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