March 18, 2013

The best after the Don? That's a toughie

Introducing the next theme in our series: the second-finest batsman ever (after you know who)

A few days after Ricky Ponting hung up his boots, an Australian paper suggested he was the nation's next best batsman after Sir Donald Bradman. He might be. So might Allan Border, Greg Chappell, Neil Harvey, Stan McCabe or Victor Trumper. The editor of these pages (Sambit Bal) was enamoured of the argument and wanted to extend it to the next best after Bradman, full stop. He called me.

Whoah! I have no more idea than the next man. Had Bradman not averaged 99.94 - say 59.94 was his hypothetical number - we would debate him along with everyone else: some making a case for substance, others for style. These arguments are entirely subjective. There is no wrong or right, just opinion. Unless it is Bradman, of course; then the bets are off.

Sambit banged on about these past 20 years and the place not just of Ponting but of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis in the batting pantheon. I sort of hate him for this but then again, it is the stuff of idle talk among all cricket lovers, so muggins here agreed to open the can of worms. Then the other day Brendon McCullum said that Alastair Cook was the best since Bradman. Ye gods, everyone's at it.

Figures have to feature in the criteria because they are the one constant, but these alter with time, laws, equipment, opponents and conditions. Comparing Trumper or Ranjitsinhji to Kevin Pietersen is impossible, other than to say they all liked a dash. Trumper could invent, Ranji could improvise, Pietersen does both, but the requirement and ambition in 2013 are very different. Barry Richards drove over extra cover and Mushtaq Mohammad played the reverse sweep, but they were the pioneers of their day. Now, if you bat at No. 7 in T20 cricket and can't pull those rabbits from your hard hat, forget it.

Bradman said he would have Iiked to have played the one-day game, and given his general rate of scoring, we can safely assume he would have been damn good at it. Doubtless, he would have cracked T20 too. Not many have been at the limit of their talent in all three formats. Pietersen has, but does this make him the best after Bradman? Probably not.

Tendulkar, then? Or Michael Hussey? Both have records in all three formats that suggest a thorough understanding of the distance of the match and the requirement of the team within it. From there comes the second and key criteria, the ability of the player to bat in a fashion that wins matches for his team. Runs themselves are a necessity: runs made when specifically needed, or in difficult circumstances, assume much greater value. How do we measure this? We can't, not through the ages anyway. Some form of Moneyball algorithm might soon unravel the modern player but, thankfully, the many misty years that have seen cricket evolve from a game of top hats, curved bats and underarm bowling to the kaleidoscope that it has become today do not allow us such forensic detail.

Bradman's chaser may be Trumper or Ranji. Or McCabe, who made a double-hundred at Trent Bridge that Bradman said he could not have played himself. Or Sir Jack Hobbs, he of 197 first-class hundreds; Sir Leonard Hutton, Neil Harvey or Hanif Mohammad. Perhaps it really is Walter Hammond, whose weight of shot and resulting performances are thought by those who saw him to have been unmatched - except by Bradman.

West Indians will say that George Headley was more than just the "Black Bradman", and that Everton Weekes could thrill a crowd like no other, not even Denis Compton. Maybe we should simply go to the Wisden Almanack and bury ourselves in the records. Graeme Pollock, Headley and Herbert Sutcliffe are the only cricketers, other than the Don, to have averaged more than 60. The first two played 23 and 22 matches respectively; are these enough to prove a man's place in the pantheon? Given the merit of the attacks faced, is Kenny Barrington's 6806 runs at 58.67 any less outrageously good than, say, Sutcliffe's 4555 at 60.53? And so on and so on.

In a private conversation that I was asked not to reveal during his lifetime, Sir Donald told me that he suspected Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock would have become the greatest right- and left-handed batsmen of all time had they been allowed full careers

It seems inconceivable to me that a man nominated the best after Bradman spent his career beneath a helmet. One of the Don's more notable achievements was to average 56 during the Bodyline series in 1932-33. The method of the bowling and the field settings that accompanied it brought the great man to earth and won England the series. Bradman wore the traditional green cap of Australia and was thus exposed to physical danger from Harold Larwood, while at the same time being unable to score runs in various areas of the ground because the law permitted a leg-side field with limitless positions behind square.

