June 20, 2012

Were things really better back in the day?

While nostalgia can skew anyone's judgement, it's just as much a fallacy to think that all aspects of a sport are always improving

It's an Olympic summer and West Indies are touring England. What's the connection? The parallel stories of those two sporting tournaments will reignite one of the oldest debates in sport: Are today's sportsmen better than they used to be? Has sport improved? Or do individual sports have genuine golden ages that cannot be sustained indefinitely?

The biggest name at the London Olympics, of course, will be Usain Bolt, the joyful Jamaican genius. Bolt confirms a trend that exists across all "stopwatch" sports (such as athletics and swimming). When sport can be accurately measured, the trajectory is nearly always the same: mankind continues to get better. Though we are improving at a slower rate than during the early, heady days of professionalism - women have knocked an hour off the marathon world record in just 45 years - the evidence remains clear: we continue to inch towards what Stephen Jay Gould called the outer wall of human endeavour. If an old, retired athlete said that his generation was better than Usain Bolt's, fans of the modern Jamaican hero could just point to the improving times in the record book.

But in sports (such as cricket) where craft and skill make at least as great a contribution as physical speed or strength, the argument becomes more complicated. I recently chatted to a Test cricketer from the 1960s who bridled at a conversation he'd had in which a modern player said that Jacques Kallis was better than Garry Sobers.

Resolving such arguments is very hard because the evidence is so sketchy. By definition, the great players from different eras never share the same pitch. Even the component elements of greatness are hard to compare across generations. Speed guns have only been commonplace in recent years. Jeff Thomson recorded a ball at 99mph but most of his fastest spells weren't clocked. No wonder why, when asked to adjudicate between two fabulous players from different eras, many leading pundits retreat behind the defence that such comparisons are impossible to make.

It may be impossible, but it's still great fun. And this summer, with West Indies in England, provides another irresistible opportunity. For many of us who fell in love with cricket in the 1980s, Test cricket was dominated by the fearsome quartet of West Indian fast bowlers. Indeed, there were many more than four. The West Indies omitted a team of fast bowlers who, taken together, would probably have been one of the best bowling attacks in history.

It was a question I put to Sir Vivian Richards, who I've been sharing a commentary box with during this England v West Indies ODI series. He said that playing in county games against West Indian fast bowlers who couldn't even get into the West Indies team could be a seriously challenging experience.

Surely, looking around at the quick bowling talent on offer now in 2012, there has clearly been a relative decline in the number of genuine pace bowlers? Ravi Rampaul is a skilful, intelligent opening bowler, but he doesn't belong to the same tradition as Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall.

This theory has never gone down well with current players. The counter argument is often put forward by Alastair Cook, who thinks it's not true that fast bowling has declined since the 1980s and 1990s. "I've never agreed with that argument, seeing as I'm the one who has to go out and face the new ball," he said recently. "There are plenty of quicks around now."

Practice is only one part of the equation; talent also plays a central role. And the globalisation of modern sport means that talent moves around between sports more than ever

Steve James, the perceptive cricket writer and former opening batsman, uncovered another interesting perspective from the bowling coach Kevin Shine. Shine believes that modern bowlers are able to sustain their pace over a longer period. The former greats might have been just as quick on their day, but Shine believes modern training allows today's fast bowlers to bowl at their peak for more sustained spells of hostility.

Modern batsmen, of course, like to agree. When I played with Scott Styris in 2005 for Middlesex, the New Zealander argued that cricket suffers from being in awe of its past. Given that everything else improves, why shouldn't cricket, he asked? Historians call this "golden ageism", the delusion that the heroes of the past always stood taller than today's. Nostalgia can skew anyone's judgement.

But I am unable to agree with people who have an ideological commitment to the idea that the standard and quality of every professional sport inevitably improves. Practice is only one part of the equation; talent also plays a central role. And the globalisation of modern sport means that talent moves around between sports more than ever. In the 1970s, it was almost inevitable that a young, sports-mad West Indian kid would want to take up cricket. Now he might just as easily be tempted to pursue a career in basketball, soccer or - like Bolt - athletics. The way in which the sum total of athletic talent is divided between the rival sports is constantly changing.

