World's best player Pollock a threat to Australia

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Who is the best cricketer in the world today? As in all those lists of the greatest pop songs, but with slightly more justification, it tends to be a case of rounding up the usual suspects. The queue is headed by the game's three undisputed superstars, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Brian Lara.

Tendulkar, the only contemporary player in Sir Don Bradman's dream team, would win easily if the question were to be put to all the world's cricket lovers – a possibility that is steadily becoming less remote, thanks to the web.

The panel of 100 experts who picked Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Century preferred Warne. Some would argue that he is no longer even the best spinner in the world: that may be Muttiah Muralitharan, who added another Man of the Series award to his collection against India last weekend. Plenty of experts and fans would still go for Lara, whose best is better than all the rest, Tendulkar included. Realists and pragmatists might go for Steve Waugh, who has grown to become not just as effective as any of the bigger names but more influential than any of them.

The best player in the world today, however, is none of the above. It is a man who has no great charisma and is regarded as a superstar only in his homeland. A man who is younger than any of these others, at just 28, and has played fewer Tests – 56. A man who has not been a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, never mind the century. A man whose bowling average in the last three years is 18. A man whose batting average in the past year is 53. A man who fields at slip in a fine catching team. A man who captains his country, and has three wins and a draw from his four series in charge, including only the second victory by a visiting captain in the Caribbean in a generation. A big hand, please, for Shaun Pollock: contemporary cricket's least recognised grandmaster.

Pollock is the most complete player since Imran Khan. With a new ball in his hand, he is a red-haired Glenn McGrath, combining the steadiness of a stock bowler with the cutting edge of a spearhead. Quite apart from being the son of a good Test cricketer (Peter) and the nephew of a great one (Graeme), Shaun studied under the late Malcolm Marshall at Natal, and it shows.

He bowls wicket-to-wicket, makes the ball lift and moves it both ways. Mike Atherton and Angus Fraser once had a learned discussion about whether Pollock knew which way the ball would go off the seam. Atherton said yes, Fraser thought not. Either way, his method works: his Test career bowling average is 20.32, one better than McGrath. His economy rate is better too, 2.26 runs per over as against 2.54. Only on strike rate – a wicket every 50 balls, to Pollock's 54 – does McGrath have the edge. Pollock has taken a seven-for at Adelaide, one of the world's great batting strips, and a five-for in a World Cup semi-final against Australia, including the wickets of both Waughs. McGrath's batting is somewhere between negligible and comical. Pollock's is somewhere between useful and classical. In the first few years of his international career he seemed to have settled for being a bowler who batted rather than a full all-rounder. He would stroke a couple of handsome cover drives, then drag the ball on or get a nick to the keeper, as if bowling had used up all his reserves of patience. But then came the captaincy, which landed on his plate in the trickiest of circumstances when Hansie Cronje departed in disgrace.

In his first two series as captain, Pollock carried on getting his 20s and 30s. Then, last Christmas, he finally made the breakthrough, with a magnificently unstatesman-like hundred against Sri Lanka at Centurion which took only 99 minutes and 95 balls. He followed it with another, more sedate century at Bridgetown, off 181 balls. Both hundreds were made at No 9. Pollock's batting average since he took over from Cronje is 38 – higher than many captains who are specialist batsmen. His performances in the past year have been those of McGrath and Carl Hooper rolled into one.

His stats may have been flattered a little by having two five-Test series against West Indies in three years. But his record against all-comers is phenomenally consistent: his worst bowling average against an individual country is 23 (against England). South Africa stand second in the ICC Test Championship, streets ahead of England, who are third. This winter, they face the ultimate challenge: back-to-back series, home and away, against Australia.

The schedulers have been kind to them, providing what looks like a nice easy build-up: a two-Test series in Zimbabwe, starting this Friday, followed by three home Tests against India, who are not good travellers (the win in Kandy a couple of weeks ago was only their fourth away from home in 15 years). But then comes cricket's Everest – Australia in Australia, beginning on Boxing Day, in front of 98,000 people, in the great pressure-cooker of the MCG.

Australia haven't lost a Test at home, or even drawn one, since Christmas 1998, when Dean Headley stole the Melbourne Test from under their noses.

They don't so much beat visiting teams as pummel them. Australia's average first-innings score since Steve Waugh took over is 419, while their opponents' is 228. If anyone can disturb those stats, Shaun Pollock can.

Tim de Lisle is editor of the new Wisden website,