January 29, 2012

Who's the pick of the modern greats?

Ponting, Tendulkar or Lara - who among these modern batsmen was the most dominant?

Ricky Ponting's remarkable resurgence in the last few months, culminating in a fighting double-century at the Adelaide Oval has caused discussion to veer away from his impending retirement to his likely legacy in the game.

There's no argument that Ponting deserves to be mentioned with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as one of the three most dominant batsmen of the era. But who is the best of that trio of superb strokemakers?

Tendulkar gains a lot of support because he's idolised in a country of more than a billion people, he was compared to Sir Donald Bradman by the man himself, and is on the verge of scoring a hundred international centuries, a remarkable feat of skill and longevity.

Ponting gains votes for his versatility as a batsman and his determination to battle hard in adversity. He has always looked to dominate opposition attacks but he also played one of the best-ever innings to save a Test match, at Old Trafford in 2005. Ponting hasn't shied away from a tough challenge and this has never been more evident than in his recent battle with age. Ponting may trail Tendulkar in discussions on the aesthetics of batting but he bows to no one in the matter of perseverance.

Meanwhile, in a classic case of out of sight out of mind, the now retired Lara hardly ever enters the conversation these days. To exclude him from the discussion is a mistake. He's the current world record holder for most runs in an innings - having regained the title - and next to Bradman, he's the scorer of the most "big" centuries in Test cricket. He has the only score of 400 in Test cricket, a triple-century to go with it, and another seven double-centuries. That's a remarkable feat of hefty scoring, especially when you consider that neither Tendulkar nor Ponting has a triple-century to his name.

This probably highlights an area where Lara is superior to the other two - his knowledge of how to amass big scores. Lara had an innate knowledge of which bowlers to target in order to score quickly and which ones were the most likely to endanger his existence. Consequently, he'd score quickly in spurts and steadily at other times. Fully capitalising on this knowledge he was able to achieve huge scores. Because he didn't put his wicket at risk by trying to score at a rapid rate when the best bowlers were fresh, he was able to maintain a fast run rate by feasting at the most opportune times.

This method also allowed him to maintain a similar run rate from the beginning to the end of his career, which not even Bradman was able to achieve. That is why Lara was able to perform the most remarkable feat of all - reclaiming the world record for the highest score in Test cricket ten years after originally setting the mark.

While the world has watched and waited anxiously for Tendulkar's 100th international century, Ponting has quietly beavered away in the background, restoring his reputation with persistent practice and hard-earned runs in the middle. The fact that those runs were increasingly more convincing in Adelaide and he was able to push on to score a double-century has turned the conversation from "When will he retire?" to "How long will he play on?"

There's no doubt Ponting has resurrected his career and provided himself with an opportunity to add to his glittering record. He'll never reach the statistical peak of Tendulkar, but while the Little Master continues to stumble with the defining century in sight, often because of a mental aberration, Ponting impresses with the strength of his mind.

Nevertheless, if you told me I could pick just one of that trio I'd take Lara. I loved the way he played spin bowling and I admired his determination to always do it "my way".

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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