Sir Donald compiles the perfect century

Bradman's nomination comes as no surprise but omission of Botham and leading fast bowlers will disappoint many observers
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The Independent Online

The new cricket season is upon us, although these days it is heralded not so much by the thump of leather on willow as the noise made by Wisden landing on the doormat. This year the thud will be even more audible. The 2000 edition, which is published today, embraces the Five Cricketers of the Century and runs to a whopping 1,600 pages. It also includes a free paperback, which contains an extract from every edition of the almanack from 1900-1999.

The new cricket season is upon us, although these days it is heralded not so much by the thump of leather on willow as the noise made by Wisden landing on the doormat. This year the thud will be even more audible. The 2000 edition, which is published today, embraces the Five Cricketers of the Century and runs to a whopping 1,600 pages. It also includes a free paperback, which contains an extract from every edition of the almanack from 1900-1999.

Lists appear to have become an essential part of modern life, though Wisden, in the form of its Five Cricketers of the Year, has been compiling them since 1889. They are included again but have been rather overshadowed in this edition by the big five of the last hundred years.

Headed by Sir Donald Bradman, who was chosen by every one of the hundred journalists and former cricketers polled, the remaining four are certain to provoke argument in pubs and pavilions the world over. Next was Sir Garfield Sobers with 90 votes, then Sir Jack Hobbs with 30. Shane Warne and Sir Vivian Richards followed them with 27 and 25 votes respectively.

With four Knights included, though only one Englishman (there were none in the cricketer of the year category), it is obvious that the Royals know a thing or two about class. Perhaps the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should ask Her Majesty if she fancies becoming chief selector.

Ian Botham, perhaps the most famous home-grown player of the century (W G Grace's domain was the 19th century), came 16th and polled just nine votes. One hundred years offers huge scope, but the bias towards batting reflects the lowly status in which bowlers, especially fast ones, still seem to be held. As one of the panellists, it seems inconceivable to me that both Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall could be excluded from the top five.

Known among cricket-lovers as the "bible", Wisden has undergone something of a metamorphosis under the editor, Matthew Engel. The thought occurred while recently watching Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and noticing a Wisden on the prison governor's desk as he informs head droogie Alex of his selection as a guinea pig for a government experiment.

Kubrick was a well-known obsessive and the yellow tome, a 1969 edition, would not have been there by accident. My guess is that it was a visual metaphor used to depict both authority and the establishment.

Of course, Wisden still possesses authority, but under Engel's feisty tenure it has become anti-establishment with a yarble-kicking hyphen. In the last eight years you could often tell when Wisden had come out by the number of pained expressions at the ECB.

In his notes, Engel has generally used the opportunity to sound off about English cricket with the thoughtful but critical eye of a loving but disillusioned fan. This year, his last edition before taking a sabbatical, is no different. And, though not wanting to dwell upon the subject, he says that the crisis in English cricket is now the greatest in the game. Unsurprisingly, he singled out last summer, which saw England spend 108 days at the foot of the Wisden Test table, as a nadir. According to Engel: "England played the wrong opposition on the wrong grounds under the wrong management who picked the wrong team who performed in the wrong way."

Unlike many, he does not entirely blame the county game, which he feels will never provide mass entertainment. He does believe, however, that first-class cricket should better prepare players for Test cricket. This is not happening and according to Engel the Championship has become unwatchable in its present form.

"We haven't the players or the pitches to make 4-day cricket go the distance," he says. "Really we need to build a culture of greater individual competitiveness from which great players can emerge. That is the Australian way, not promotion and relegation."

There is a lengthy section on the new code of laws due to be brought in by the MCC later in the year. Apart from a less ambiguous description of what warrants a legal delivery, as opposed to a throw, the changes of most interest are the introduction of penalties for various infringements under law 42, which governs unfair play.

Although it is intended mainly as a deterrent, the umpires now have the power, after an initial warning, to award five-run penalties for incidences of time-wasting, ball tampering and a host of other sharp practices. Grudge matches of long-standing could become particularly interesting. Always much more than a sophisticated set of statistics, this year's Wisden comes for the first time with its cover price printed in US dollars as well as pounds. At $50 (Penguin reckon they can shift several hundred in the States) or £29.99 here, it is a marvel for serious and trivial minds alike. For all those in-between it is simply indispensable.

WISDEN'S FIVE CRICKETERS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

SIR DONALD BRADMAN (FIRST-CLASS CAREER: 1927-48) Sir Donald's Test average of 99.94, almost 40 runs more than those of his nearest rivals, will surely never be beaten. The Australian batsman scored a duck in his final innings when four runs would have earned him an average of 100. His grace under pressure in the 1932-33 "Bodyline" series, during which he stillaveraged 56.57, enhanced his legendary status. In all first-class matches he averaged 95.14 and in the 1938-39 season he scored six successive hundreds. His unbeaten 452 for New South Wales againstQueensland remains the third best score of all time. Bradman was named by all 100 voters in the Wisden poll.

SIR GARFIELD SOBERS (1952-74) Sobers scored 8,032 Test runs, took 235 wickets and held 109 catches. Until Brian Lara's destruction of England in 1994 he held the record for the highest individual Test score with 365 against Pakistan (1957-58). His batting average of 57.78 remains the best in the West Indies. He also bowled both finger and wrist spin.

SIR JACK HOBBS (1905-34) Hobbs scored more runs (61,237) and more centuries (197) than anyone else in the history of first-classcricket. Ninety-eight of his centuries were scoredafter his 40th birthday. However, because he went on to score "only" 16 double centuries, the Surrey opening batsman's career average of 50.65 is unremarkable.

SHANE WARNE (DEBUT 1992) Warne burst on to the Test scene at Old Trafford in 1993 when he bowled the 'Gatting ball', his first delivery in Ashes cricket. Now Australia's highest wicket-taker with 369 victims, he is also by some margin the most successful spin bowler in Test history. A true showman, Warne has made wrist-spinning fashionable again.

SIR VIVIAN RICHARDS (1972-91) Richards scored the fastest Test match hundred of all time when he dispatched the English attack for a century off 56 balls in 1986-87. He captained the West Indies on 50 occasions and they lost only eight times under him. Richards scored 8,540 runs in 121 Tests and was knighted by the Antiguan Government in 1999.

how the panel voted

Wisden's five cricketers of the century were chosen by a special panel of 100 cricketers and journalists from around the world. A total of 49 players received votes, as follows:

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