February 13, 2013

Peaks or high plateaus: what makes a player great?

How do you measure success in sport? Is it about consistency or the ability to dazzle?

Consistency is a vexed subject in cricket. Almost anyone can be accused of inconsistency; the perfectly consistent player is yet to be born, because failure, especially for batsmen, is hardwired into the structure of the sport. Consistency is also deceptive. I finished most first-class seasons with about 1200 runs. Consistent? Not really. Within each season, I was prone to unusually large fluctuations in form.

That point was brought home during a chance conversation with an opposition coach in 2004, just after Warwickshire had won the championship. The coach singled out the contribution of Jonathan Trott, who had made 1200 runs, averaging over 50, with only one hundred but ten fifties. Conventional wisdom held that Trott had a poor "conversion rate". The coach took the opposite view. "From the team's perspective, I can't think of a more useful way to divide up 1200 runs." I couldn't help thinking of the flaws in my own season: I'd scored exactly the same number of runs as Trott, but with a completely different distribution. My season consisted of two patches of high scores, separated by long stretches of disappointment. I'd reached the same destination via a very different journey. Twelve hundred runs at 50 might sound "consistent", but the headline numbers can mask serious inconsistency below the surface.

The same question applies to cricket at all levels, from club to Tests. Is it better to achieve consistent high competence or transient dominance? The answer depends partly on perspective. Fans, I suspect, tend to remember players who achieve moments of brilliance rather than grinding reliability. But within the team, I suspect, the opposite is true. Team-mates like to know what they're getting. The question of how to measure achievement also reveals a deeper divide in sport. We will come to that later.

Statisticians argue about how to measure consistency (on ESPNcricinfo alone, S Rajesh and Gabriel Rogers offer differing methodologies). Sometimes the statistics reinforce our instinctive judgements. A snap judgement about Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis would contrast the instinctive, mercurial West Indian with the methodical, controlled South African. And the stats confirm our hunch. One statistical measure found Kallis to be the most consistent player of all time, and Lara to be the fourth most inconsistent.

Where does Sachin Tendulkar fit in? Lara, obviously, owns the record for the highest score in both first-class and Test cricket. In contract, Tendulkar has made more runs and more hundreds than anyone else. You could argue that Lara climbed the higher peaks but Tendulkar covered much more land. If you wanted to own a stock or a share, buy Tendulkar. But for moments of total mastery - I'm thinking especially his two back-to-back, match-winning hundreds against Australia in 1999 - it's hard to look past Lara.

The same pattern is revealed in other measures of consistency. Lara's career shows slightly more volatility. S Rajesh informs me that Tendulkar has played 64 series. In 21 of those (33%), Tendulkar has averaged more than 70; in 16 series (25%) he has averaged less than 35. Lara had a similar record of stellar series (11 in 35 series - 31%), but suffered relatively poor series slightly more often (11 again). Statistically speaking Lara had slightly more dips - which is probably just how you remember it.

In Federer, tennis has produced one of the most complete examples of greatness. He brings together the artistry, grace and joie de vivre of the perfect amateur, and yet the relentlessness and durability of the ultimate pro

Some bowlers are also justly remembered for their inspired peaks rather than unchanging steadiness. If I had to pick one bowler who, at his absolute best, looked pretty much unplayable, I'd advance the claim of Waqar Younis. When I was a teenager, the most devastating sight in international cricket was seeing two objects going in sharply different directions: the ball lethally swerving in at 90mph, the batsman involuntarily toppling over to towards the off side. If he was lucky, he'd merely be clean bowled. If he was unlucky, he'd hobble off with a broken foot (and lbw to his name). The numbers reflect those facts. Between October 1990 and December 1994, Waqar took 180 Test wickets at 17.

But intuitive judgments can be a poor guide to consistency. MS Dhoni's charisma and dazzling attacking skills suggest a volatile Test career. Far from it. Dhoni makes many more fifties than hundreds, and his average has been consistently in the high 30s. Among modern players Dhoni has the least volatile Test record of any batsman, with the single exception of the ultra-reliable Mark Richardson.

The challenge of measuring success inevitably adds to the complexity of assessing greatness. All sports suffer a version of the same difficulties. Bobby Jones Jr, playing as an amateur, won 62% of the national tournaments he entered. He was far more likely to win, statistically speaking, than Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 major tournaments and is widely regarded as the greatest ever.

