'Lara the greatest among his peers'
What defines greatness in a batsman? Is it the weight of statistics or the ability to score runs in all conditions? In the concluding part of this Round Table discussion on modern batsmen, Sanjay Manjrekar asks John Wright, Tony Greig, Ian Chappell and Ravi Shastri to pick their greatest.
Sanjay Manjrekar: Are pitches all over the world starting to look similar and is that the one real worry as Greg Chappell has said before? Tell me John, India in South Africa in 2003; if the pitches were typical South African pitches with more bounce and life would India have reached the final rounds?
John Wright: It would have been more difficult; particularly at the Centurion, where the wicket was a totally different strip to the one that we played the unofficial test match on. Those wickets definitely suited us and we were definitely pleased.
SM: Yes, that is the challenge...but let us be practical here; finally everything is going to be dictated by television. While coming here I was talking on the phone to the people who market the television rights and for them, it's a 100-over match that they want. Anything less than that, they lose money big time. So the pressure on the administrators is so intense to make sure that you get pitches that ensure that 100 overs are bowled in a test match.
Ian Chappell: The pitch that India played Australia on provided a terrific contest and it almost lasted 100 overs. What I don't understand is that when you've got Daljit Singh in Mohali, why do you bring in someone from the outside? There's a problem in the pitch; we bring in someone from overseas. Perth bounces so let us get the Perth soil and put it in. It works in Perth because it suits the Perth climate. Let us stop trying to beat nature. We're stupid enough to do it in other areas but in cricket you can't beat nature. There are obviously Indians, Daljit Singh is one we keep coming back to, that know enough about Indian pitches. If somebody's got a problem in India why not refer to him, why do you have to fly someone in from another country who hasn't much of a clue about the local conditions of this country?
SM: Final point on this subject, 12 guys averaging over 50 in 2000, is that going to be a trend now? Ricky Ponting has already got 30 test hundreds, Sunil Gavaskar it seems took a lifetime getting to those hundreds; we saw the work he put in getting to each and every one of them. We thought that this record might be difficult to beat but for Ricky Ponting it has been like a walk in the park so far. He might even end up with 40 or 45 hundreds, so like Tony said, is this going to be a temporary phase or should we get used to good batsmen getting 40-45 hundreds?
Ravi Shastri: It might well be a temporary phase. If you get a couple of good bowlers coming through the ranks, then there'll be a contest.
SM: Good bowlers on flat tracks, with television continuing to rule the game?
Tony Greig: You can't allow that to happen, you cannot allow television to dictate the nature of the pitches.
SM: Well it is actually the viewers dictating.
TG: No, that'll make the game boring and predictable. There are all sorts of things, there are the incentives we haven't even spoken about, about what these guys are getting these days, they're literally putting superannuation away. By the time they finish playing they won't have to work again. They can go and do anything they like. There are so many other factors; television is the be all and end all as of now revenue wise, it may not be long before that changes.
SM: Do you think the viewers need to get more demanding?
TG: Don't think that going in for longer and getting the 100 overs is what is going to get the ads, because believe me, 20-20 has arrived and for me as much as people don't like it, more and more Mr. Average out there is going to want shorter forms of cricket.
SM: And also the wickets break, I mean a commercial break between wickets is worth 2-3 overs, so maybe 20 wickets falling in a day is not such a bad thing after all.
RS: Sanjay just coming back to the bowling issue which you've just said is temporary. I don't see bowling improving drastically in the next decade or so and the simple reason for that is too much one day cricket. Now, you just see the amount of one-day cricket that has been played in the last ten years and it really plays on the fast bowler. If he has to play test matches and then play one-day cricket and travel all over the place, you're not going to get too many real quality fast bowlers.
SM: Most of the bowlers today are talking about bowling in the right area. That means batsmen know that everything is gong to be around off-stump. There will not be too many different lines of attack or different kinds of swing bowling...
TG: We can fix that. Let's start to swing the ball a bit more, let's get the two-piece ball back, let's get back swing and pitch it up a bit more, let's see how they handle that.
