[Update: 1/26/2011 Corrections were made after some errors were pointed out by the readers. The corrections are highlighted using superscript numbers. Thank you readers.]
Comparisons are inevitable. It’s an integral part of a sports aficionado’s life. That’s what makes following sports more thrilling, sometimes even draining as was the case with me. A good part of my adolescence was eaten up by the Sachin vs Lara and Agassi vs Sampras debates. Damn Andre – well, that’s a story for another day. We had fun; we had heated arguments with even the odd use of fists at times; diverted hours and hours of our homework time into these debates. What did we gain? Looking back, it’s easier to say nothing much, but that’s missing the point.
As exciting as comparisons can be, they are also tricky. Expressing your passion is one thing, but to disrespect players in the process is entirely another, especially when comparisons are done across eras. Sachin vs Sunny was not too uncommon a debate at home, and a typically tricky one. How do you compare the two? Do you ever win in this argument? Eventually, we would all agree that Sachin is better and then add Sunny was no lesser! Compromises…
The problem with comparisons across eras is that there will always be a certain bias on either side. The player from the past is often romanticized too much. My Dad would talk as if Richards never had a failure and that Holding was consistently unplayable all the time. The bias in favour of the present players is that, every generation wants to feel privileged that they have perhaps seen the greatest player ever. So whoever is the best of that generation would typically have staked a claim to be the greatest ever at some stage.
In Tennis, Laver was considered the greatest, then Sampras came along and just when Federer seemed to have sealed the debate, Rafa is asking a few uncomfortable questions. So long as the present generation player achieves a certain peak, the question is always begging to be asked. Think of all the sports that you know and check if there is an active GOAT debate about a current player taking place. My bet is that it should be happening in most sports. And with better coaching, fitness and technology the results are getting better and better as well. How do you make all these factors neutral and then compare across eras?
Sachin is at that stage of his career, where he has achieved all that’s possible for a modern day batsman to achieve. He’s arguably the most complete batsman Cricket has seen. When he eventually retires, he would leave behind a record that’s out of reach of a few generations to come at least. And given the way he’s worshiped in India and elsewhere, it’s hardly surprising that one topic is revisited every time he achieves a new landmark. He scores 35 Test hundreds, the question is asked. Gets past Lara, scores an ODI double hundred, completes 50 test centuries – on all these occasions this quintessential question is asked. Is Sachin the greatest batsman ever?
Unlike most other Sports, Cricket has been rather unfortunate not to be pondering about this question more frequently. For nearly 60 years, the question was hardly revisited. Perhaps, no other Sport has a benchmark like Bradman. In many ways, it’s appropriate that Sachin has triggered this question. If at all there’s any heir apparent to Bradman in Cricket, it has to be Sachin, and Don himself had provided an open endorsement for the same. In terms of being a national icon, in fact even playing a part in molding the country’s identity, their stature in the game, the value of their wicket to the opponent – Sachin merely seems to be a modern day avatar of Don.
Having said that, that’s where the indulgence should stop. To take it any more seriously is rude, crass and tasteless. To say that Sachin has played against a lot more countries, in more formats and has been equally successful across all, to tilt the argument in his favor is obnoxious.That Don Bradman is a statistical marvel is merely a post scriptum. He was the single most important figure in Cricket during his time. If Sachin played his part in making Cricket richer, Don made it bigger. He captured the imagination of people in all the cricket playing countries and beyond. For a nation finding its feet, he was a hero without an equal. He almost shaped their identity in many ways. In a country where you may spot a sporting hero in every alternate lane, Australia still vibrates with an unparalleled obsession to Bradman, after more than 60 years since he last played for Australia. How many of our younger generation even know CK Nayudu? As CLR James famously said: “Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman, must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period”
It’s a bit unfortunate that Bradman’s career is etched in our memory primarily in terms of his average. It’s a shame even. He was so far ahead of his contemporaries on so many dimensions. To score nearly 100 in every innings is stupendous enough. But to do that, not just in 54 Tests but in 234 First Class matches (95.14 is as incredible as 99.94) is inhuman. And his average was even higher in his non-FC matches played in North America too. So what if he played in only two countries and against 4 opponents, that’s all that he could have done. He couldn’t have time-travelled to future and played in 10 countries. Now let’s look at it backwards, If Sachin had to play against just 4 teams in 2 countries, would he have been as successful?
