The 50 Greatest ODI Players of All Time: Part 6
Here’s the sixth part of our expert’s series counting down to his list of 50 all-time ODI greats.
On to part 6, let’s dive straight in.
#22 Zaheer Abbas
#21 AB de Villiers
One of the toughest questions I asked myself while creating this list: where do I rank Zaheer Abbas? I had him everywhere from a top 15 to out of the top 50. He’s only played 62 matches and has only a little over 2500 runs. I had excluded a couple of current players based on the fact that it was ‘too early’ to decide their place in the list - Hashim Amla and Virat Kohli who both average over 50, both with strike-rates over 85 (FYI, Amla is ahead on both metrics). I am sure both will feature in a subsequent top 50 list, but they are still relatively young in their international careers and I’ll wait till they are both close to the 5000-run mark before ranking them. And both of them already have more career runs than Abbas! And Abbas certainly isn’t playing any more matches.
So with such a relatively limited sample, where do I put Abbas? In the end, I could not ignore the average and the strike-rate for his time. The man played between 1974 and 1985 and had a SR of 85. He averaged 47.6. More than that, his RPI of nearly 43 is more than 2 runs per innings better than ANYONE on this list. It is ridiculously good, and that’s the reason he figures as high as #22.
AB de Villiers’ numbers are in many ways similar to Abbas, with a scale-up to account for the different time he plays in. The strike rate is higher, but that difference translates to a 0.5 runs per over difference, more than made up for by the differences across eras. The plus for de Villiers is his upside potential and his now new role as wicketkeeper. Add to that, he made a significant contribution with his athleticism even as a pure fielder (we don’t have metrics to measure this well over time), and all of that gives him the nudge over Abbas. On another note, if I redo this list in a couple of years, I have no doubt that Kohli and Amla will be on the list at somewhere, probably close to this position, if not higher. Their early numbers are simply staggering.
But let’s start with Abbas. He only played 60 innings, but in that short span, he amassed 7 centuries and 13 fifties. His first impressive innings came in the 1975 World Cup against Sri Lanka where he scored 97 of just 89 balls (a strike rate above 100 at the time was very special). He got a couple more 90s after that before his first century came in 1981 against Australia in Sydney. FYI - after debuting in 1974, his first ODI century came 7 years later but it was just his 20th ODI game because teams didn’t play that many ODIs back then. Abbas continued to score regularly every time he came out to bat and his best stretch was three consecutive centuries against India in a bilateral which Pakistan won 3-1. That included scores of 118(86), 105(82) and 113(99), lots of runs and done very quickly. He continued to be a regular run machine (and his Test exploits were more famous at the time), until issues with team mates and the selectors led to his ultimate retirement from the game.
Like Abbas, de Villiers is also a run machine. The scary part is that he’s only getting better. Here’s what I mean:
- He started off poorly, averaging 16 in 2005 at a strike rake of 67 in 14 matches. In 2006, the average and strike rate jumped to 42 and 85.
- In 2007, a little better with 45 and 92.
- A blip in 2008 with the numbers falling to 36 and 78 but picked back up the next year to 54 and 93.
- In 2010 - get this - 964 runs at an average of 80 and strike rate of 102. Last year, solid at 52 and 105.
- This year is too early and his average is inflated to 158 by many not outs, but he is close to 60 runs per innings at a strike rate of 116!
And there have been some memorable knocks in there. Like his 146(130) against the West Indies in the 2007 World Cup when he opened the batting. His 125*(98) against Sri Lanka earlier this year at the Wanderers - Sri Lanka won this nail-biter in the last over with No. 11 Senanayake hitting a six off Robin Peterson. FYI, de Villiers was named man-of-the-series. Indian fans should remember his 102* off 59 balls in Ahmedabad. That was a stunning innings; it came in the match following Sachin’s double century. de Villiers has unique ability, he can pace his innings in the middle or just come in at the death and launch straight away (like we’ve seen in T20 matches) - a mix of power and elegance, along with a temperament that is only getting better. There’s a whole lot of potential here. Add his wicketkeeping, and he becomes even more valuable and positioned to be one of the greatest ODI players of all time.
#20 Curtly Ambrose
#19 Shaun Pollock
Two opening bowlers with very impressive economy rates who maintained their consistency for a long period of time.