RS: You talk about bats getting lighter; why not meddle with the weight of the ball? Make it lighter or heavier to ensure a better contest.
SM: John do you think that if we have a stipulation on the weight of the bat and bring back the two-piece leather ball, it will ensure a better contest between bat and ball?
JW: Well, don't like a lot of rules. I think batting is going to continue to dominate. There is a lot of cricket being played and it's easier to bat and play a lot of cricket than it is to bowl. You're going to have to keep a lot of world-class bowlers fit all the time and that is pretty difficult.
SM: Yes, we've lost one 90mph bowler and there are just a few of them left, in fact they're almost becoming extinct.
JW: You play county cricket at the end of the year and that's the best time to get your runs; in August and September, because all those bowlers are knackered. There are very few attacks in world cricket right now that are fresh at the start of a test match.
SM: So basically batsmen are going to have a good time for a length of time?
IC: You're talking about more centuries or so. Have a look at the number of matches- it stands to reason more that there will be more number of centuries because guys are playing 150-160 test matches, where at one time 100 used to be unusual. One of the things I enjoyed about the Champions Trophy is what we saw with Ponting in the semi-final against New Zealand. Usually, Ponting when he gets to 20 or 30 he usually makes a 100 and the opposition captain is resigned to it. And easy runs are given away which really pisses me off because it changes the dynamics of the innings. But then suddenly you saw Ponting get out at 58 because there was still something there in the pitch. That's the way I remember the contest of cricket. As a batsman, when you got 30 you rarely thought that this could be a hundred but now you can almost sense that this is what the batSMen thinks and even the fielding side thinks along the same lines. If there was an even contest between bat and ball that wouldn't be happening. If guys get a hundred they should be earning it.
RS: Plus as a captain it forces you to think and strategise. It's not one-way traffic where the bat is dominating the ball. As a captain you want to be ahead and on the ball with a Plan A, B and C happening and that is definitely more fun watching.
SM: Let's move on and talk on our final subject of today. As a batSMen what defines greatness? When you say this batsman is great what are the qualities and characteristics that you are looking for? Is it technique, natural skills, ability to handle pressure or is it just being consistent? We've got contemporary greats here; Tendulkar, Lara, Waugh, Dravid, Ponting, Inzamam and Jaques Kallis. I want you pick your greatest batSMen in this era. So John, first of all what do you think makes a batsman great and who's your choice?
JW: For me it's the look, you just see it and think, he's a great player.
SM: So you don't look at the figures?
JW: Well, hopefully that bloke who looks so good is not averaging 10. There are three great players that I saw during my career. There are players that were great or good or very good, whatever you would like to call them -- Miandad, Gavaskar, Border, Kallicharran, Zaheer, Boycott--but to me true greatness was something that I looked at and said "wow, you don't see that very often", and their figures bear it out. I watched Barry Richards play three innings- two for Kent and one when I played against him for Derbyshire. He didn't play much test cricket but to my mind he was great; and so was Viv Richards and Greg Chappell. They were the three guys who I thought were great. There were a lot of names on that list but for me it was the look and out of this lot it's Tendulkar and Lara. SM: And which one of the two?
JW: No, I don't see it that way, I really don't.
SM: I mean, in this lot, Tendulkar and Lara, if you had to pick one?
JW: Well, am not going to.
SM: Ian, I know for you also it's the look; a Mark Waugh will always be better than a Steve Waugh for you.
IC: Obviously, it gets down to people you like watching. As John said, you don't get a player who looks like a champion and then find out that he averages 10.
SM: Ok, then tell us what you look for. First the 'look', then the big matches and the players who perform in them?
