May 1, 2012

The best batsmen I've seen

In the post-Bradman era, these players delighted spectators and deflated the opposition with their ability to dominate the most fearsome attacks

Over the years the question Down Under has been: "Who's the next Bradman?" I never saw Bradman bat, so I didn't eyeball the sun, but I have seen a galaxy of batting stars among those who have graced the Test arena during the past 50 years. The five best batsmen I have laid eyes on are Neil Harvey, Barry Richards, Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar.

To me, Harvey was the best Australian batsman since Bradman. He had grit and style and a great sense of adventure. He was dubbed "pocket dynamo" by Ray Robinson, doyen of Australian cricketer writers, and he lived up to that tag.

The first big match I ever saw was the day at the SCG in 1954-55 when Harvey blasted the England attack for an amazing unconquered 92 in a total of 184. Australia lost the match by 38 runs but he won me forever. I have never seen the equal of Harvey's batting, and I've seen most of the great batsmen of the past 50-odd years.

He had all the shots, the drive, cut, pull and hook. Dapper, and fleet of foot, he was an electrifying batsman who could carve up an attack. His average is less than those of some who played for Australia recently, but Harvey batted against some of the greatest bowlers to bestride the Test stage: South Africa's Neil Adcock, Peter Heine and Hugh Tayfield; England's Alec Bedser, Frank Tyson, Brian Statham, Tony Lock and Jim Laker; and the West Indians Sobers, Wes Hall, Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin.

The quality of the opposition counts when you are picking the best of the best. I fancy that if Harvey were playing today, using a modern bat against the weak West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Sri Lankan attacks, he would average round 75 in Test cricket.

When I first saw film of Sobers carving up a good Australian attack in the tied Test match at the Gabba in 1960-61, I couldn't think of a better batsman I had seen after Harvey. Undoubtedly the greatest all-round cricketer to draw breath, his batting alone places him in exalted company. His shot selection was terrific, and he played all the strokes imaginable, plus a few of his own.

The way he played Richie Benaud's legspin had me confused, because seeming half volleys from Benaud were either blasted to the cover boundary or blocked. I first thought Sobers was "resting" between hitting boundaries, but no, it had to do with how the ball arrived. He defended a hard-spun ball just above the eyes and smashed to the fence a delivery that was a little flatter, a ball with a trajectory below eye level.

In 1971-72, Sobers led a Rest of the World Xl Down Under, and the 254 he hit against Australia at the MCG prompted Bradman to declare that Sobers' knock was the best innings he had seen from anyone in Australia.

I was among the Australians who attended a rum punch night put on by Garry Sobers' West Indian team on the eve of the Adelaide Test in 1968-69. Sobers surprised everyone by telling the gathering that he would only be partaking in a few drinks that night, "... because tomorrow I am going to score 100". And he did. As Australia's 12th man I could sit back and watch.

I played a few matches against Sobers, but bowled just two balls to him. Playing for West Indies against South Australia in 1968, he caressed a ball from me through the covers for two runs; then in the Test match at the Gabba I bowled one ball to him, which he swept for one. Sadly, he got out up the other end on both occasions and I didn't get the chance to bowl to him again. I did get an idea of how Clarrie Grimmett felt when he bowled just the one over to Victor Trumper at the Basin Reserve when playing for Wellington against the visiting Australians.

The quality of Barry Richards' merciless attack on the best bowlers of his time was not strained. However, after 1970, fate decreed that his batting genius was mainly limited to belting the hell out of all comers in county cricket. Richards leapt at a chance to play Sheffield Shield cricket in 1970-71, whereupon he astonished everyone by hitting more than a thousand runs at the Bradman-like average of 109. 86.

Sobers surprised everyone by telling the gathering that he would only be partaking in a few drinks that night, "... because tomorrow I am going to score 100". And he did

He hit 325 in one day against a strong Western Australia attack - Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee, Tony Lock, Ian Brayshaw, John Inverarity and Tony Mann - with such timing and power that even the WA players stood in awe and applauded him. Lock conceded more than 100 off nine overs, unheard of in Australia, where the old England master spinner usually had the opposition batsmen in knots.

