One of the major factors in the enjoyment of any sport is the endless discussion that takes place, about the comparative merits of the players.It is possible only in athletics to say that the present day athletes are better than their predecessors, as the vast improvements in the health and stamina of the athletes and better equipment , allow for superior performance, as reflected as records being broken, with each passing year.
But it is felt that in respect of present day cricket, the players attract attention out of proportion to their real merit only due to media propaganda and also because, human psychology being what it is, this generation would like to believe that contemporary cricketers are the best who ever played. The images of better dressed cricketers appear everyday on the TV screens, and in glossy magazines. They are seen with glamour queens and they endorse consumer products ranging from cars to soft drinks, which earn them millions of rupees. Cricket aficionados of today are indifferent to the legends of yesteryear and react to the mention of their names with a patronising grin which seems to imply that those so-called ‘greats’ probably batted on easy pitches or perhaps faced bowling not of the same hostility as batsmen today encounter, and that only a sense of nostalgia attributes to them a stature they really did not possess.
A few years ago, Venkata Narasimham, while thanking a Wisden panel in nominating the top fifty cricketers of the last century, expressed similar views. While appreciating the efforts of the panel in nominating them, he also observed that new followers of the game generally seem to know only the shorter version of the game and are not sufficiently informed of the real cricket greats. Everyone in that panel of 100 experts drawn from different countries had only one name in common, at the top which was that of the Don. In Wisden’s list, Sobers is rated second. Gavaskar lands a place at no. 12 and Tendulkar is ranked no. 17. Venkata Narasimham says that this verdict puts the endless comparisons of all and sundry with Bradman, where it really belongs”— ‘in the “garbage bin”. He added that the ludicrous claim of some people that Tendulkar is even better than the “Don” may be easily dismissed as a joke-only that no one is laughing. Towards the end of his career Tendulkar had piled up records e.g. crossing the 10,000 runs mark as well as Bradman’s twenty-nine Test centuries. He had the advantage of age and frequency of more test matches on his side. Tendulkar did not score a single triple century in his entire Test career, and he scored only 5 double centuries. His run average in Tests was a pathetic 53.78, Bradman’s scored 12 double centuries, and two triple centuries. One of the 12 double centuries was less than a triple century by just one run. Bradman’s run average of 99.94 is about 38.07 runs higher than the average (of 61.87) of vogue. Then there is Pollock who is the next in line with 61. There are only three other batsmen in the sixties, Headley( 60.8), Sutcliff( 60.7) and Steve Smith 60. Tendulkar’s average of 53.78 is far below that of the averages of the first ten! Not many people know that Bradman once scored 100 runs from just 3 overs( in those days an over consisted of 8 deliveries) in 1931 in a district match in Australia. The 23-year-old Bradman completed his century in just 18 minutes . Bradman himself has narrated this in his book” Farewell to cricket”.
Then how do we go about to decide the best batsman ? In his rather delightfully written booklet ‘Between The Wickets’ Surjit Bhalla carries out an extremely complicated exercise involving several variables. He uses a method of standardisation bringing all players of all cricket playing countries to a common ground, making suitable adjustments for pitch conditions, weather, strength of either side in bowling and batting , and devising relevant indicators whenever necessary. His argument gains credibility as he steers clears of preconceived notions and analyses all factors objectively.
He develops a theory of weight index number for batsmen as well as bowlers whose veracity is irrefutable. What would come as a shock to all cricket enthusiasts in this country is that in the table listing the top fifty batsmen of all time there is no present day Indian batsman. In fact, only two figure in the list: Vijay Hazare at no. 31 with a win figure of 32 and Sunil Gavaskar at no. 33 with a win figure of 34( however nobody would deny that Sachin Tendulkar would have earned for himself a place in that list well above Vijay Hazare. Tendulkar who started his career in 1989 and Ricky Ponting who started his career in 2004 were not included by Bhalla as the list had been prepared in 1987 ! Not surprisingly Don Bradman comes first with a win figure of 952 with Jack Hobbs (832), George Headley (828) and Everton Weekes occupying the second, third, and fourth places. Other all-time greats who appear on the list, are LenHutton (716), Garfield Sobers (693), Neil Harvey (684), Walter Hammond (666), Allan Border (654), Clive Lloyd (648) and Greg Chappel, and Frank Worrell (639). To quote Bhalla ‘what is interesting is not that Bradman is the best all-time batsman, but the fact that he dominates other players in almost every category possible or imaginary; what is significant is that no amount of adjustments or juggling can change Bradman’s occupancy of his rightful chair. And again, as the British mathematician Hardy reportedly said , ” Bradman is a whole class above any batsman who ever lived; if Archimedes, Newton and-Gauss remain in the Hobbs class, I have to admit the possibility of a class above them( Bradman) which I find difficult to imagine”.
