Book of the week: Subjective and incomplete, but fantastic facts

Number One - The World's Best Batsmen and Bowlers By Simon Wilde (Victor Gollancz, pounds 16.99, Hardback)
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IT IS almost certain that people will read this book for the reason its author compiled it, namely to perpetuate the eternal debate about who is or was the greatest batsman, bowler, fielder, even cricketer. But such a debate is utterly subjective. One man's hero is the next man's villain.

There is likely to be as much interest surrounding the omissions. For example Geoff Boycott, Colin Cowdrey and Tom Graveney do not hold a place of their own, although they earn plenty of mentions on the batting front; Brian Statham, Frank Tyson and Tony Lock are absent from the list of bowlers; nor is there a mention of either of the Pollocks, Peter and Graeme and Hugh Tayfield; Allan Donald has been ignored. Barry Richards is the only South African, while Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Hanif Mohammad and Imran Khan do not make it. And there is not a single New Zealander. (Who was Sir Richard Hadlee anyway, just a good knight?).

Wilde, mischievously perhaps, throws in some Coopers and Lybrand ratings - "the brainchild," he says, "of Ted Dexter." Now wasn't he the chap who consulted the stars at one point in his chairmanship of the England selectors? Enough said. The subjectivity and the imponderables of such a work mean it cannot be statistically significant and indeed reduce this study to little more than an exercise in juggling figures. To be fair the author does address these points in his introduction, but how, if as he states they are assessed "at any one time [his italics]" do the various players' reigns vary so much? Rather than an arbitrary period, surely they should have been assessed while at the peak of their powers, because in some cases it would appear that no account has been taken of players' diminishing returns and declining powers. Was anyone so consistently good over 10 or 12 years, or even longer periods?

But Wilde is no slacker as a wordsmith. What is of worth in a well-written, and well argued, work is the background material he has unearthed. It is salutary to discover that, while the heated discussion between underarm and round arm bowling was raging at the turn of the 18th century, that there was another, more bloody argument in process, one subsequently labelled the Napoleonic Wars.

Furthermore the author's diligence has thrown up some startling correlations between, for example, the standing of a player and the age at which he lost one or both parents and the size of the family from which a player comes. The average size was six, but Bill O'Reilly and Fred Trueman were the fourth of seven children, Jack Hobbs was one of 12, Lara one of 11 and so on. It is a book worth buying but not for the reasons the author wrote it.