There is more of a free market in global sporting talent. As a result, each individual sport does not have the same talent input from generation to generation. Look at men's tennis. To have one player as good as Roger Federer is wonderfully lucky. To have Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic ahead of Federer in the rankings is astonishing. We can be pretty certain that there will be times in the future when it is much easier to win a grand slam than it is today. This really is a golden age for men's tennis.

The same argument should be made about fast bowling in the 1980s and 1990s in Test cricket. The miraculous crop of West Indian quicks, Wasim and Waqar, McGrath and Gillespie. It was an unnatural coincidence of elite talent.

Let's be honest. Cricket has got better in many respects - especially fielding and power-hitting - but fast bowling isn't one of them. That's not disrespectful to today's batsmen. It's an inevitable reflection of the way elite sport has changed.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on June 23, 2012, 4:48 GMT

    (Cont) Cricket has moved on, over the decades, from a bipolar world to a multipolar one: from a restrictive duopoly to a more inclusive, freer system. The shift in power has propelled it into the world's second-most popular sport! Inevitably it's brought in Money & Glory, like in so many professional sports. MS Dhoni & Tendulkar are currently listed in Forbes' "The World's 100 Highest-Paid Athletes" along with (yes) Federer, Nadal, Djokovic & Bolt! Also, Sachin (2010) & Dhoni (2011) were recognised in TIME Magazine's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World"! Plus TIME ran a daring story "The God of Big Things" (May 21) in which Bobby Ghosh (editor-at-large) describes Sachin as "may be the world's greatest athlete, period": He surpasses superstars in US football, hockey, basketball & baseball! OMG! Remember the Americans once regarded cricket as a "crazed English joke"? What a change! With all this outside recognition, isn't it time to call it progress, Ed?

  • Jay on June 23, 2012, 4:36 GMT

    Reputed cricket historian David Frith writes: "It is tempting to mark down Bradman and Tendulkar as the finest two batsmen who ever lived"! Sportsmen, and often their eras, are defined by the records they hold. The great Don is immortalised by his 99.94 batting average. And now Sachin by his 100 international tons. Take Ed's "golden age" of tennis: Federer has a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles with Nadal (11) & Djokovic (6) in hot pursuit. Likewise, in Sachin's era we saw him in an intense batting rivalry with Ponting, Kallis, Lara & Co. Also there was a heated bowling rivalry, led by the great spinner Murali (record 1334 international wickets) with Warne, Kumble, McGrath & Co. Cricket's golden age? As Frith puts it so patently: "The 'argument' can never be settled absolutely. That's cricket for you"! Whatever the debate, there's one worldview for sure: Cricket has come of age - possibly golden - as measured by money, glory & popularity! (TBC)

  • Pan on June 22, 2012, 16:06 GMT

    Although it's possible that the very best of the last generations might have been better than the greats of now, I reckon the standard of a typical, average player has probably rocketed in recent years.

    There's so much more coaching, practice aids & biomechanics now that given the right training & coaching, you can probably find someone with less natural talent than a typical pro from the 50's or whenever, could probably develop into a better player easier just by working hard rather than natural ability. This only works with mortals, however. The true greats always shine through.

    I don't know if players really were better "back in the day" or not, but without helmets on uncovered pitches probably does make a fast bowler much scarier.

  • Jay on June 22, 2012, 4:05 GMT

    Ed - Not so fast! The "biggest name at the London Olympics" arguably could be Michael Phelps (not Usain Bolt): He has potential to become the Greatest Olympian ever! The Yankee swimmer - already the best ever in his sport - owns 16 medals (incl 14 gold). His goal: Get 3 more to break the all-time record of 18 held by former Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina! For elite sportsmen, the name of the game is to improve & break records: There's always another mountain to scale! For Bolt - already the fastest human ever - the biggest challenge is to crash his record 100-m speed of 9.58 seconds! It's pushing the limits of human potential: Moonshot! If he does it, Bolt could vie with Phelps for "biggest name" honours! Just to think that the Jamaican as a child loved cricket & wanted to become a pace bowler! Cricket vs Track: He made the right choice. He is the better for it. So are the Olympics. For superstars like Bolt & Phelps, it's about records. Glory & Money follow. Same for cricket, Ed!

