Picking the greatest in a certain sport can be, at times, an almost impossible undertaking. What factors do you use to rate the best athletes? Most people turn to statistics and put their faith in the numbers as proof of an athlete’s greatness. A career batting average, a total number of touchdown passes in a season, a total number of goals scored in a career – such figures are often cited as proof of a particular sports figure being the greatest. Statistics, however, do not always tell us the whole story. For example, Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl over his entire career. Does this mean he isn’t one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time? Lionel Messi has smashed all sorts of records in Spain. However, does the fact he has not plied his trade in other top European leagues lessen his achievements in any way? There are strong arguments for and against in such cases. These are the sorts of pitfalls one can get caught in when tackling the issue of the best and greatest athletes of one particular sport. Cricket is another sport which has produced some legendary athletes. Since its beginnings in the British Empire in the 19th century, the sport has spread across the globe and gained popularity at a rapid pace. Somewhat overshadowed by world football (especially in terms of television coverage) cricket is still considered to be the second most followed sport in the world and is a staple in countries like England, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia. The game itself has several variations with some of the more notable formats including Test, One Day International (ODI) and limited overs. Test matches are the longest and most challenging as they pit two sides against each other over the course of what can end up lasting five days. One of the more famous Test series to be played is known as The Ashes, a tournament between England and Australia which originated in 1882. Out of such series have risen some of the greatest cricket players to ever take to the field. The governing body of world cricket is the International Cricket Council (ICC). The Dubai based body is responsible for running and organizing the sport of cricket, much like the way FIFA governs world football matters. Like FIFA, the ICC has calculated and compiled its own list of the greatest players to have ever played cricket. In terms of bowlers, the ICC’s system ranks the players by their best overall performances, at the height of their best form. The mathematical approach takes the bias out of the selection process but ends up omitting some players who you would expect to be included.
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12 Readers of this list will be annoyed that the greats like Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble, Dennis Lillee and (especially) Shane Warne – who took 708 wickets from 145 Tests – are not included. Just remember, this list is based on the ICC ratings, which includes some of the most impressive bowlers to participate in the sport.
11 Honorable Mention: Richard Hadlee, Waqar Younis, Shaun Pollock – 909 points
It seemed wrong to leave out these three great bowlers. Then again, it seems wrong to leave out a lot of the bowlers who just didn’t make the cut based on the ICC rating system. That said, it’s a Top 10 list so we need to draw the line somewhere. New Zealander Richard Hadlee, Pakistani Waqar Younis and South African Shaun Pollock all just miss out with a rating of 909 points. Hadlee was a great all-rounder and was chosen by Wisden (a cricket almanac) as the second greatest test bowler of all time. In his 86 Test career he took 431 wickets and was the first bowler to pass the 400 mark. The current coach of the Pakistan cricket team, Younis is considered to be one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. In 87 Tests he took 373 wickets and had a bowling average of 23.56. Rounding off our honorable mentions is Shaun Pollock. An all-rounder and the leading wicket taker among South Africans, he took 421 wickets in 108 Tests over his career. Known for his seam bowling, he was also pretty handy with a bat and had a Test average of over 30 runs.
10 Malcolm Marshall – 910 points
Malcolm Marshall is widely considered to have been one of the finest and fastest bowlers of Test cricket. His speed and bowling average of 20.94 was made all the more impressive by the fact that he was only 5 foot 11 – shorter than the standard 6 foot-plus height of most fast bowlers. Over his Test career he took 376 wickets from 81 matches. Perhaps his best career bowling effort came at Old Trafford in 1988 when he bowled 7 for 22. Marshall was able to swing and bounce the ball to the point batsmen started to complain. This was best seen in a match between the West Indies and England in 1986 when Marshall’s delivery came up and broke the nose of England captain Mike Gatling. After moving into coaching, he died in 1999 after a battle with cancer.
9 Ian Botham – 911 points
Sir Ian Botham may have been at the center of controversy throughout his career but there is no denying he was one of the best English all-rounders in the sport. Botham was a fast-medium bowler who made his Test debut against Australia in 1977. Over 102 career Test matches he took 383 wickets and held a bowling average 28.40. Equally impressive was his batting ability and he scored 5200 runs and averaged 33.54. He holds a number of Test records including the fastest to achieve the ‘doubles’ of 1000 runs and 100 wickets, 2000 runs and 200 wickets and 3000 runs and 300 wickets. He continues to hold the record for the highest number of Test wickets taken by an English player.