Those who played against West Indies circa 1976 were confronted by multiples of the same physical danger. None of this is to decry the achievements of those who came after the introduction of helmets. Far from it. Achievement comes within the parameters of the moment. But protection changes technique and expands options. As Kerry Packer famously said to Justin Langer: "Son, if we hadn't invented helmets, you'd be dead."

Bradman really only played against one team, England. Outside of Bodyline, uncovered pitches were his greatest threat. The modern game takes you to all corners. Murali in Colombo; Akram in Karachi; Marshall, Garner and Corporation at the Kensington Oval are all severe tests of character. It has become a merry-go-round, shunting players from airplane to hotel room in a way that players of the past could not conceive. The schedule gnaws away at enterprise and enthusiasm. Stamina is almost as relevant as skill.

The best batting I have seen came from Tendulkar, during the 1998 series against Australia in India, the series when he plotted for Shane Warne and then mauled him. The series when he tore the Australians to shreds. These performances confirmed a suspicion conceived a few years earlier by Lady Jessie Bradman, that the Indian boy batted like her husband. Tendulkar's straight lines and startling ability to slay Goliath were first evident against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir in 1989. It is a miracle that we can still watch it today, if in a diminished form.

The best single innings I have seen is by Brian Lara, again against Australia - one year after Tendulkar's tour de force - when he made 153 unbeaten in a chase at the Kensington Oval. Lara played a number of truly great innings, not least in that series, and more of them to wrestle control single-handedly than Tendulkar. He also broke the world record twice. You need a Bradman-like mind to do that. But Lara played in a weaker team and his effect was often lost.

Kallis plays in a strong team but on some devilish home pitches - the Wanderers and Kingsmead, notably. He is technically close to perfect and averages more than Hutton, so what's not to like? Not much. Perhaps a lack of personality in his batting? Or the notion of safety before seduction? But did Bradman seduce? Was his appeal in the sheer relentless nature of the performance that spoke for an emerging people, or in its theatre, which showcased their nation?

Ponting became the most feared batsman in the world but did not have to play against his own high-class attack. The bulk of his brilliance - 2003 to 2008 - came during a period when the others countries went quiet. No Ambrose or Walsh, for example, or Allan Donald. Not much Wasim Akram. Relatively, Ponting's dominance was unchallenged. It is why he so rates the match-saving 156 at Old Trafford in 2005. England, for once in his career, had a gun attack and the series was at stake. Anyway, all of these amazing batsmen wore the hard hat. It may not be your criterion but for the purpose of this analysis, it is mine. So rule out Martin Crowe, Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara as well. Sorry.

My cricket addiction started in the mid-1960s. It started with Ted Dexter, John Snow and Sir Garfield Sobers. Watching with near tragic commitment and reading, listening, impersonating and playing until lights out, I came to see the 1970s as a golden age. The finest batsmen I set eyes upon were - in a batting order, for the sake of it - Sunil Gavaskar, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Pollock, Greg Chappell and Sobers. Easily, to be honest, a no-brainer. Others could do marvellous things, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd among them, but these six men captured the essence of my dream, whether as underdog or bully, and occasionally there was a moment of both for all of them. Only Tendulkar and Lara have stepped in their footprints since.

Because all were at, or near, their best in a ten-year period between 1968 and 1978, it is fair enough to compare and calibrate. The bats, though becoming heavier, were of a type. The dial of world cricket was giving similar opportunity to all except the South Africans, whose breakaway performances in World XIs and strong first-class cricket gave us a clue to the depth of their talent. One-day cricket was an embryo with which they could all experiment. World Series Cricket would have been a useful sorting office but there were no Indians, no Sobers and no Pollock.

Once during WSC, against the Australians at Gloucester Park in Perth, the two Richardses went through the gears together, and it is hard to imagine a better dovetail of strokeplay. Viv's ability to overwhelm an opponent is pretty much unparalleled. His walk to the wicket was a show of its own - has any sportsman made such an entrance! - and his presence, an aura that still exists today, gave him a headstart. The best Viv Richards innings feel like the very best innings by anyone: inflammatory, inspirational, irresistible.