  • Harsh on June 22, 2012, 3:16 GMT

    The West Indian quartet was simply the greatest of all time and ripped through the best of batting sides.Today what has considerably improved is the fielding standards .Athleticism is displayed as one could hardly imagine in yetseryears.Scoring rates are also much higher today.In previous eras we could hardly imagine 300-4000 run scored in a day.

    However after the advent of Ponting,Tendulkar,Kallis,Jayewardene and Sangakaara we have virtually no great batsman left,bar Sehwag or Pieterson.Gone are the days of the 1970's 1980's and 1990's when one could count great batsman and bowlers or allrounders on your fingertips.There is also no outstanding team,with England unable to dominate the sub-continent conditions.

  • Bennett on June 22, 2012, 0:15 GMT

    If things were better in those dayz, it certainly was not due to the battery of pace bowlers from the Windies. It is never good for the game to have one facet dominating over the others. Express pace dished out relentlessly and admittedly crushingly did remove some of the subtle nuances of spin which suffered and almost succumbed. There was a real concern amongst the cricket connoisseurs of the future the game was headed towards. If there was a silver lining to the era, I would venture to give it to the 4 ace all-rounders, the best their country ever produced, the master blaster and the wily magician who alone held aloft the art of the slow men.

  • Dummy4 on June 21, 2012, 19:11 GMT

    "Let's be honest. Cricket has got better in many respects - especially fielding and power-hitting - but fast bowling isn't one of them."

    I could not agree with you more, Ed.

    The fearsome tandems of great West Indian fast bowlers produced in the '60's, 70's and 80's were a rare treat for fans around the world and a nightmare for batsmen.

    Today's bowlers don't even come close!

  • Dummy4 on June 21, 2012, 15:02 GMT

    Tricky one, the only skill which has definitely improved in cricket is fielding. While I do agree about sustained pace, but pace with skills of swing/ seam hasn't. Similarly, batting avg., scores and S/R has gone up - but boundaries are shorter, general quality of bowling (not to mention the rules - skewed almost absurdly against bowlers), and batting equipment are better. Imagine how much more Richards, Graeme Pollock or Botham would've scored if they had the bats with footlong "sweet spot" which Dhoni or Pollard use. Cook, as fine a batsman he is, can't even handle Roach; Hayden only flourished after Donald, Ambrose were gone. If the 80s/90s crop of pacers were around Cook would've followed Hick to oblivion. ( PS: It's magical happenstance that Nadal, Federer and Djokovic play in the same era, but golden age? that was when Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Rafter, Moya, Chang, Becker, Bruguera, Ivanisevic all played together. Try predicting a winner from that pool ..)

  • Rayner on June 21, 2012, 14:51 GMT

    good article, can't argue with it. I guess until time travel is invented we'll never know!

  • Dummy4 on June 21, 2012, 12:54 GMT

    I disagree, almost completely. What's happened is that the average has gone up so greatly that it's hard to Identify the 'greats'. Look at India, after opening with spinners on green tops in teams that didn't have Kapil or Sreenath we now have three bowlers who can clock above 150 who can't make it to the team. Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and a half dozen IPL exhibits would have probably made it to any old Indian team and the team would have been grateful to have someone with a bit of pace. True, pace bowlers are no longer feared because of the quality of protective gear so they can't rely on intimidation as much as they used to. But I have a feeling, take away helmets and chest guards and covered pitches and someone as currently average as Varun Aaron might acquire legendary status and Imagine playing a Dale Steyn in conditions like that without the bouncer limitation. And Steyn-Morkel for me are equal to a Mcgrath-Gilly, Waqar-Wasim, Ambrose-Walsh. Look at Steyns stats before arguing.

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