Matthew Engel and Philip Bailey
Had anyone but known it, there was a thrilling little contest going on at the end of the last English Championship season aside from the tight race to determine the destination of the 1995 title. Middlesex's last-gasp, one-run win over Leicestershire failed, in the end, to make them county champions. But it had an extra significance. That victory was their 434th in the fifty seasons of cricket that began in 1946 when the game resumed after Hitler stopped play. It was enough to squeeze them ahead of Surrey in the Wisden championship table of the past fifty years. Thus Middlesex can be declared county champions of the half-century in domestic cricket, with West Indies the world champions of the half-century
The race in Test cricket was almost as close as among the counties. Australia's series victory in the West Indies and their sequence of home Test wins at the end of 1995 took them very near to the top of the fifty-year Test match table. Three further wins anywhere in 384 Tests would have made the difference. Indeed, three strategic runs would have made the difference: if the result of West Indies' one-run win at Adelaide in 1992-93 were reversed and if Australia had won either of the two Tests - against West Indies and India - they have tied, then they could be declared post-war champions. Better luck next half-century.
The contest for third place was even tighter. At the end of the 1995 English season, England were fourth behind South Africa. But the four draws at the start of the 1995-96 series between South Africa and England meant the teams reversed places - through a statistical quirk. Because South Africa have played fewer matches, the four draws dragged down their win percentage more than England's.
The Fifth Test at Newlands, which South Africa won, does not count in this table, because it took place after New Year 1996 and is thus in the next half-century. Had it been held in 1995, South Africa would have been back in third place.
Both these tables have been worked out using percentage of wins as the fairest basis for determining the champions. But since West Indies have also lost a smaller proportion of their matches than any of the other countries, there can be no dispute about their dominance. Splitting the fifty years up into decades, the durability of West Indies cricket emerges again. They were the leading team of the second, fourth and fifth decades of the period.
But teams have to play each other to prove anything conclusively, and the international cricketing programme has been (and to some extent remains) very haphazard. For most of this period South Africa were absent; before that they did not play three of their six possible opponents. Australia did not deign to play New Zealand for almost 28 years after the very first post-war Test match in March 1946 (which itself was granted Test status only retrospectively); and West Indies did not play for almost 19 months between Frank Worrell's triumphal tour of England in 1963 and Australia's visit to the Caribbean in 1964-65. Had that great team been playing some of the weaker countries of the era more often, their position in the table could have been even more impressive.
And the sight of South Africa at the head of the table of the next decade (dependent wholly on two series against Australia) is enough to re-open the most achingly unanswered question of modern cricket. What would have happened if a team including the Pollock brothers, Richards, Procter and Barlow had played against Lillee and Thomson's Australia or the pace-led West Indies that emerged in the late 1970s? We shall not find out this side of Elysium.
England's record remains dismal. Although they were almost certainly the strongest team in the world for most of the 1950s, they cannot be considered as champions of any period, even if one turns the tables around and divides the era into conventional decades. Seen that way, the figures show that Australia were champions of the 1950s (30 wins out of 58 between 1950 and 1959 compared to England's 39 out of 83) as well as the 1940s; with West Indies on top in the 1960s and 1980s; and South Africa (on the basis of four wins out of four) leading Australia in the 1970s.
The 1990s are turning into the tightest decade of all. At the end of the 1995 English season, Pakistan would have been on top. Since then Australia have taken the lead (29 wins out of 62 to Pakistan's 20 out of 43). West Indies and South Africa are both within range.
The English domestic tables provide more reliable indicators in the sense that everyone at least plays the same number of matches - except between 1960 and 1962 when counties had the choice of arranging 28 fixtures or 32, which explains the small discrepancy in the number of matches played. No statistics can rectify the built-in handicapping system of the Championship caused by the absence of players at Test matches, though they can at least confirm some ancient grumbles about the weather: Lancashire are the only county to have drawn more than half their matches.
The points system was changed too many times up to the mid-1970s to be helpful, so percentage of wins, as in Test cricket, is the only sensible guide to merit. Some rather surprising features do emerge. The gap between the top three in the fifty-year table and the rest is so enormous that, even if Essex or Warwickshire should walk with the Championship for the next ten years, they would probably be unable to bridge the chasm. The eight teams from Essex in fourth place to Kent in 11th are fairly tightly bunched. Then there is another gap, before the next group of five. And it does come as a shock to find Nottinghamshire - champions twice in the 1980s - so far behind the other 16 established counties, with a win percentage not all that much better than Durham's. But their record between 1956 and 1975, when they averaged barely three and a half wins a year, was truly horrendous, even taking into account their brief flowering at the end of the 1960s when Gary Sobers arrived to inaugurate the age of instantly-qualified overseas professionals in county cricket.
This led to a much more egalitarian era and in the nine years from 1968 to 1976 nine different teams were champions; Yorkshire, who maintained their strict county-born policy until 1992, faded away. The record of the middle post-war decade, 1966-1975, reflects this. All but the bottom three counties are very tightly grouped, with only 27 wins separating the best, Kent, from the 14th, Essex.
Finally, there was another shift, as restrictions on imports slowly tightened again. In the past twenty years, only six counties have won the Championship. And although no one has come near to dominating the competition in the way Yorkshire and Surrey once did, there has been a clear distinction between the teams who played the game most combatively and the rest.
The five decades produce five different champions: Surrey, Yorkshire, Kent, Middlesex and Essex. And re-shuffling the figures into conventional decades produced similar results: Middlesex were champions of the 1940s, Surrey (naturally) of the 1950s, Yorkshire of the 1960s, Kent of the 1970s. When widespread overseas players brought about greater equality between the counties, Essex of the 1980s. So far, Warwickshire are the best of the 1990s.
But three teams emerge clearly as the best. Middlesex, Surrey and Yorkshire have, between them, won half the post-war Championships. But two of these teams have gone into eclipse, and it is Middlesex - where the leadership of Brearley and Gatting revived the successes of the Compton and Edrich days - who most justly embody the post-war era. The executives of the Test ground counties, excluding Middlesex, tries to band together last year, calling themselves The Big Five. Looking at these figures, it would be more realistic to talk about The Big Three. Or, if Middlesex really insist on being boastful, The Big One.