Baseball offers a revealing dilemma. Babe Ruth revolutionised his sport as a spectacle. No one had ever hit a baseball with such joy and such power. But his overall batting average is only tenth on the all-time list, significantly behind the leader, Ty Cobb. (A further complication is that Ruth was a loveable character, whereas Cobb was a cheat, a thug and a racist.) Ruth's influence on his sport adds yet another dimension: greatness as an agent of change. Even if you prefer Verdi's music to Wagner's, you will have to concede that the German composer had a far greater influence on the history of music. How do you measure that?

The tennis ace Rod Laver won "only" 11 Grand Slams (Roger Federer has 17). But Laver's 11 included all four in two seasons*, something that only he has achieved. Some pundits rate Laver as the greatest because at his peak his dominance was more complete. And how should we weigh the relative greatness of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi? Sampras won more slams and dominated their head-to-heads. But Agassi won each of the four slams, demonstrating greater versatility.

In Federer, tennis has produced one of the most complete examples of greatness. The striking thing about him is the combination of beauty and consistency. Federer brings together the artistry, grace and joie de vivre of the perfect amateur, and yet the relentlessness and durability of the ultimate pro. He is like David Gower and Don Bradman rolled into one.

Federer's greatness is both "high" and "broad". His play in 2006 and 2007 is often held up as the high-water mark of tennis. But most sportsmen who enjoy such total mastery tend to give up early. Bjorn Borg retired at 26, the Welsh flyhalf Barry John quit at 27, Bobby Jones Jr gave up elite golf at 28. As soon as the magic fades, they rush for the exit.

Not Federer. He was overtaken as No. 1 by first Rafael Nadal, then Novak Djokovic. But Federer reeled them both in, regaining his No. 1 spot (for a while) in 2012. Many tennis insiders rate Federer's resilience as a member of the chasing pack even more highly than his period of solo domination. Something similar can be said of Tendulkar. His consistency and longevity are at least as remarkable as his best purple patch.

The question of whether to judge a sportsman by the height of the tallest peak or the volume of the total achievement reveals our broader attitudes. Is sport essentially like business, getting the job done, winning a series of transactions, securing profit in the bank? Or is more like the arts (as I explored here)?

Ask a businessman whether he'd prefer one astonishing year and nine average ones, or ten very good years straight, and you know he'll choose the latter. But ask a concert pianist if he would rather leave behind one peerless recording or ten merely impressive ones, and you may well get the opposite response. Robert Frost claimed his utmost ambition was "to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of". He was right: quality, not quantity, is the surer guarantee of permanence.

Unable to forget the wristy majesty of his 281 against Australia, you may insist that VVS Laxman is a better player than his more consistent peers. Yes, they can blind you with numbers. But you have the right to judge sport on your own terms.

*09:40:08 GMT, February 13: Changed to reflect the fact that Laver won all four slams twice

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

  • Billy on February 16, 2013, 7:20 GMT

    @Dev_MCT, of course stats indicate greatness. Hunches and opinions will always give you silly results if you can't back them up with stats. Stats are also the only way to separate the greats of the game across different eras. Otherwise, in 100 years time, Tendulkar, Kallis, Lara, Ponting would not be greats in your definition. Because no one would have seen them play and as a result, would not have an opinion or hunch that they were. @Srinivasan Narayanan, yeah there was a bloke called Bradman who qualifies in your definition.

  • Harsh on February 16, 2013, 6:16 GMT

    If just peak performances were considered then Ian Botham may be rated even above Gary Sobers or Imran Khan if you remember the 1981 Ashes and 1980 Jubilee test in Mumbai.If you consider the pressure in he faced amongst modern greats no batsman was as dominant in test cricket as Tendulkar was from the period of July 1997 to Ocotober 2001 when he averaged over 67 and scored over 3200 runs.If you just have peak performnaces then both Virendra Sehwag and Gundpaa Vishwanath could overlap Tendulkar.Sachin has not equaled Vishwanath's 97 not out at Madras v West Indies in 1974-75 nor Sehwag's 309 at Multan in 2004-both match winning efforts.Similarly if you just consider peak era then Imran Khan would arguably be the best pace bolwer of them all.From 1981-1987 his figures were phenomenal.

