April 22, 2013

Who's the next-best batsman after Bradman?

We all know who the greatest batsman of them all is, but who's second in line?
1094

Geoff Boycott

In terms of figures and performances, making runs, and helping win matches, it has to be Don Bradman. The best. But the people in the era he played, think that on all types of pitches, and I repeat, on all types of pitches, John Berry Hobbs was the best player the world has ever seen.

Now, nobody can compete with Bradman on good batting pitches. His record is unbelievable. But you have to remember, right up to the 1970s, cricket was played on uncovered pitches in Test matches. In many of the hot countries, they didn't get much rain, so you hardly ever got a wet pitch - or a sticky dog, as they call it in Australia. But in places like New Zealand and England, where we get lots of rain, you never quite know what you are going to get. The pitches would be juicy. Even if they were not wet, the grass would make the ball move around.

Hobbs played 61 Tests. Remember, only England, Australia and South Africa played then. He averaged 56.94. It doesn't even come close to Bradman's 99.94. He played his first Test in 1907-08 and his last one in 1930.

He was the oldest of 12 children. He taught himself the game by actually using a cricket stump and a tennis ball in the fives court - which is very much like a squash court - at Jesus College, Cambridge, where his father was the groundsman and umpire for the college. With no formal coaching, Hobbs practised on his own through the long vacations, hitting the ball with a stump. He said in his autobiography, years later, that this was responsible for his ability to play predominantly off the back foot and to place the ball accurately.

I think this simple practice laid a wonderful foundation. As a boy Hobbs watched the older boys playing cricket at the college and tried to pick up things. He had no formal coaching; he became a natural batsman with hand-eye coordination and footwork, the neat, quick footwork you need to hit a tennis ball with a stump on a fives court.

This, to me, is what made him a great player on all sorts of pitches, where the ball turned alarmingly, where it jumped when it was wet. It was fascinating when I read that the greatest batsman ever, Bradman, born a few years later, used the same method as a child when he was growing up in Bowral on the other side of the world. When you think about it, Bradman hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump was making the same type of cricket match for himself as Hobbs was doing on the other side of the world.

Hobbs was more or less brought up on the principle laid down by the first great batsman, WG Grace, which was to get the left leg forward to the length of the ball and the right foot right back to the short ball. That's how Hobbs played, from Grace's way of playing and by watching his elders. He made his first-class debut for Surrey in 1905 and scored 197 hundreds.

He is known to have been the best player anybody has ever seen. Now how do I know this? I never saw him play, but I've read so much about him by the doyen writers of the day, who wrote about the way Hobbs played and what he did, and the batsmen of that era who talked about him.

Hobbs had never played on matting wickets when he went to South Africa for the first time to play. The ball turned alarmingly on matting pitches there, but in five Test matches in 1909-10, he worked it out and scored 539 runs at an average of 67. The key is not the 67. It's that it's double the average of the next four run-makers for England - George Thompson, Frank Woolley, Lucky Denton and Wilfred Rhodes. They averaged 33, 32, 26 and 25.

He more than doubled their averages, which showed how good he was compared to everybody else, which is how we rate Bradman. We look at how many players average 50 in Test cricket and they are the iconic greats of our era. Yet Bradman averaged twice as much.

Hobbs' nickname was "The Master", because he played on all types of pitches. He had a great opening partnership with Herbert Sutcliffe of Yorkshire. They were fantastic players on sticky pitches, when it rained overnight and the ball jumped. At The Oval in 1926. In Melbourne two years later, they just played out of this world.

Hobbs was just an outstanding player. Wilfred Rhodes, the great allrounder of the time for Yorkshire and England, said, "He was the greatest batsman of my time. I learnt a lot from him when we went in first together for England. He had a cricket brain, and the position of his feet as he met the ball was perfect. He could have scored thousands more runs, but often he was content to throw his wicket away when he had reached his hundred and give someone else a chance."

Sutcliffe, who formed the greatest opening partnership ever for England with Hobbs, said: "I was his partner on many occasions on extremely bad wickets and I can say this without any doubt that he was the most brilliant exponent of all time and quite the best batsman of my generation on all types of pitches. On good wickets, I do believe that pride of place be given to Sir Donald Bradman."

