January 1, 2013

Where does Sangakkara sit in the 10000 Club?

There is a French proverb that states that "to compare is not to prove"

There is a French proverb that states that "to compare is not to prove". At a time when so many great cricketers are nearing the twilight years, that proverb may remind us that it is almost impossible to compare cricketers from across the history of the game because there are just too many variables to factor in. So let's keep it contemporary and ask ourselves this question: is Kumar Sangakkara is the best of the "10,000 Club batsmen" of the modern era, bracketed alongside Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid? On one measure, the number of innings taken to get to the ten thousand run mark, the choice then comes down to Lara, Tendulkar and Sangakkara (195 innings) with Ponting at 196 innings. This sort of conversation is meant for pure debate. There can be no right or wrong answer, just an opportunity for genuine cricket lovers, hopefully liberated from jingoistic bias, to discuss the various factors in coming to their own conclusion.

Of the three batsmen who got to the magical figure in 195 innings, I would mischievously put Sangakkara at the top of the list only because he had the dual burden of keeping wicket for a fair chunk of his Test career, often standing up to Muttiah Muralitharan and having to concentrate on picking the variations. Using that measure, neither Tendulkar or Lara can claim that sort of fatigue although Tendulkar can rightfully lay claim to the burden of carrying India's hopes on his broad shoulders for 20 plus years. I suppose Lara and Sangakkara can also argue the same case, except that the sheer numbers and the level of adulation pale into insignificance when compared to SRT.

Both Lara and Sangakkara batted at No. 3 for most of their career while Tendulkar was a fixture at four. Does this mean that Tendulkar had it ever so slightly easier because he was that little bit more protected against the new ball? You could prosecute that argument I suppose, but it would be purely for argument's sake because it would be splitting hairs. Lara and Sangakkara generally had to bat without the added protection of Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman which might have put more pressure on them to perform.

A counter-argument might be that Tendulkar might have actually got to the 10,000-run mark even earlier if some of those runs had not already been scored by his peers. Imagine a small second-innings run chase when Sehwag knocks off the total singlehandedly - if Tendulkar had batted at three or had a less prolific opening team-mate, perhaps he would have scored a few more runs along the way to get him to that target before 195 innings. Similarly, Ponting too might have been disadvantaged by this because he played in an era when Australia regularly had only small totals to chase, so he might have used up a few of his 196 innings' in knocking off a dozen runs or so.

In terms of big scores, Lara is unquestionably the king of that jungle. He was the one most likely to dominate where he could peel off those massive individual scores. Sangakkara too has a reputation for scoring double-hundreds whereas Tendulkar took a lot longer to climb that mountain.

Of the players mentioned at the top of the article, let's take a look at their Test batting average when playing away from home. Some would argue that this might be yet another filter to determine their relative greatness. Tendulkar 54.74, Kallis 53.80, Dravid 53.03, Lara 47.80, Sangakkara 47.30, Ponting 45.81. Using that barometer, Tendulkar leads narrowly from Kallis and Dravid. Interestingly, of the modern era, Alastair Cook, Allan Border and Steve Waugh have the highest batting averages away from home. Can we draw anything from the fact that all three of them will be remembered for being tough battlers rather than thrilling strokemakers? Does succeeding away from home require a slightly different sort of mind-set and technique? Border and Waugh in particular faced some pretty useful bowling attacks in their day, before the DRS system that regularly reprieves batsmen these days.

To my mind, Ponting sits at the top of the list when it comes to match-winning hundreds in the first Test of a series. I haven't done any number-crunching to prove the point but I'm relying on my gut feeling when making this claim. His record of peeling off influential centuries to shape the direction of a Test series is phenomenal. Admittedly, he too played a lot of his cricket as part of a batting arsenal that was almost as good as it gets (Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist) and he was generally front-running because of the quality of bowlers he had in his team too. That is hardly his fault though, so I'm loath to detract from Ponting's greatness (as I am with Tendulkar) just because he happened to play with other high-quality players. In some ways, you can argue that it is to their credit that they maintained their hunger for runs when complacency could have been an excuse.

I still find it difficult to go past Kallis though. Enough has been written of his phenomenal record that requires no justification on my part except to say that we are unlikely to see the likes of him ever again. The modern game will probably never see someone as durable as him, playing all three forms of the game, bowling fast, catching at slip and batting for long periods. For sheer adrenalin and flamboyance though, Lara gets my vote. In the opposite sense, for purity of technique and defensive impenetrability, can we award that title to Dravid? His defensive technique was as much of work of beauty as Lara's parabolic swirl of the blade.

Back to my original thesis though; is there a case for Sangakkara being the best of the 10,000 Club? At a time when the retirements of great players are coming at an unprecedented rate of knots, with arguably Tendulkar, Kallis and Sangakkara not far away from that sad day too, are we being too churlish by even trying to compare geniuses? As much as I love debating that which cannot be measured by sheer numbers alone, I fear that even trying to separate such greatness is almost disrespectful to the legacy these fine batsmen will leave behind them.

"Comparison is the death of joy."
- Mark Twain

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane