batsman; Kapil Dev brought in his wake Manoj Prabhakar, who could open both the bowling and the batting for India; Hadlee was followed by Chris Cairns and Botham by Andrew Flintoff. Where have all these riches gone?
One plausible theory is that we have entered an era of specialisation in all walks of life, and cricket is no exception: The age of the gifted generalist has passed. The demands of the modern game, as with any other profession today, are too great for one to be able to devote the time and energy to mastering different skills at the level of competence required to hold one’s own in a competitive global environment. It is only the rare genius who can be both a good enough bowler and a good enough batsman to qualify as a top all-rounder in such a context, and with the amount of cricket being played today, few sportsmen can maintain the physical fitness required over the course of a career (for Exhibits A and B, look at Matthews and Ryder). There will be fewer Kallises, Watsons and Al-Hasans in the years to come.
It’s plausible, but there’s one thing wrong with that analysis: It denies the romance of the game; the astonishing capacity cricket has for bringing out the ineffable in human sporting talent. After all, what rational analysis could have predicted a Bradman, scoring triple-century after triple-century and averaging 99.94 over more than two decades, or a Lara, making 400 in a Test and 501 in a first-class match, or a Tendulkar, debuting at 16 and crossing the 15,000-run mark at the ripe young age of 38? What index of plausibility could have given us the supple-wristed Muralitharan, with his unbelievable 800 Test wickets, the indefatigable Boucher, with his 500 wicket-keeping dismissals, or the astonishing Gilchrist, bludgeoning centuries at a run a ball after hours spent behind the stumps?
Why not, then, hope for a new era of all-round excellence, impossible to predict on the basis of evidence, but emerging from the mysterious spirit that suffuses and uplifts our wonderful sport? Why not, indeed? I would prefer to imagine some child being born in a cricketing manger, in Zimbabwe, perhaps, or Bangladesh, with a glint in his eye, a ball in his palm, and a bat behaving like an extension of his other arm. Till he grows up, though, let us content ourselves with Kallis, Watson and Al-Hasan, hope for a Matthews revival and pray for a Pathan resurrection.
It may be a while before we see their like again.