June 8, 2011

Who are cricket's future greats?

Are there batsmen and bowlers to replace Tendulkar, Kallis, Sangakkara and Steyn? And will they give rise to great teams as well?

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?

Top eight current bowlers (qual 30 wickets and avg under 28)
Bowler Matches Wickets Avg Strike rate
Dale Steyn 46 238 23.21 39.9
Stuart Clark 24 94 23.86 54.7
Mohammad Asif 23 106 24.36 48.7
Doug Bollinger 12 50 25.92 48.0
Steven Finn 12 50 26.30 40.5
Chris Tremlett 8 37 26.72 53.7
Graeme Swann 31 138 27.48 56.6
Darren Sammy 13 39 27.66 58.8

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?

Top 10 current batsmen (qual 20 innings and avg greater than 50)
Batsman Matches Runs Avg 100s/50s
Jonathan Trott 20 1863 64.24 6/6
Jacques Kallis 145 11947 57.43 40/54
Sachin Tendulkar 177 14692 56.94 51/59
Kumar Sangakkara 96 8307 56.12 24/34
Ricky Ponting 152 12363 53.51 39/56
Virender Sehwag 87 7694 53.43 22/27
Mahela Jayawardene 118 9620 53.14 28/38
Thilan Samaraweera 65 4479 53.32 12/26
Rahul Dravid 150 12063 52.44 31/59
Mohammad Yousuf 90 7530 52.29 24/33

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dave on June 11, 2011, 11:43 GMT

    Seriously, some of you people trying to compare a bloke with an average of 23, SR 40, with a bloke with an average of 32 and a SR of 60!? Even in Asia Steyn averages 23, Zaheer 33. In India, it`s Steyn 20, Zaheer 33. Take off the blinkers.

  • ruchin on June 11, 2011, 8:34 GMT

    One man who deserves a place before anyone else is MS Dhoni. He is probably the best captains of all times. He has won almost every big trophy with teams which were totally diverse. He is a man who as a team man delivers 4 times of a great bowler or a great batsman can deliver. His record proves it. He has won IPL, Champions trophy, T20 world cup, world cup, Top team in tests.

  • Vinay on June 11, 2011, 6:26 GMT

    Sad but VVS Laxman deserves more than a mention.Truly one of modern Indian cricket's greats,his knock at Eden Graden changed the way world saw Indian cricket.Also has scored heavily right through from junior cricket.

  • Jay on June 10, 2011, 12:14 GMT

    Another fascinating aspect of Greatness: Great Rivalries. We've seen many epic matchups in sports - Boxing: Ali vs. Frazier; Basketball: Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird; Tennis: Borg vs. McEnroe. Let's take Peter's tennis example. We saw a terrific Federer-Nadal duel at the French Open. Which raises a very intriguing question: Can the Swiss star truly be hailed as the "Greatest of All Time" (GOAT) when he can't even beat the Spaniard who is the "Greatest of Right Now"? Federer has 16 Grand Slams, most to-date. But Nadal leads 17-8 head-to-head. It's an anomaly! Then there's hot Djokovic, right on Nadal's tail with 4 successive wins, though the Spaniard leads 16-11 in their rivalry. Federer leads Djokovic 14-9. What a Great "Trivalry"! Any one could go on to become the GOAT (no insult)! But then, there are many (incl. Bud Collins) who hail Rod Laver as the real GOAT! That's a debate for another day. Still, I have to ask: Who is the real GOAT in cricket? Bradman vs. Tendulkar? Intriguing?

  • Dummy4 on June 10, 2011, 6:32 GMT

    Ur answer would have been Muhammad Aamer.

    But Alas!


  • Dre on June 10, 2011, 3:14 GMT

    @Jim1207. Steyn does not "rely more on his pace" he HAS pace, its a gift and he uses it ALONG with his first rate skills. Tait has pace, Lee has pace, Mohammad Sami has pace, Fidel Edwards has pace. Are they anywhere close to Steyn? Zaheer Khan being "more skillful" which is very arguable is not relevant at all. Who cares? The GREAT bowlers take more wickets at a better SR than other bowlers full stop and Steyn takes more wickets at a better SR than Zaheer Khan just about everywhere. So what if Khan "adapts" better on spinning pitches? And guess what..he doesn't have to adapt, they're HIS HOME PITCHES. Zaheer has played in more helpful SA conditions with Steyn and Steyn blew him away in terms of performances. His spell to Tendulkar where he beat the bat dozens of times will mask any of Zaheer Khan's spells (even spells where Khan takes wickets). This article is not to list ALL the great players but for you to suggest that Khan earns a mention alongside Steyn prompts my response.

  • Imran on June 10, 2011, 1:15 GMT

    What about MS Dhoni, Lasith Malinga, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Umar Akmal, Hashim Amla & Shane Watson?! They are surely match winners and are greatly talented!

  • bharath74 on June 10, 2011, 1:10 GMT

    @Rocket,Absolutely spot on!!

  • Harvey on June 10, 2011, 0:46 GMT

    I think that Cook is set for greatness. He is still only 26yrs old. Has already played over 60 tests and has 18 centuries. He could well still be playing in 10 years time. I still wouldnt hold him in as high regard as legends like Tendulkar and McGrath. But his figures will tell the tale in years to come.

  • J Ranjith on June 9, 2011, 22:25 GMT

    cyniket, I never said Steyn could not adapt well in spin pitches. I told Zaheer adapts better than Steyn. If Steyn keeps bowling in such surfaces, you would see where his bowling average would be. Zaheer khan developed as a good bowler only in the latter stages. I said at the moment who is better bowler. Just look at the world cup, who took wickets at regular intervals for team's win in same Indian pitches - Steyn or Zaheer? If Steyn plays more number of matches in sub continent his average would come down - He has an average of 37 in Sri Lanka too. Steyn relies more on his pace which would go down in few years, but Zaheer has already developed as a big threat for any batsman without any pace in the ball. Skillwise, Zaheer is better bowler than Steyn. Yeah, for you I agree, Statistically Steyn in better than Zaheer. Let us see how their careers end. But I do not disagree that Steyn would end up as one of the greats of this era.

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