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The ‘Had to settle for second’ XI: An all-time team of players who never topped the ICC rankings

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

An XI of the cricketers with the best-ever ICC Test player ratings to never reach No.1 in the world rankings.

Compiling an all-time world XI normally allows you to pick from the best players across eras. So for a change, we thought we’d restrict ourselves to only the players who were never the best in the world, at least according the ICC’s rankings.

The below team consists of the players with the highest-ever ratings in both the batting and bowling departments to never top the ICC world rankings.

David Warner

A career complete with its fair share of controversy has nonetheless seen David Warner establish himself as one of Australia’s greatest opening batsmen. An average of just over 48, 24 hundreds and a high score of 335 not out are all impressive, but it’s only when you add in Warner’s tone-seting, pressure-transferring strike-rate of 72.68 that his brilliance truly reveals itself.

However, despite being 46th in the ICC’s all-time batting rankings, Warner has never been higher than fourth in the world at any one time. His career has coincided with the big four, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Joe Root, who have tended to hog the top spot recently. But on the date of Warner’s best rating, December 13, 2014, it was actually Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and AB de Villiers above him in the list.

Cheteshwar Pujara

Generally a No.3, we feel Cheteshwar Pujara can do a decent job seeing off the new ball, and should complement Warner’s belligerence perfectly. The unshakeable Indian is on a one-man mission to make blocking cool again, and has stonewalled his way to two consecutive series wins in Australia.

His best rating came back in 2017, when his 888 points saw him sit in second, but with Steve Smith at his absolute best, he was still a distant 59 points off top spot.

George Headley

Known as ‘the Black Bradman’, George Headley was a West Indian great and one of only five men in history to make 2,000 Test runs at an average in excess of 60. His conversion rate is also unmatched, with the Jamaican converting all but five of his 15 fifty-plus scores into centuries.

He holds the somewhat backhanded record of having the highest-ever rating of a player to never be No.1 in the world. And that’s the fault of, well, the White Headley, with the Don on 957 rating points on January 25th, 1948, more than any other player in history, when Headley reached his own high of 915 points.

Wally Hammond

Extend the cut-off to 2,000 Test runs at an average in excess of 58, and Wally Hammond joins Headley on an only fractionally less exclusive list, featuring eight players. Hammond sits just behind Ken Barrington as the player with England’s best runs per dismissal, and has 22 tons and a best score of 336 not out.

But like Headley, he had the misfortune of coinciding with the best there’s been, and when Hammond achieved his career-best rating of 897 points on April 4th, 1933, the Don was just the other side of 900.

Kevin Pietersen

One of England’s greatest, a player you couldn’t take your eyes off, on and off the field, and a batsman capable of doing things and playing innings no one else could. Kevin Pietersen enjoyed a career to remember, even if some England fans think he should have been allowed to carry on just a bit longer, but one high he didn’t reach was No.1 in the ICC Test batting rankings; perhaps fitting for a player numbers alone could rarely do justice to.

Pietersen is one of only 32 men to have a career-best Test batting rating above 900, but he still only managed to reach as high as third in the batting rankings at any one time. On June 1, 2007, both Mohammad Yousuf and Ricky Ponting exceeded KP’s top rating of 909. It’s not easy being him.

Rohan Kanhai (wk)

It was a struggle coming up with a wicketkeeper. Rohan Kanhai sits just outside the top 50 of the overall best-ever rankings, and tenth in this list of the best ratings without ever being No.1. He was also rarely a gloveman, filling the role in just three of his 79 Tests, averaging 24.50 compared to an overall mark of 47.53. But he’s just about the only candidate, so he’ll have to do.

For his batting ability alone the swashbuckling West Indian is a worthy selection, forming part of the first great side to emerge from the Caribbean. But when he reached his own personal zenith of 875 points on August 26th, 1963, his compatriot Garry Sobers was occupying the top spot.

Kapil Dev (c)

India’s greatest ever fast bowler is also, according to the ICC’s rankings, the best ever bowler to never be the best bowler in the world. Despite having eight hundreds and 434 wickets, he was never the No.1 all-rounder in the world either, so he fits nicely.

He reached No.2 in the bowling rankings reasonably early in his career, but 877 rating points after taking 7-56 against Pakistan in January 1980 was as good as it got, and at that point Ian Botham just pipped him to top spot.

Ryan Harris

In a way, Ryan Harris was the spiritual successor of another member of this XI, Stuart Clark, with both being players who had their careers cut short by circumstances outside of their control. The right-armer, nicknamed Rhino, only played six more Tests after plundering 46 wickets at 19 in two Ashes series inside 12 months, the second of which was a 5-0 whitewash, a rubber dominated by Mitchell Johnson.

He bowled through significant knee pain to earn Australia a dramatic series victory against South Africa, securing the No.1 team ranking in the process. But the No.1 bowling ranking always eluded Harris, with his rating after that performance against the Proteas of 870 points just out done by Dale Steyn’s 898 points.

Stuart Clark

We had a choice between three bowlers tied on 863 points without reaching No.1 in the world. Australia’s Richie Benaud was initially appealing because he could balance the attack, but then we discovered he was the No.1 all-rounder in the world at one point. That left Makhaya Ntini and Stuart Clark, and though the former is undoubtedly a more legendary bowler, the latter’s high rating is more interesting, so we went with him.

Despite only playing 24 Tests and finishing with fewer than 100 wickets, Clark had a career to remember, starring in Australia’s 5-0 whitewash over England in the 2006/07 Ashes with 26 wickets at 17.03. It was after a cheap three-for against West Indies in 2008 that his rating reached its best, but at that point he was only third behind Dale Steyn and Muttiah Muralitharan.

Rangana Herath

The left-armer with more Test wickets than any other spent a large portion of his career in Muttiah Muralitharan’s retirement, before emerging from Murali’s shadow to become Sri Lanka’s second-greatest match-winner. His best rating of 867 points came after a 13-wicket match haul against Zimbabwe in 2016, but Ravichandran Ashwin, on an even 900, occupied top spot at that point.

Courtney Walsh

The great West Indian quick equalled Ryan Harris and Rangana Herath with his best-ever rating, but never got higher than third in the world rankings. He first claimed bronze in 1990, and his best rating came in 2000 after claiming 4-51 against England, but in an era of greats, he couldn’t quite crack the top two. Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock were above him at the turn of the century.

The ‘Had to settle for second’ XI

1. Cheteshwar Pujara
2. David Warner
3. George Headley
4. Wally Hammond
5. Kevin Pietersen
6. Rohan Kanhai (wk)
7. Kapil Dev (c)
8. Ryan Harris
9. Stuart Clark
10. Rangana Herath
11. Courtney Walsh


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