The opinions of other great cricketers vindicate the assessment of Surjit Bhalla as well as the later conclusions of the Wisden panel. Years ago when Vijay Merchant was asked his views about cricket, he remarked with a mischievous twinkle in his eye that we do not have a single batsman today like someone in his era who scored a century before lunch, another before tea, and the third century before stumps were drawn. He was of course referring to Don Bradman and his having scored 309 in a single day once as described below.
Lala Amarnath said that he considered it an honour to have once walked with the Don for toss. He quoted Jardine as having confessed that it was not easy to set the field for the Don, Lala added that he had bowled to great batsmen like Walter Hammond, Len Hutton and Denis Compton, but experienced trepidation when he bowled to the Don. Reacting to a remark that Bradman never played one-day cricket, Lala described it as a ‘silly remark’. He added that ‘I wish he had played one-day cricket. Cricket fans would have seen a level of batsmanship unknown to them! “Such was Bradman’s mastery that even test cricket was one-day cricket for him. He advised cricket lovers not to insult the Don by making silly comparisons.’
Really then there is no need to quote the views of everyone. All of them are unanimous in their verdict. Bradman bestrides the cricket world like a colossus.
When he had an average of 99.94 he announced his retirement after his last match. In that last innings he was bowled for zero. However as he had announced his retirement he did not play another Test just to achieve that feat, of an average of 100, as any other batsman would have.
Let us have a look at Bradman’s batting performance. What magnificent records they are.
a) First of all there is the mind boggling average of 99.94 (The next best average is only about 66.94)
(b) 29 hundreds in 58 innings. Ten of these were double centuries. One double century was 299, one run less than a triple century. Two were triple centuries;
(c) Most runs in a series, that is, 974 in 7 innings;
(d) Fastest 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000 and 6000 runs;
(e) Six centuries in six consecutive innings;
(f) There was no shot he could not play, but the pull was his favourite. He could even pull a ball going wide off the off stump; there was no bowler he could not tear apart.
(g) He wore no head guard or other protection even against the great Larwood who was hurling a blood red missile at him in the infamous Bodyline series. Larwood stated unambiguously that Body line was invented only to harm Bradman and prevent him from him from getting huge scores. in one test match in Headingly Bradman scored a century before lunch a second century before tea break and a third century before stumps were drawn i.e. 309 runs in a day, against a pace attack of Larwood, Bowes and Tate. He was out only the next day for 334 runs. This feat can never be achieved by any batsman as long as cricket is played.
There is a real ( not apocryphal ) anecdote about O’Reilly the great Australian spin bowler and Tendulkar. A few years ago, O’Reilly who watched Tendulkar bat wearing a helmet, reportedly told him,
” You are my grandson’s age, son. You are in Bradman’s league . So don’t wear that silly helmet . Don never wore one ! “
What justification do we have then to hastily consider any rising star, however impressive, equal to the Don, the only player to have a definite article before his name.
The players of today with unlimited access to big money, with all its sordid ramifications as we are witnessing now, the blind adoration of millions of fans who confuse patriotism with admiration or affection, sought after by gorgeous girls with little knowledge of the game, heavily padded and protected before going to bat as though going to battle, being retained in the team despite dismal performances have brought this ‘gentleman’s game’ to ignominy, shame and disrepute.
It is not mere nostalgia that makes us recollect memories of the kind of excellence the game may not see again—the devastating pull of Don Bradman (however he could play every shot with equal power) the powerful hook of Walter Hammond, the punishing cover drive of Sobers, the effortless on drive of Frank Worrell, the aggressive square cut of Everton Weekes and the delightful leg glance of Neil Harvey, just to name a few. Writing in” The book of cricket” Denzil Batchelor remarked that while Weekes used the cricket bat as a sledge hammer, Worrell used his bat as a sword and was therefore more of of a delight to watch.
Frank Worrell using his willow as a sword danced like an expert swordsman in the third test at Nottingham against England and scored 261 runs. As a member of the Commonwealth XI which visited India in 1950, he scored 161 at Madras, in a similar fashion.
What was the secret of their success? Discipline, dedication, devotion, a passion for perfection, humility irrespective of their own talent, a genuine admiration for their rivals, and above all a certain respect for the values and principles that represent the great game of cricket which places team spirit, patriotism and sportsmanship above self!