IC: Guys who can take control of the game and then change the game in a short period of time. As a captain, the guys who kept me awake at night were guys like Sobers, Graeme Pollock and Viv Richards--a guy who could get a big score and get it quickly. Guys like Geoffrey Boycott couldn't keep me awake at night, in fact he put me to sleep during the day. I figured that if he got 150 he took so long that it made our chances of saving the game much better. Another reason why I don't classify Geoffrey Boycott as great was that he was a selfish bastard; he never played for the team, he always played for himself. I heard Bill Lawry call him a great batsman one day, and I said to Bill as he came off the field, "that's rubbish Bill, he wasn't a great player". He hemmed and hawed and I said, "Bill, Gary Sobers averaged bloody 58 and he played every second for the game of cricket and not for himself. Boycott played every single second of his career as a batsman for himself and he averaged only 47. What are you talking?"
SM: He's a completely different person now, totally selfless! But Ian, from this lot, Tendulkar, Lara, Waugh, Dravid, Ponting, Inzamam and Jaques Kallis, who would you pick?
IC: Out of that lot I would put Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting in that category.
SM: Will you also not pick amongst them?
IC: I will. The point I want to make is that Tendulkar and Lara started quite a lot time before Ponting and it does take a long time to establish yourself as a great player. And whilst I think that Ponting has now surpassed Tendulkar and Lara, that has got a bit to do with age. While I do think that Ponting has entered that category since he hasn't been around for that long, I'll pick from the other two. And if you pointed a gun to my head and said pick one, I'd pick Brian Lara with the proviso that his brain is in gear, because when his brain is in gear I love watching him.
SM: That's an anagram isn't it, Brian and brain?
IC: I mean, he has had his brain in gear a lot, it's just for that short period when he went a bit crazy.
SM: Tony, you're a global cricket follower, you've been so for the last 25-30 years. Your thoughts?
TG: Well, Ian's pretty much said it all, I mean Sobers and Graeme Pollock were the two that pretty much stood out for me. They were pretty much unbelievable and it's pretty hard for me to separate the two but I would go with Sobers because he was pretty much the all-round cricketer. But if it came down to these guys I would go with Lara as well, again with a proviso.
SM: Your definition of greatness?
TG: For me, it's sort of, just the natural thing. It's like a fielder, when you see him run across the turf and pick up the ball, it ends up in the middle of his hand. He doesn't fumble it. I mean guys like Clive Lloyd, Colin Bland, when they chased the ball, for some reason it went into their hands, and out like a rocket. It's just a natural thing for me. Lara, well for me Murali said it all, he reckons he is so far above others in his ability to play spin that it doesn't really matter; that pretty much says it all for me.
SM: Ravi, your definition of greatness?
RS: You mentioned technique, natural skills, ability to handle pressure and ability to score in different conditions meaning adaptability. I would add two more things; consistency and your career, the span of your career. You can't do it just for one or two years. To be rated it should be a decade, a little more than a decade. And one key word that's missing -- the ability to dominate attacks. Ian mentioned Geoffrey Boycott and like he said, he could score a lot of runs but could never dominate the attack. From this list I would pick Tendulkar and Lara. Ponting too has definitely come in there now but he still has a long way to go, maybe another 5-6 years of cricket. But between Tendulkar and Lara, you would have to give it to Lara because he's dominated more often than not over a span of time. Tendulkar has had his years of brilliance, 96-97 against Australia. Now that is the Tendulkar you would remember; not only did he score hundreds but it was dominating.
SM: He dominated the attacks when the attacks were better.
RS: Yes, when the attacks were better and it had an impact on the series. India won that series against Australia. Now Lara, playing in a weak West Indian side, I mean this is the weakest West Indian attack in along time; yet he has still gone out and dominated strong sides like Australia or any other country. Now like Tony mentioned about Murali, I mean to bat that way with such consistency. He batted for long periods to get those runs and he was looking to attack Murali. So that ability to dominate is perhaps the reason why Viv Richards will be the greatest ever.
SM: Is that why there is still perhaps a little question mark over Ponting, his ability to dominate a Murali, or say have a very good series in India on turning tracks?
RS: Yes, if he has to reach that level, he has to play better in the subcontinent in test matches on turning tracks.
SM: That's it on this discussion on Cricinfo Round Table. Hope you enjoyed it, see you next time. Thank you gentlemen for your time.