Richards was on 317 when Lillee bowled the last over of the day. The second ball was flayed over cover - one bounce to the fence. The final delivery was a short-pitched ball that rose to above chest height. Most mortals would have done well to fend it to the ground, but Richards went right back on his stumps and somehow swatted the ball over mid-on, one bounce into the crowd.

Bradman picked Barry Richards - along with Jack Hobbs - as one of the two best opening batsmen he had seen; better than Len Hutton, Geoff Boycott, Sunil Gavaskar and Arthur Morris. Some accolade.

That summer Richards batted one-handed in his last innings for South Australia. A ball from New South Wales speedster Dave Renneberg broke his right thumb early in his innings and he retired hurt, but he came back to bat for an over just before the captain, Ian Chappell, declared the innings closed. Richards faced up to legspinner Kerry O'Keeffe, holding the bat in his left hand. O'Keeffe bowled mainly topspinners, at a brisk rate, and Richards hit him through the covers with great power. It was a mix of arrogance and genius. The scourge of apartheid cost Richards a high statistical place in Test history.

Viv Richards was a purveyor of batting of unmatched savagery and mastery. He reminded me of boxer Smokin' Joe Frazier, for there was a confidence, a swagger about him, and an expectation that something special was about to happen.

He wore his maroon West Indies cap tilted back jauntily, as if daring any fast man to try to knock it off his head. Even in the white-hot cauldron of Test cricket, when he was about to face Lillee at his fiercest, Viv, the "master blaster", feared not. He appeared, chewing gum slowly, wheeling his arm holding the bat. He was the epitome of arrogance. He would take guard, look about the field as if the opponents were non-existent, walk a few paces up the track to tap it, and wander back to settle down over his bat. This was his time, his space. Beware. Even his chewing had an air of nonchalance and underlying menace about it. Man, you knew out there that this dude was hell-bent upon causing some serious damage.Whether it was calculated menace or not, it was always magnificent theatre and it always had the desired effect on his opponents.

In Adelaide in 1980, Australian fast bowler Len Pascoe figured he would unsettle Viv if he bounced him first ball. Then, as was normal practice for fast bowlers after a bouncer, he'd go for an outswinger or a yorker.

Pascoe's first delivery was a huge no-ball. Viv was suitably unimpressed; he was visibly angry, but while Lennie was yelling at the top of his voice, Viv held his tongue. Umpire Max O'Connell stepped in and told Pascoe to calm down. Viv walked towards them saying, "Hey Max, no man, let him be. He can bowl what he likes to me. Don't warn him. He's not bowling that quick."

Lennie bowled a yorker next. Viv shuffled into position and hit the ball straight back at him. It flew head-high with the velocity of a tracer bullet. "C'mon Lennie," Viv laughed, as the ball slammed into the fence. "Is that as fast as you can bowl?"

I had an agonising choice for the best of the most recent era, between Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Given his superb technique and consistency throughout his career, I give the palm to Tendulkar, the most worshipped cricketer in the world.

No one who has ever seen Tendulkar in full flight will forget the way he stands upright to the quickest of bowlers and punches them down the ground to the fence. He has always presented the full face of the bat in those classic shots hit in the arc between mid-off and mid-on. Mostly he is a model of orthodoxy, but he can improvise brilliantly. When in the mood and on the hunt, Tendulkar puts the greatest bowlers to the sword. He attacked Shane Warne more successfully than any other batsman in his time, but his attack on Warne probably brought the best of the legspin wizard's competitive instincts to the fore. They always had good battles, but on the slow wickets in India, Tendulkar won most.

At 18, Tendulkar hit a splendid century on the lightning-fast wicket in Perth. Some say he doesn't play the fastest bowlers as well as Lara did, but Tendulkar has scored a mountain of runs against all manner of attacks on all kinds of surfaces.

One day, as he watched a Tendulkar innings on television, Sir Donald Bradman said to his wife, "Jessie, come and have a look at this young man. He reminds me of myself batting." Tendulkar is idolised in India, much as Bradman was idolised in his time. And like Bradman, Tendulkar made batting look easy and made the relentless pursuit of runs his cricketing life's work.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell