WG Grace staked an early claim which still garners plenty of support. The passage of time alone has brought forth other candidates. Keith Miller, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham have their promoters on different continents and the consensus usually arrives with abundant good reason at Garry Sobers.
Where discussion about the greatest cricketer who ever lived almost never extends, but perhaps ought to with increasing frequency, is to the name of Jacques Kallis. It was Kevin Pietersen of all people who made the proposition most persuasively.
Not all Pietersen's opinions are necessarily expressed after months of careful research and weighing of conclusions and when he sat on a hotel patio in South Africa a couple of years ago and offered his case there was no immediate murmuring of assent. But in this instance, Pietersen, on safer ground, knew whereof he spoke.
True, he probably lacked a profound historical perspective on the topic but he knew the figures all right and he knew what he had seen against him all those years. He was referring to his opponents in that year's series between England and South Africa.
"They're just fantastic men and I truly believe Kallis is the greatest cricketer ever," he said. "He's just phenomenal. He has got 10,000 Test runs, 250 wickets and did you see the two catches he took last night?"
So Pietersen was speaking about one of his mates and has real affinity only with contemporary cricket. It seemed a tall claim but the returns alone meant it could not be dismissed as lightly as some may have liked. The closer the claim is scrutinised the greater the strain it can take.
Kallis now has 12,379 Test runs and 276 Test wickets (as well as 11,498 and 270 one-day runs and wickets and 573 and five, respectively, in international Twenty20). He also has 181 Test and 125 one-day catches, snared in exactly the same way as the runs have been scored and the wickets taken, without fuss or show and with the bare minimum of celebration.
The difference between his batting average and bowling average, a crude but not entirely misguided method of judgement, is 24.33, greater than any other player to have taken 100 wickets and scored 1,000 runs in Tests. For most of the 17 years he has been on the international circuit with South Africa, Kallis has been a formidable player but he has never been a fashionable one.
Absurd though it is to suggest considering the heavy weight of the figures he can be easy to overlook, not usually by the opposition who have seen far too much of him for that but by the onlooker. Kallis has always been there, going about his job, batting at No 3 for much of the first seven years, four for most of the last 10 and operating as the first, usually second change seam bowler. He tends not to depart far from slip.
One of the troubles which tends to merge into a couple of others is the unfussiness. There is not a series of all the 56 in which he has appeared that could be looked back on and truly said it belonged to Kallis, as it could be said of the others in the frame.
And then there are those other troubles. The apparent readiness to accumulate quietly rather than grabbing the match by the scruff, once especially noticeable in limited-overs cricket but also pervading his Test output, has done him few favours. It has provoked insinuations, if not of selfishness then of lack of awareness. Easily answered: any team on the planet would rather have Kallis than not have him.
The dreaded Indian Premier League where Pietersen and Kallis sealed their friendship has done him a power of good. He has gone along there at more than six an over with the result that his scoring rate in Test cricket, since the IPL started, has gone up by six points.
For a whil e, he seemed to be a reluctant bowler. He ran in and barely turned the arm over when he could have been propelling the ball at disconcerting speed. When he and the coaches worked out that he was best used in small but frequent doses it suited all parties.
But what has begun to count over 17 years, what opened Pietersen's eyes, is that what you see is what you get, the lack of the spectacular. Kallis merely goes into the office every day and does his stuff simply and well, so that it is possible to miss his presence like that of the all-knowing clerk who runs the show.
He is not captaincy material, never was and would not want to be. There is probably not enough going on for that in terms of tactical nous and the thought occurred yesterday, listening to the affable if bland courtesy of his replies to questions before the first Test against England, that he is much too nice for it all. If Kallis was asked about a sledge he might really say that he did not need one because there's no snow in South Africa.
What he will do when it all comes to a halt he does not yet know. He is not thinking of retirement. "I always said that as long as I'm enjoying it and the team environment is good I'll keep going as long as the body and mind hold out," he said. "I'm certainly as fit as I've ever been and I'm playing as good a level of cricket as I have ever played in my career so I haven't thought about it yet."
He has never wondered whether he might be the greatest cricketer of all. "I don't. It's a huge compliment. But I don't see myself as that. I have never been one who worries too much about stats or accolades or anything like that.
"I may pay more attention to it when I've finished but I certainly don't know. It's difficult when you compare eras and we play so much more cricket these days. Who's better these days or in the past, it's probably a little unfair. I just enjoy playing a game of cricket whether I'm batting, bowling or fielding. That's how I go about my business." But what a business it is.