  • Dummy4 on February 15, 2013, 3:58 GMT

    What is the measure of greatness in sports? Indeed a vexed question with as many answers as there are fans. Again assessing greatness in team sport is much more complicated than in an individual sport. So while a Roger Federer's brilliance can almost assure him of a win, a Sachin or Lara playing an outstanding innings can still end up on the losing side when they are largely surrounded by minnows as team mates whereas a Ponting can boast of a sizeable contribution in a winning cause more often. My own patently greedy definition of a great batsman would be one who scores the highest runs, is consistent in the extreme and inspires his team mates also to perform one or two notches above their usual best and thus plays a lead and inspiring role in his team's victories against the best of opposition - home and abroad. Mercifully we have not found such a batsman yet. And that sustains our interest in cricket as metaphor for life.

  • Harsh on February 15, 2013, 2:41 GMT

    At their peak both Brian Lara and Viv Richards were ahead of Tendulkar.Lara was ahead in terms of his mammoth scores and series run aggregates at his best while Viv from 1976-81 performed better than anyone after Bradman.However overall consistency or high plateaus is the most vital factor.In his peak Ian Botham was almost the equal of Gary Sobers who has not equaled Botham's performances in the 1980 jubilee test in Mumbai or in the 1981 Ashes at home.The fact is that no cricketer ever will equal Tendulkar's record of 100 international centuries.Kallis has great statistics ,better than Sober.However Sobers to me is a street ahead of Kallis as he had far greater match-winning flair with both bat and ball.

  • Billy on February 14, 2013, 23:18 GMT

    Bradman single-handedly increased the bowling averages of English Test bowlers throughout their career probably around 5 runs. Just him, not the team. Add to that the contribution of the rest of the team and that's massive. Bradman has it all: consistency, matchwinner, stats, entertainment factor etc. The only thing lacking is performance against the greats of his generation. The fact is, he made sure there were no great bowlers in his generation. And a Bodyline average of 57! An average over 30 would be considered great (McCabe got over 40)

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 19:07 GMT

    Great article and each will have his own views. Impossible to agree on this. To me the greatest will be Bradman, longevity,average, winning tests, consistency. But some of the works of beauty will charm one. Sobers, Pollock (G), Vishwanath, Zaheer, Sir Viv etc. also one small consideration. pitches were uncovered till 75, and helmets were not available till early 80s. Keep these two in mind when evaluating batsmen, modern vs old. Hence my own bias is always towards those batsmen.

  • Harsh on February 14, 2013, 18:16 GMT

    In a crisis the best batsmen were Javed Miandad ,Alan Border,Rahul Dravid,Jacques Kallis Steve Waugh and Ian Chappell.I forgot to mention Dravid earlier ,a champion when the chips were down.To win matches Viv Richards,Don Bradman,potentially Barry Richards,Gordon Greenidge and Greg Chappell were outstanding.For consistency we must never forget Jack Hobbs ,Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott.Great batsman whose averages did them injustice were Rohan Kanhai and Ted Dexter.

  • Harsh on February 14, 2013, 18:09 GMT

    Great players may be divided into l match-winners like Viv Richards,or Don Bradman or stalwarts in a crisis who could bat for your life like Javed Miandad,Steve Waugh,Ian Chappell or Alan Border.What was unique in Gary Sobers,Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara was that they could do both.The ultimate factor is the ability to turn the complexion of a game in any situation in any type of conditions.

  • Harsh on February 14, 2013, 18:04 GMT

    Above all the consistency and ability to perform outstandingly under pressure is the true test of greatness.This was the quality posessed by Bradman,Hobbs,Hutton ,Gavasra,Viv Richards,Sobers,Gavaskar,Tendulkar,Lara and Miandad.Some posessed great natural genius like Rohan Kanhai ,David Gower and Vishwanath but lacked consistency.Infact at his best Kanhai even surpassed Sobers.Amongst the great batsmen some have been outstanding matchwinners like Viv Richards while some were oustanding in a crisis like Javed Miandad or Alan Border.To me the greatest virtue is the ability of a batsmen to single-handedly turn games which Lara did more than Tendulkar.All taken into consideration Tendulkar is arguably the most complete of all batsman in the history of the game taking all factors into account.

    Zaheer Abbas,Gundappa Vishwanath,Colin Cowdrey or Mark Waugh just miss out in the 'great' category because of lack of consistency.

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 16:36 GMT

    Impossible to tell, if Gavaskar is greater than Tendulkar. I don't think Tendulkar agrees, because he doesn't know. Tendulkar seems to be consistent, but Gavaskar cared for the game, perhaps more visibly. It used to be an expectant wait, when Gavaskar didn't score, for long periods, and people didn't complain.