Thursday, February 17, 2011

A tribute to the Number Ones

Tell anyone who are the number one rated batsman, bowler and all-rounder in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI cricket going into ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 and you may receive some inquisitive looks in return. However, on closer examination, the three players have earned their right to call themselves the current form players as the cricketing world meets on the subcontinent.

South Africa’s Hashim Amla had to wait until March 2008 to make his ODI debut – more than three years after his first Test appearance. However, he has swiftly made up for lost time and he currently boasts an average of just under 60 after 42 matches including seven centuries and 12 fifties. He recently became the fastest player ever to reach 2000 runs, five fewer innings than previous record-holder Kevin Pietersen. In a team of higher-profile players, some of whom have performed successfully on the highest stage in previous competitions, Amla is the leading man coming into this year’s event.

His current batting rating of 889 puts him in pretty exclusive company too. Only one South African batsman has ever sneaked through the 900-point barrier in ODI cricket, and he will be at the World Cup too. Surprisingly it isn’t captain Graeme Smith or even Jacques Kallis – who managed it in Test cricket. The man in question is Gary Kirsten, who will be coaching India as they try to recapture the crown they won so memorably at Lord’s in 1983. Still the holder of the highest individual score in ICC Cricket World Cup history with his unbeaten 188 against the UAE in 1996, his century against Australia at Indore later that year saw his points tally rise to 903.

Amla’s current Rating is the highest achieved by any batsman in ODI cricket since Brian Lara before the turn of the Millennium, and it will be interesting to see if he can push his way up to 900 points over the course of the tournament.

Whereas Amla currently enjoys a healthy lead of more than 100 points at the top of the batting tree, it is far tighter with the ball with that same 100 points covering the top 12 positions. However, the man in pole position has occupied that lofty perch uninterrupted since November 2009.

Daniel Vettori has led from the front for New Zealand over the past few years and he has developed into one of the most economical bowlers in ODI history. Over the past nine years, his worst economy rate in any year was 4.15 in 2007 - his busiest year. Over that same period of time, his fellow Kiwi bowlers have conceded an average of 4.81 runs per over, illustrating his value to the team. He is New Zealand’s leading wicket-taker in the shorter form of the game and also has more than 2000 runs. In Test cricket he is now less than 100 wickets away from Richard Hadlee’s national record of 431.

Vettori will be hoping to improve on his showings in previous ICC Cricket World Cups. His 17 matches covering the last two tournaments have brought him 18 wickets at a disappointing average of 39.22. If New Zealand are to achieve the semi-final place that has almost become theirs by right since the first competition in 1975, he will need to continue the form that took him to the top of the pile nearly 18 months ago.

Now is perhaps the time when Vettori will face the greatest challenge for his number one position with three other left-arm spinners in the top five. Since overtaking Shakib Al Hasan to reclaim top spot, his average points tally has been 748. Perhaps it is an indication of the volume of ODI cricket played around the world nowadays, but no-one has even achieved 800 points since the retirement of Shaun Pollock three years ago.

The leading all-rounder in the world has occupied that position for an even longer stretch than Vettori. Shakib Al Hasan became the first Bangladeshi to rise to number one in any form of the game with bat or ball when he sneaked above Jacob Oram in January 2009. And now – more than two years and 299 matches later – he is still there. It is not difficult to see why. While some of the world’s leading all-rounders have moved down to the table due to retirement, injury or loss of form, Shakib has gone from strength to strength. Since the start of 2009, his 46 ODIs have brought him nearly 1500 runs with three centuries and 72 wickets at less than 25 each with an economy rate of just 4.26 runs per over.

Bangladesh will be relying on him if they are to repeat their successes of the 2007 tournament when they beat India and South Africa, but if he slips up, Australia’s Shane Watson is lurking just behind him, hoping to become the first Australian to top the all-rounders table since Mark Waugh in December 1996.