Ambrose has the better average and economy rate. But Pollock played in era with higher scoring rates, so that should even out. Plus Pollock has the better bowling strike rate, higher quantum of achievement with almost 400 wickets (#5 all time). Add to that, Pollock was a much better batsman, not quite the elite all-rounder people thought he would become, but still a good lower order batsman with an average of 26 (RPI of 17) at a strike rate of 87. So Pollock ahead of Ambrose was easy. And their blend of good averages and extremely good economy rates definitely put them above the likes of Waqar and Lee (#33 and #34 on our list).
Let’s start with the towering Curtly Ambrose. Though basketball was his first love, he more than made a name for himself on the cricket field. He had to follow a long line of West Indian legends, and he did not disappoint. What stands out over the length of his ODI career is how miserly he was, on any pitch at any time. His career economy rate is under 4 runs per over in every country he played in, barring Pakistan. He went at 3.4 runs per over on the flat tracks of India, 3.8 in the batting paradise that was Sharjah and 3.2 in Australia and England. In every calendar year in which he played more than five matches, Ambrose’s worst annual economy rate was 4.02 in 1997. For the most part, he was in the mid 3s. And let’s not forget, he picked up wickets with figures like this:
- 4/39 on debut against Pakistan in Kingston followed by 4/35 in the very next game
- 5/17 in his ODI debut year against Australia at the MCG, his career best ODI figures
- A match-winning 4/29 in the finals of a Sharjah tri-series where the West Indies held on for a narrow 11-run victory. Ambrose got the Pakistani openers cheaply, and then came back to get the critical wicket of a well set Miandad (out for 76) and a dangerous Akram, as the West Indies defended their average score of 235
- 5/26 in the World Series final in Australia in 1989. The Windies lost the match by 2 runs (Ambrose also fought with the bat with a defiant 23 in a 48-run stand with Ian Bishop that almost gave the Windies victory), but they still won the best of three final series 2-1
- 5/32 and 3/26 in the 1993 World Series finals against Australia, which the West Indies won 2-0 and Ambrose was named player of the finals
In the late 90s, Ambrose’s pace dropped but he remained hard to get away with his variations and bounce. To end a 176-match career with an economy rate of 3.48 is extremely impressive.
Pollock’s numbers are not that different if you account for the years he played in. He never went at more than 4.1 runs per over in any country he played in barring the UAE (Sharjah). He went at 3.9 runs per over in India, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He never went at more than 4.2 runs per over across any calendar year, and he went above 4 only once in his career. He was mostly in the mid-late 3s. And then there were years like 2006, where he went at 2.98 runs per over across 21 matches with games in Australia, South Africa and India. He averaged 17.3 runs per wicket that year, and was unplayable with spells of 3/30 and 3/23 against Australia, 4/26 against India and more. This is when bowlers around him were regularly going at more than 4 and 5 runs per over! Some of his best figures include:
-6/35 against the West Indies, in a game where the Caribbean men amassed 292 runs. Pollock was unbelievable while everyone else around him leaked runs
-5/20 against England in the finals of a tri-series, to help the Proteas defend a paltry 149. High quality wickets too, Pollock got the first five wickets - Hussain, Knight, Hick, Maddy, Alleyne (okay, mostly high-quality wickets). After all, these were England’s top 5 batsmen in the game!), and won man-of-the-match and man-of-the-series honours
-His 5/23 against a good quality Pakistan side at the Wanderers, which included wickets of Younis Khan, Inzamam, Mohammad Yousuf and the openers, was another good performance that gave South Africa a series win in the final game of the bilateral
Add to that, Pollock had a few handy performances with the bat. He never scored an ODI century for South Africa (his only ODI ton came in an Asia XI vs. Africa XI game), but he had a number of useful contributions to end up with 14 half-centuries. Had he lived up to his batting potential, he could have ended higher on the list, but #19 ain’t so bad! Not quite as good as these next two all-rounders though.
#18 Lance Klusener
#17 Imran Khan
Two all-rounders! One, a great across all formats of the game while the other is one of the best ever in the ODI game (from a purely career stats point of view, you can make the case for Klusener being the best ODI all-rounder of all time).
