'Lara the greatest among his peers'
The panel - John Wright, Ian Chappell, Tony Greig and Ravi Shastri - had gathered for Cricinfo's fortnightly discussion The Round Table, hosted by Sanjay Manjrekar. Saturday's discussion, part of the new audio service, Cricinfo Talk, was debating the question, How good is the modern batsman?
The issue was discussed under the canvas of four trends: One, the fact that the 2006 Champions Trophy has served up only one score in excess of 300; two, that perhaps this was the golden age of batting pitches; three, that techniques were not being tested enough; and four, that averages belied sheer batting talent.
All four panelists immediately identified the change in the nature of Indian pitches during the Champions Trophy. While the prolonged monsoon yielded an under-prepared pitch in the earlier games at Mumbai's Brabourne Stadium, the last few matches at the other venues had ball dominate bat for an altogether un-Indian reason - bounce and carry.
Wright, the former New Zealand opener and India coach, noted how pitches today were marketed differently, and how curators were attempting to suit various conditions. Chappell and Shastri singled out Daljit Singh, the curator of the PCA Stadium in Mohali, for praise for his effective work on a pitch that "produced an even contest, and good matches" and was "the best" in India.
Shastri highlighted how the Mohali pitch had exposed India's batsmen - with bounce and carry, and some lateral movement - against Australia and how, as a result of a lack of sixes, India were forced to push for the ones and twos but failed to do so in the manner that Australia did.
Another factor raised was that of the one bouncer per over rule, which Shastri favoured. "It's a good rule, because it gives the bowler a chance to dictate terms and leave that doubt in the batsman's mind," he said. Noted Wright, "The front-foot play was diminished considerably. Batsmen needed to rely more on technical expertise, such as balance and shot control. Survival on flatter pitches is easier, but we saw with the bounce and movement than many batsmen struggled. It was quite unlike Indian conditions."
Greig summed it up - "It's simple: the pitches play up, the batsmen struggle" - while commenting on how batsmen weaned on flat pitches were suddenly finding unpredictable surfaces tough to handle. All four experts agreed that the Champions Trophy had exposed certain modern day batsmen.
In 2006, there have been 12 batsmen who averaged over 50, around three times the number of even a decade ago. So how does this square with the notion of declining quality? The consensus was that batsmen in the contemporary era were up against weaker bowling as against batsmen till the mid-1990s. Chappell was quick to point out that he would have included Mark Taylor and Michael Slater as the opening pair in an all-time Australian XI over Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, for their ability to dominate quality bowling attacks. He gave the example of Hayden, whose average soon after he debuted at the international level was in the 20s and who couldn't progress beyond a certain level. On his phenomenal return, notably in the series against India in 2001, Hayden averaged in the 60s and Chappell noted how this could have been because of the difference in bowling quality.
"Teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have diluted the bowling," said Chappell. "If you look back at the '90s, you had a more formidable bowling attack going up against batsmen. You had Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis operating in tandem, Allan Donald was there, Australia, as they've almost always done, had a formidable attack, and even West Indies had Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Today, that's not the case, as the pace just isn't there."
Pace brought up the issue of helmets. It was argued that today's batsmen relied too much on safety precautions. Wright, having played just a small amount of his cricket without a helmet, pointed to successful batsman like Gary Sobers, Greg Chappell and Viv Richards, who not only scored runs against very fast bowlers while batting without helmets, but also dominated attacks.
Chappell was emphatic: "I didn't ever honestly think that a bowler was going to bowl to hit me. We backed our instincts and our skills. The only way I ever thought I'd get hit on the head was by my own mistake, if I'd top-edge a hook back onto my skull." Greig stressed on how the batsman's courage was not being tested enough, and that certain aspects of batting had gone astray.
So how does one identify greatness? It's a feel that one gets from watching a batsman, was the consensus, and the statistics usually back it up. Shastri pointed out that while technique and ability were definite criteria, what mattered most was consistency.
The panelists were asked to name their greats, and the common names from the past included the two Richards, Garry Sobers, Graeme Pollock, for their ability to score consistently throughout their careers.
And so to Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting. The panel's choice was clear, Lara over Ponting. Sunday's face-off just got more interesting.
The entire Round Table will be webcast live on November 14.
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo