Every year Wisden picks Five Cricketers of the Year to salute a player's influence on the previous English season. Is it time the list was renamed 'Five Cricketers of the English Year'? Or its reach broadened to international not just domestic cricket? Or do we need another list to mark international achievement?
According to Wisden, "The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket." It is a tradition worth celebrating.
But when you spot a Five Cricketers of the Year list in a global digest you probably feel that the winners are 'international' not just from the previous English season. And that they are from all the historically dominant formats: Tests, ODIs and first-class cricket. Are you wrong to feel that way?
In the 19th century only two countries played cricket worth recording - England and Australia. South Africa played only a few series. Naturally, the domestic English circuit loomed large. Now, in the 21st century, cricket is played by some 20 countries: a global game with a global following.
Dale Benkenstein was Cricketer of the Year in 2009 - on the strength of his first-class record alone. He has 305 runs from 23 ODIs and ... wait a minute ... no Test runs. Yes he has 15,690 runs from 257 first-class matches but was never tried in Tests and barely stretched in ODIs.
Gautam Gambhir, after an eight-year international career, is yet to be Cricketer of the Year. He has 4,021 runs from 54 Tests and 5,238 runs from 147 ODIs. Less relevant are his 11,162 runs from 140 first-class matches, impressive as these are.
Yet Benkenstein was in Wisden the same year that Gambhir scored four Test hundreds on the trot. Gambhir is second only to Don Bradman in scoring consecutive tons (as many as five), a distinction shared with Jacques Kallis and Mohammad Yousuf.
First-class heroics are good fun but the stakes, for the lack of a better word, simply do not exist as they do in the international arena. There is a good distance between the best bat in Essex and the best in England. There is a good distance between the most dangerous bowling arm in Indore and the most dangerous in India. County championships are good practice all right but they can never be the real thing.
Robert Key was Cricketer of the Year in 2005. He has 775 runs from 15 Tests and 54 runs from five ODIs. Yes he has 16,731 runs from 253 first-class matches but is barely a blip in international cricket. Is Key better off in a Five Cricketers of the English Year list?
Excitable Indian fans may imagine that the coronation of Benkenstein (South African), Key (English) and their like, is the result of some conspiracy. It's nothing of the sort. The results are the same when you set Indian against Indian.
VVS Laxman's 134-Test career saw him score 8,781 runs. Virender Sehwag's 102-Test career saw him score 8,559 runs. Not much separates their tally but they've apparently taken different vehicles to get there: some may suggest, Laxman in a Beetle, Sehwag in an F1 with a turbo-charged V10. Laxman ended with 17 Test tons. Sehwag already has 23 tons. But Sehwag got there in 32 fewer matches. He already has 15 ODI tons to Laxman's six ODI tons.
What happened? Laxman was Cricketer of the Year in 2002, just six years after his debut but after an explosive 11 years, Sehwag never made it. Yes, Sehwag was Leading Cricketer in the World in 2008 and 2009 (he figured in the 2009 and 2010 editions of Wisden, seven or eight years after his debut) but he had to wait a bit for global recognition.
Wisden recently released its Five Cricketers of the Year in 2012: Alastair Cook, Alan Richardson, Glen Chapple, Tim Bresnan and Kumar Sangakkara. Now, Richardson never played international cricket (Test or ODI). Chapple never played Tests but played in one ODI. Bresnan has played 18 Tests and 69 ODIs. Alongside these names are Cook (87 Tests and 61 ODIs) and Sangakkara (115 Tests and 337 ODIs). Do they belong in the same league of achievement?
A glorious first-class record is nice to have. But in a global list of five cricketers should we be more circumspect about those with not much more than a first-class record, no matter how glorious?
Perhaps not all agree that we need an overhaul of the way we reward achievement in cricket, but can we at least agree that there's work to be done? Would another list be a start?
(Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an India-based writer. He is writing a book that celebrates batting greatness in cricket. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).
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