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16 good humour and magnanimity. Many of the most interesting figures in cricket history have been built on this scale (Grace, Barnes, Compton, Miller, Botham, Lara…). They are freaks of nature who play the game without fear; their careers are never smooth progressions from one success to the next – their failures are spectacular and disproportionately criticised; they irritate authority; in some cases, their personal lives are equally tempestuous. Yet they bring more to the game than a dozen well-disciplined mortals.
Two years ago, Wisden introduced the concept of the Leading Cricketer in the World to sit alongside the ancient tradition of the Five Cricketers of the Year. It is a totally different accolade, designed to reward just one mysterious, barely definable, quality: greatness. It can be won an infinite number of times, though our three years have so far produced three different winners.
Every Christmas now, we ask all the regular Test-watchers we know who they regard as the No. 1 for the calendar year just ending. It’s not a ballot (an electoral college could only be weighted fairly if it were snobbily exclusive), more a set of soundings. But the colloquy that develops has each time produced the answer.
The first year was easy: Ricky Ponting’s weight of runs late in 2003 was overwhelming. The next was much harder. The heavy scorers, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer, didn’t seem to embody greatness; Flintoff wasn’t quite there yet. We went for Warne, just ahead of Adam Gilchrist.
For this Wisden, it was different again. There were only two serious contenders, but which to choose? The voting and the debate swayed, like the Ashes, one way and then the other. The answer? Read Simon Barnes on page 170. Or consider the result of the series. Or look at our cover picture – taken at The Oval after the Test – which seemed, of all the thousands of cricketing images, to sum up 2005: the two champions, locked together in happy embrace… but the one a short head above the other. We are lucky to be able to watch them both, and should relish and cherish them.
The Greatest Series? Quick, run away! Not everyone was around to enjoy the Ashes. In the ten days between the Lord’s and Edgbaston Tests, Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, turned the key and locked the poky offices behind the Compton Stand at Lord’s where the ICC had been based for the previous dozen years. A few days later, it re-emerged 3,500 miles away in Dubai, in more spacious if less evocative premises, on the 11th floor of an anonymous office block. In the new reception area, the pictures were not of Grace or Bradman, but of the local ruling family.
There were sound reasons for the move, but the timing typified the ICC year. For a start, the temperature in Dubai hit 50°C (122°F) as soon as the staff arrived. And it was a wretched time for any cricket-lover to leave Britain, as thousands of holidaymakers who had opted to spend August in Provence or Tuscany could tell you. They spent the month staring at computers, plaintively asking friends the score on their mobiles, or twiddling radios, desperately trying to get a faint crackle of Radio 4.
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In their Dubaivory tower, the ICC rose above all this. There were other preoccupations. The game’s most intractable crisis – Zimbabwe – burbled on without resolution in 2005: the country got worse, its cricket got worse, and the ICC’s hand-wringing hopelessness got worse. It became hard to imagine what outrage the country’s politicians or cricket administrators might have to commit to provoke a response at last. Eventually, early in 2006, the Zimbabweans had to pull themselves out of Test cricket because the ICC refused to kick them out, despite the manifest inadequacy of the team, the incompetence (at best) of the officials, and the wickedness of the system in which they operated. This had a clear and direct effect on Speed’s authority. When he mildly chastised players for their behaviour – which is his job – Tim May, of the international players’ association FICA, quite rightly flung Zimbabwe back in his face.
The one chink of light on this issue came when Jagmohan Dalmiya, the supremo of Indian cricket for almost two decades, fell from power in November, suggesting an end to the strange alliance that had formed between India and Zimbabwe. But the private rejoicing among Dalmiya’s former colleagues round the Dubai boardroom table (kept very discreet for fear that he couldn’t possibly be gone for good) was more to do with the hope that his fall would end the administrative chaos he fostered inside Indian cricket. The filing system for the most influential national organisation in the game was basically inside Dalmiya’s head, which was driving everyone crazy.
Dalmiya at least worked through the council, when necessary subverting it to his own ends. In their early weeks, anyway, his successors at the Indian board seemed prepared to challenge its authority directly. Not a bad idea, you might think. It is time someone did, because the ICC’s entrepreneurial role is damaging its regulatory one. There was a crucial symbolic change when its web address switched from .org to .com. It constantly now has to refer to its own financial interests – exacerbated by the fraught TV deal with the Global Cricket Corporation, which expires in 2007 – rather than the good of cricket, which should be its only concern.
Every year, it insists, there has to be an ICC tournament of some kind, whether anyone wants it or not. It would be hard to imagine cricket more ill-timed and ill-presented than the 2004 Champions Trophy in England. But the bad ideas keep coming: the Australia v World XI Super Series, held in Australia in October 2005, was OK in theory, but the World XI players didn’t want to be there (the Australians, a month after the Ashes, were happy to kick any available arses), and nor did the people of Sydney or Melbourne. It wasn’t even the cricket season. This might have worked as a full-length Test series if there was ever time for such a thing. But there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Coming up: yet another ugly-looking Champions Trophy, to the delight only of TV channels with more airtime than content.
Year after year, the wonderful folks at the ICC assemble the world’s best players and get them to play bad cricket. If they staged W.G.’s XI v The Don’s XI at the Elysian Oval with S. F. Barnes bowling to Victor Trumper, they would find some way of making the occasion dismal. It’s a gift, really: a form of anti-showmanship.
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