Barry had everything, except a place in the record books. Apartheid denied him that. He was a flawless, almost magical, batsman with an original mind and an arrogance that allowed him to flirt with his audience, sucking them into his unique gifts but too often spitting them out with a careless parade.

In a private conversation that I was asked not to reveal during his lifetime, Sir Donald told me that he suspected Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock would have become the greatest right- and left-handed batsmen of all time had they been allowed full careers. He saw a lot of Richards during his summer with South Australia - the summer in which he made 300 in a day in Perth against a fine Western Australian attack that included the young Dennis Lillee - and enough of Pollock during World XI matches and so forth.

Pollock was really something. An executioner - albeit a graceful one, with an insatiable appetite for runs, and more runs. South Africans flocked to watch him at work, and then, as the Castle lager took over, licked their lips at the wreckage of his victims. "Vier lopies [four runs]," the Afrikaans commentators would exclaim. "Pollock… vier lopies!" and they would rejoice, for he was their worship. As the Pollock stance became wider and the Pollock bat became heavier, the method stayed the same. Keep it simple, stupid, he seemed to say, rock back and forward and thump it for four. Disbelieving bowlers were left stranded in their follow-through by cover drives and pulls that scorched the earth. It is hard to look beyond Graeme Pollock.

Unless you look to Sir Garfield. He was a shadow when I caught him at Lord's in 1973 - the bomb-scare match - but imagine the thrill of Garry Sobers in the flesh. He made 150. Thanks Garry. Rohan Kanhai made a tasty hundred too.

We went home and suddenly West Indies were beating England in their back garden. We pushed up our collars, rolled our shoulders and thrashed back-foot drives without a care in the world. This was the thing about Sobers; it was as if he had not a care in the world. Bradman said that Sobers' 254 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the best innings he saw, better even than McCabe's. That will do for me. Sobers was genius. He had hands as fast as snakes and feet that danced. There was a lot of Sobers in Lara, another with genius, and there are not many, Viv Richards perhaps. That is what Geoffrey Boycott thinks - that Sobers, Richards and Lara had genius, no one else. I defer to Geoffrey occasionally.

There was something of an emperor in Greg Chappell. Though his walk to the wicket was brisk, his head was held high and seemed to survey the vulnerability of the enemy. The strokes were from the classics - upright and surprisingly powerful. There was an on-drive to die for and uncanny placement through point and the covers. Everything about Chappell was precise and serene. The one surprise came when he was out. It seemed so unlikely. He made light of weakness and confronted strength with a visible strength of his own. He was brought down once, by West Indies, but even in that dogfight there was elegance. To average close on 54 in the Golden Age, and to do so without having the West Indians as your own, is to pass the exam with honours.

Finally then to Sunny, whose degree in batsmanship surely had honours of its own. Sunil Gavaskar CBE (Courageous Batsman Extraordinaire). This was a man who carried the cliché with him - the hopes of (nearly) a billion people - and did so before it was fashionable. The haughty Poms, the arrogant Aussies and those terrifying islanders from the Caribbean were all the same to Gavaskar, who tucked in behind the ball and relied on sound technique and exquisite judgement to make 34 Test match hundreds. His defiance spoke for new India: "We will not be bullied, we will fight them on the fields of Mumbai, Kingston, Melbourne and Manchester and we will never surrender". His occasional attack brought delirium. It is true that in the middle chapters of the Gavaskar story protection came from a skullcap, but the legend was formed by then and by a still head, set bare.

So who is it to be, this mythical best after the Don? It is tempting to say that Bradman himself was right about the two South Africans, but the hypothesis itself is not enough to go on. Barry has been my own favourite batsman - only Sachin nudged him for me. Tendulkar might well be the perfect answer - liked as he was by Lady Bradman, and for the many miles he has covered without compromise. It is truly remarkable that he defied Imran Khan in the late 1980s, Shane Warne in the late 1990s and Dale Steyn in 2011. Sachin could be the man but for the lid.

I go for the majesty of Sir Garfield Sobers, for his ability to make cricket a thing of beauty and joy; for breaking the world record score as a young man and playing with the same instincts as an older man. And for scoring more than 8000 runs at an average of nearly 58 when he had all those late nights from which to recover - never mind that he bowled quick, quick, slow, and caught flies. Yup, It's Garry. There is no going back. I just hit the "send" key.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK