Who are cricket's future greats?
Over the last 30 years cricket has been blessed with greatness, a trait currently in short supply. Indeed the game has been lucky enough to produce great teams and great players at the same time, a combination that cannot be taken for granted. Great cricketers can emerge without teams of equal standing, but it does not work the other way around. It is hard to imagine a team rising to greatness who lack players of the highest calibre.
Greatness sustains every sport because it reveals its possibilities. Then the execution itself becomes transporting. However, greatness in any arena is easier to observe than define. At once it is a state of mind and also an ability to turn the exceptional into the routine. Certainly it is not enough to play a few great innings, let alone just great strokes. It demands staying power, not flashes in the pan. Longevity is demanded at the door. Substance, too, is more important than style. A cricketer need not attain beauty to rank amongst the finest. Mind you, beauty need not be defined in purely aesthetic terms. To my mind Glenn McGrath was an immensely satisfying bowler to watch. Just that he was driven more by science than artistry.
In this year's French Open, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic produced some stunning strokeplay and extraordinary matches. Truly it was a shame anyone had to lose - the relentless Spaniard, the graceful Swiss or the savage Serbian. It was a privilege to watch these athletes and craftsmen playing at their peaks as they tried to secure a prestigious title. Contrastingly the women's section was dull, uplifted mostly by the performance of Li Na, a cheerful Chinese competitor with a remarkably short name. Of course women's tennis has also had its purple patches and fierce rivalries.
It is rare in any sport to find three players of the highest standard competing at the same time. In boxing it happened when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were competing for the heavyweight title, and when Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard were fighting for various belts. In another era all of these mighty pugilists would have dominated for a decade. Instead, they provided some of the most compelling confrontations any sport has known.
Since the 1970s cricket followers have been able to watch two great teams, or at any rate two great traditions, because the sides in question were by no means static. It is not quite accurate to say that the West Indian outfit that dominated the game from about 1977 to 1991 was a great side. Rather, it was several teams containing a handful of the best players the game has known, including umpteen speedsters, a commanding opening pair and a brutal middle order.
The same applies to the Australian line-ups that replaced West Indies at the top of the rankings. Under various captains Australia were well-nigh unbeatable from about 1995 to 2005. In that imposing period the team contained a powerful opening pair, a strong batting order, two brilliant glovemen, and an exceptional pair of bowlers. Like the Caribbean combination, the line-ups included not only great players but arguably the finest occupants of particular positions the game has known. Malcolm Marshall, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist cannot have been surpassed, whilst Viv Richards was outstripped only by a batting freak.
Cricket was uplifted by the sustained excellence and majestic ruthlessness of these predatory outfits. Even non-cricketers could appreciate their skills and supremacy. Sporting greatness reaches across the divide. Non-devotees can relish the sight of a dazzling ice skater or a breathtaking horse. Outsiders can admire the soccer played by Pele's Brazil and Messi's Barcelona. Indeed, it's the same with sportswriting: the best are readable regardless of their field because they tell us wider truths and paint universal pictures.
Although all have their strong points, none of the current teams is the equal of those two outfits. At present cricket knows not collective greatness. India have a brilliant batting order, South Africa have a stirring middle order, Sri Lanka have a strong top four, and England have balance and grit. Put these qualities together and greatness emerges. But perhaps it's just as well that these teams are not so much dominant as competitive because it means that the top position is there for the taking. Nowadays contests between the leading four or five sides are beyond prediction.
If greatness has for the time being vanished in the collective, it persists in the individual. India offer Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, whilst Rahul Dravid is still managing to look at once frail and indestructible. Jacques Kallis continues to pile on the runs for his country, Kumar Sangakkara has retained his glory, Ricky Ponting seems to be in decline but he too reached the pinnacle.
Most of these players, though, are approaching the end of their careers. In part, that is unsurprising. Greatness is not a tag to be bestowed upon every talented lad enjoying a hot spell. Rather it is hard-earned, the result of a long period of high productivity in the toughest company. Only in the rarest cases can a novice be saluted - after all, those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.
Tendulkar's greatness could confidently be acclaimed even in his teenage years because he had a settlement about him that indicated durability. Few sportsmen attain the inner peace that has been his natural mood. Tendulkar's turmoils have been superficial; it has been part of his secret.
But the game needs to find a new generation of players whose accomplishment excites the crowds enough that a buzz goes round the ground at the sight of them marking out their run or walking to the middle. Amongst bowlers Dale Steyn comes closest. At his sharpest he delivers sublime outswingers and conveys hostility, a combination that appeals to spectators but not opposing batsmen. Can anyone else stake a claim to greatness with the ball?
Amongst batsmen, quite a few average over 50 these days, and some a good deal more. However, 50 is no longer a reasonable dividing line because more runs are scored. Better to raise the benchmark to 55, and better still to rely on judgement. For instance, it is far from clear that Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook can, or indeed ever will, deserve the mark of greatness. That is not to belittle their skills or temperament. Cook has an unflappable outlook, a well-honed game and a depth of determination not even a farmer's genial grin can conceal. Trott has an ability to occupy both his own space and the crease for long periods. Both are expert practitioners. But does not greatness demand a little more?
Of the current England batsmen, Kevin Pietersen has the most obvious claims to greatness. Indeed, he set out to achieve greatness, while Cook and Trott set out to score lots of runs. And he made it. At his best Pietersen relished the biggest stages, cut a swathe through the best attacks. He seemed destined to last the course. Then he fell back, became self-indulgent. It was as if he had not quite understood the process and had surprised himself. After all he had not been a heavy scorer in his youth. Now cricket awaits a second coming, founded not upon will power but knowledge, not upon ego but experience.
As is stands, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers seem closer to meeting the criteria. Amla has Cook's serenity but a more developed game, whilst his comrade has the range of shots and aggressive attitude needed to dictate terms. It's hard to think of anyone else with the required credentials. Plenty of admirable batsmen could be mentioned, and a few handy bowlers, but greatness eludes them. Obviously retirees cannot be considered.
At present cricket has an abundance of contention and excitement but lacks greatness' allure. Can it fight its way through the current strictures? It's not to be underestimated. Greatness has emerged from all sorts of unlikely places - biscuit factories in Kandy, sugar plantations in the Caribbean, backyards of Cootamundra, coal-mining towns in Yorkshire. Still, it would be reassuring to see one of the current crop of gifted Indian batsmen or a young West Indian or a rugged Australian or an accomplished Pakistani or an untamed Lankan or a blazing Trinidadian join the ranks, just to confirm that it can be done.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It