The best way to highlight the gulf is to look at how both of them have fared against their respective peers during their era. [Bradman .Sachin]. The top 5 in Sachin’s era are very close to each other. In fact one is even an all-rounder. Wasim Akram had this famous theory that if you get Sachin out, the match is nearly won. That is quite a compliment. But consider this: an entire team was built around the idea of attacking Bradman. Every strategy, every thought conceived for the tour was with a view to dismiss Bradman, as if the rest of the team didn’t matter. And the rest are no ordinary men either, they count some of the greatest of the game among them. Not that the strategy was entirely legitimate, at least far from sporting. Outside of match-fixing, Bodyline is perhaps the only controversy which shook the Cricket establishment completely. And despite that his record in that series is comparable with all the modern day greats’ career averages. His worst is others’ median. That’s the measure of the man.
If he had a maniacal appetite to pile up big scores, he had a Sehwag’ian (there you go, my bias in favor of the contemporary!) attitude to go with it. Even Sehwag hasn’t a scored a century in a session yet (though he came mighty close once), but Bradman nearly did that thrice in the same day. Now, hold your breath and think again – scored a hundred in the first two sessions and nearly one in the third as well (105, 115 and 89). If Brabourne felt a massacre for the Sri Lankans, what do you call this2? He even scored a 452 n.o in 415 minutes in FC cricket against Queensland. That’s almost a run a ball3. There you go, here was a batsman who was Sachin, CK Nayudu and Sehwag all rolled into one and then a little more.
He broke every possible batting record that there was (though Wally Hammond crossed his aggregate runs a few months after he retired1). What would have been the scale of his achievement if not for war intervening his career, is beyond mortals’ imagination. He was the first one to be knighted for his cricketing achievements alone. He wrote extensively on the game, in his own way liberated the game from the rigidness of the English methods, had his share of tiffs with the management. In fact, he even went on a cricketing tour to USA and Canada after his marriage, after one of his many tiffs with the administrators. The entire tour was marketed around Bradman, he was presented as the face of the game. He was dubbed the “Babe Ruth of Cricket”. In fact, the legends even met each other once during that tour. All this in a country which is as foreign to Cricket as BCCI is to transparency and integrity. Now, contrast that with Mohali when Sachin surpassed Lara.
So, the next time Sachin crosses another landmark, maybe when he completes hundred international centuries, let’s get overjoyed, indulge ourselves and celebrate him as the second greatest batsman of all time. Let’s draw the line there. Not an inch more.
The equivalent of 2 great batsmen; a highly successful captain; a national icon beyond parallel; Sir Donald Bradman – with due respect to Sir Garfield Sobers – is not merely the greatest batsman but perhaps the greatest Cricketer ever.
1 – had earlier presumed that Bradman didn’t hold the record for aggregate runs at the time of his retirement, thanks to@fromthegully’s comments below.
2 – erroneously mentioned that Don scored hundreds in each of the 3 sessions. Thanks again to @fromthegully for pointing it out.
3 – had presumed it was better than run a ball. David Barry points out in his comment below that it was scored in 465 balls.
Guest Article by Mahesh Sethuraman
Mahesh started out as India’s answer to Michael Holding and the work is still in progress 15 years hence ; wanted to be an Ilayaraja – but since he was more interested in cappuccino than kaapi, it reached a dead end soon; wanted to become a Roger Federer – his respect for him stopped him from insulting him anymore; Thought would become a Stephen Henry – only to find out that Snooker was too expensive to pursue. Then finally decided to settle for something less – did an MBA and is currently looking for funds to set up his hedge fund. Investors may tweet him @cornerd and so can others. He blogs at http://cornerd.posterus.com