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Best of the best: The problem of rankings

india Updated: Oct 14, 2009 00:05 IST

A simple request — to name the ten greatest Indian players — stumped Tiger Pataudi. He had no trouble naming players who selected themselves (Kapil, Gavaskar, Sachin, Kumble, Dravid) but choosing the others was a big challenge.

Scrolling down names from India’s Test history, Tiger agonised over the spin options. After much thought, Bishan got the nod as the first choice but there was no clarity about the other greats. Prasanna, obviously, was a master bowler. But then so was Chandra and, somewhere in the equation, you had to make a call on Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte as well.

The selection of past batting legends was no less tricky. Vijay Merchant made it to the elite list because he scored more than 2000 runs on uncovered tracks in England. Hazare got in because he stood up to pace and did not retreat to square leg.

Several other names were considered, many famous players included, and then tossed out. Ultimately, Tiger gave up, unable to decide on the best ten. But before quitting, he made an interesting remark: I would like to put Salim Durrani somewhere.

This chance observation is significant because Tiger is not impressed easily, he is frugal when it comes to praising players. So if he thinks Salim bhai is special, there must be something extraordinary about the man who was Indian cricket's first major star. Also, there are others, notably Gary Sobers, who feel Durrani was a potential world beater, a brilliant player big on talent but sadly deficient in focus, discipline and hard work .

Another important but indirect aspect of Tiger's remark about Durrani is the validity of the so-called cricket rankings and ratings. Recently we had the farce of one day-team rankings that changed almost by the hour; Australia were displaced from the top position, then reinstated and the same flip-flop happened with India. Individual player rankings are equally bizarre. Gautam Gambhir reached the top but lost the honour the next day.

The problem with individual rankings becomes more acute when players are compared across eras. Cricket is constantly evolving, conditions and circumstances change, so do the demands on players. In this context, any attempt to rate/rank players can only be an academic exercise.

Lastly, different from the experts' choices, players measure greatness in a special way that is difficult to explain. Their choice may not be supported by stats but is uncanny and intuitive. Players know who is good, and how good. In their ranking, the greatest batsman after Don Bradman is Viv Richards.