Those overall numbers are pretty similar when you look at total runs and wickets. Ignore Klusener’s inflated average (based on more than a handful of not outs) and you’ll see their RPIs are similar too. Their bowling strike rates are very close too. The differences - Klusener has a much better strike rate and overall the better batting career. Imran has the better economy rate and as a result a better bowling average. Both their moments of glories in ODIs came in World Cups. Klusener, as the man-of-the-series in 1999 and that unforgettable semi-final. Imran, for leading his side through injury to a miraculous World Cup win. In the end, Imran’s leadership coupled with the World Cup triumph helped him make it ahead in the rankings.
Klusener evolved into his all-rounder role - he started as a tearaway quick who couldn’t bat much and became more of a batsman (even opening the batting for South Africa) while his bowling adapted to injuries where he transformed into more a smart bowler with his accurate off-cutters. His peak was during the 1999 World Cup - 281 runs at a strike rate of 122 and an average of 140.5 because he was only dismissed twice in eight innings. With the ball, he had 17 wickets (4th highest in the event) at an average of 20.6 and an economy rate of 4.6. Some great individual performances in matches, like this
-52*(45) and 3/21 vs. Sri Lanka at Northampton
-5/21 vs. Kenya, he didn’t have to bat in that game
-1/41 and 46*(41) against Pakistan in a close Super Six game, where South Africa recovered from 176/7 in the 45th over to chase 221 for victory thanks to Zulu’s big hitting
Klusener won four man-of-the-match awards in the tournament and the man-of-the-series. His form was similar to Yuvraj’s in 2011, except his run did not end as well. Other than the World Cup, Zulu had a number of hard-hitting contributions in the lower order (some while he opened) with 19 fifties and 2 centuries. With the ball, he has 6 fifers. That’s pretty impressive - more than Pollock, Ambrose or Donald ever managed. Most of those came earlier in his career, when he still had the raw pace to rip through the opposition. Like his 5/24 against Australia in the World Series in 97-98, where he helped the Proteas defend 170. Or his 5/42 against India in Bloemfontein, which may not be quite as memorable as his 8/64 on Test debut against India at Eden Gardens (you may remember the game where Azhar hit five consecutive boundaries off Klusener and he scored a defiant century in the game, but South Africa hammered India!)
-The near improbable victory where he was 31*(16) in the epic semi-final against Australia, tied game, and South Africa missed their best chance of making a WC final
On to Imran Khan then, one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of the game. Bowling was his forte, but he was more than handy with the bat with an average of 33 and 1 century and 19 fifties to boot. Some of those came in big games, like his unbeaten 55 against the West Indies in the final of a major six nation tournament (the Nehru Cup) - an event that included India, Sri Lanka, Australia and England as well. Pakistan won the final with one ball to spare and Imran, who also picked up three wickets in the game, was man-of-the-match and man-of-the-series. And when injuries limited his bowling in the 90s, he still kept his place in the side as a batsman and scored a game-high 72 in the final of the World Series in Australia to give Pakistan another major series victory. He did well in World Cups as well, where he scored his only ODI century against Sri Lanka in 1983. With the ball, Imran was consistent for most of his career till the 90s where he struggled with injuries. His best figures came in a four-nation Sharjah series when he picked up 6/14 against India and bowled them out for 125. I remember this game well and have seen highlights of it multiple times. You can hear the crowd chanting Imran’s name as he ran in to bowl with his famous action. I recall a brief chant when he came out to bat as well. But India famously defended their score and bowled out Pakistan for 87. Gavaskar took four catches in that game and I had always thought he won man-of-the-match in that game for his catches/fielding (the highlights did not have the post-match presentation). Turns out I was wrong - Imran was man-of-the-match. India won the game and the tournament though!
Like with the bat, Imran did well with the bat in World Cups. He had all 3 of his career 4-fers in the 1987 World Cup. 4/37 against West Indies in a game Pakistan won off the last ball (the famous Walsh-Qadir incident occurred in this game), followed by the same figures in the next game against England (which set the semi seeding up nicely to ensure India and Pakistan would not meet till the final. It’s the final everyone was expecting, but Australia and England had other plans). Imran would win his World Cup though, leading his ‘cornered tiger’ (a term he used to inspire the team) side to a sensational triumph in 1992. And for all of that, Imran Khan is in at #17.
That’s it for this part. We are getting close to the end. Part 7 will have three elite bowlers and three elite ODI finishers. Till next time.