8 T-6. Vernon Philander – 912 points
If you’re looking for the culprit behind the bumping off of Hadlee, Younis and Pollock from this list, look no further than South African Vernon Philander. This right-handed fast-medium bowler has enjoyed considerable success early on in his international career. His debut saw him bowl 5 for 15 against Australia, limiting that team to 47, Australia’s lowest Test innings total since 1902. His boost into the top 10 of Test bowlers came thanks to his performance against India in December, 2013. Currently the only active player on this list, Philander so far has taken 112 wickets in 23 Tests. His bowling average is equally impressive and currently sits at 20.11.
7 T6. Curtly Ambrose – 912 points
Another player from the West Indies, Antiguan Curtly Ambrose was noted for the amount of bounce he could put on a ball after it pitched. He also developed a reputation for accuracy and knocking out leading batsmen. His first Test in 1988 was unimpressive with him taking two for 121 against Pakistan in the West Indies’ first home loss in 10 years. Things got better from there and Ambrose became one of the West Indies’ best bowlers. Over his Test career, he took 405 wickets in 98 matches. He also posted an impressive 20.99 bowling average. In the mid-1990s Ambrose’s decline coincided with a shoulder injury. Despite this he was still able to put in some good performances including taking nine wickets in a Test match against Australia.
6 T6. Tony Lock – 912 points
Tony Lock was an English cricketer who used the slow left arm method of bowling. Also known as spinning, this saw Lock use his wrist or fingers to impart significant spin on the ball which then caused a significant change in direction once the ball hit the pitch. In Test matches for the national team between 1952 and 1968, Lock took 174 wickets from 49 matches and posted a bowling average of 25.58. His ICC rating of 912 points was earned thanks to his July 1958 performance against New Zealand. During this Test he stunned the Kiwis by taking 13 wickets at under 9 runs apiece.
5 Glenn McGrath – 914 points
Considered one of the greatest bowlers in cricket history, Australian Glenn McGrath was a fast-medium bowler who played for his country between 1993 and 2007. Nicknamed ‘Pigeon,’ McGrath took four for 29 in the second innings of the first Test of the 2005 Ashes series and was named man of the match during Australia’s comprehensive victory over rivals England. Over his whole Test career, he took an impressive 563 wickets from 124 matches with a bowling average of 21.64. Making this even more impressive is the fact it was accomplished by bowling only 29248 balls.
4 Muttiah Muralitharan – 920 points
In 2002, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack rated this Sri Lankan player as the greatest Test match bowler ever. Muralitharan’s impressive Test career saw him take an incredible 800 wickets in 133 matches. His career Test bowling average was also very good, ending up at 22.72 after his final 2010 Test versus India. Muralitharan was followed by controversy for much of his career. Officials and cricket players often called his bowling style into question leading to a biomechanical analysis of his technique and eventual clearance by the ICC. He currently holds 17 ICC records including most Test wickets, most 5 and 10-wicket hauls in a Test match and the only player to take 10 wickets in a Test in four consecutive matches.
3 Imran Khan – 922 points
While today he is a Pakistani politician, Imran Khan made a name for himself as a cricket player. His Test career ran from 1971 to 1992 during which he took 362 wickets in 88 matches. His career test bowling average was a very respectable 22.81. A fast bowler, Khan is said to have peaked in 1982-83. The ICC rating as the #3 bowler in cricket came in large part to his performance against India in January 1983. He attained the all-rounder triple of 3000 runs and 300 wickets in 75 test matches which was just three matches off the record set by Ian Botham. He created his own controversy after retirement by admitting that there were times he tampered with the ball and seam.
2 George Lohmann – 931 points
For this one we are going way back. England bowler George Lohmann is the only cricket player in the ICC’s top 10 to play in the 19th century. So, to say the ICC had to retroactively assess his bowling abilities is an understatement. Statistically, it’s hard to see how Lohmann’s stats could possibly put him above someone like Muralitharan, let alone second place overall. In his Test career he took 112 wickets in 18 matches with a jaw-droppingly great bowling average of 10.75. He also holds the record for the lowest strike rate in all of Test history. In the 2nd Test match against South Africa in 1896, (the match the ICC rated him at 931 points for) Lohmann bowled an impressive 9 for 28. In the 1886 Ashes, Lohmann bowled a fantastic 12 for 104, helping to give England one of its biggest wins.
1 Sydney Barnes – 932 points
At #1 position on the ICC list is Sydney Barnes. The English-born fast-medium bowler took part in 27 Test matches between 1901 and 1914. Over this time he claimed 189 wickets with a bowling average of 16.43. In 1911-12 he helped England take home the Ashes by taking 34 wickets. His performances never seemed to drop off and he maintained his bowling abilities to his last test series against South Africa where he claimed a record 49 wickets. Unsurprisingly, it was this final performance which boosted Barnes into the #1 position for cricket Test bowlers. Whether or not you agree with Barnes being at the top of this list, you can’t deny the consistency and skill he brought to the field.
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