Jack Fingleton played with Bradman and became a great writer. He wrote, "Although figures indicate the greatness of Hobbs, they don't convey the grandeur of his batting, his faultless technique and the manner in which he could captivate those who could recognise and analyse style. Australians who played against him believe cricket never produced a more correct batsman but it is well to note Hobbs' claim that he never had an hour's coaching in his life. He was a self-taught cricketer, observing, thinking, and executing for himself." Very interesting, that.

And the great doyen writer of the time, Neville Cardus, wrote: "Immediately the bowler begins his run, Hobbs seems to have some instinct of what manner of ball is on the way. Rarely does he move his feet to an incorrect position. His footwork is so quick that even from behind the nets it is not always possible to follow its movement in detail."

Mouth-watering stuff, eh? What a player he must have been.

As told to Siddhartha Talya. Geoff Boycott scored 8114 runs in 108 Tests for England between 1964 and 1982

****

Suresh Menon

All things considered - longevity, domination in more than one format, stamp on more grounds in more countries around the world, pressures of travel and media - there is an argument for placing Sachin Tendulkar above Don Bradman in the pantheon. Bradman played 52 international matches over 20 years, at an average of 2.6 matches per year. Tendulkar's combined total of 662 international matches in 25 years means he has played an average of 26.5 matches annually. While Bradman played on just ten grounds in two countries, Tendulkar has played on 105 grounds in 16 countries. As CLR James said in another context, "You need not build on these figures a monument, but you cannot ignore them."

But, for the purposes of this piece, these are side issues. As is the fact that an entire new approach to bowling - Bodyline - was invented just to check one batsman, and even then Bradman averaged 56 for the series.

In any case, Bradman is too firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness to concede ground to any other batsman, however Bradmanesque his record. That 99.94 alone is a conversation-stopper.

The best after Bradman? Averages and statistics are one way to go. Then there is the modern concept of "impact". Once the cricketing criteria are discussed, there is the matter of what the player meant to his country psychologically. An Australia emerging from the Depression needed a Bradman as salve; so too did an India emerging from economic backwardness need a Tendulkar as symbol and aspirational figure.

Among those who would challenge Tendulkar for the No. 2 spot, the Jamaican George Headley alone possibly carried that burden, not so much economic as cultural and political as the rising hero in a region beginning to establish its own identity.

But divorced of history, sociology, even context and seen as pure batsmen of their time and place, there are surprisingly few who are in or around what the mathematician GH Hardy referred to as the "Bradman class".

WG Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Jack Hobbs, Victor Trumper, Vijay Merchant - how can we ever judge their skills and compare them to one another? We are defeated by time and place; statistics seem a weak tool.

It becomes a little easier when Bradman is used as the cut-off, as the player who, in the words of Cardus "brings to an extensive technique the modern outlook on cricket". That was written in 1930, when Bradman made 974 runs in a single series, a mark that has not been bettered.

And then came (in no particular order), Garry Sobers, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Greg Chappell, Ricky Ponting, Sunil Gavaskar, Tendulkar. The post-moderns, if you will, who batted with authority over a long period and carried the flag for batsmanship. Forget the caveats (covered wickets, better equipment, changing laws biased towards batsmen), consider only the evolution of the craft. Later generations start from a place where previous generations left off.

From that list, the only challenger to Tendulkar's pre-eminence is Sobers, probably the greatest cricket player of all time, the man who could do everything including keep wickets, bowl two styles of left-arm spin and as fast as anyone else when he took the new ball.

Yet as a batsman, Tendulkar, both orthodox and creative, explored deeper and in greater detail the possibilities inherent in playing a leather ball with a wooden implement. His was the wicket most coveted since Bradman's by bowlers. Above all, there was the endorsement from the Don himself, who saw in Tendulkar the man who came closest to his own style of batting.

Bradman retired in 1948. Sixty-five years later, the game has changed so much that it is difficult to believe a single player can dominate it to quite the extent he did. Yet, Tendulkar, in a career spanning nearly a quarter of a century has done exactly that. He is the don of the post-Bradman era.

Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack

****

Mike Coward

Don Bradman was a pedant and a stickler for courtesy and convention, so he would not have appreciated anyone, especially someone attached to the fourth estate, second-guessing who he thought to be in his league as a batsman.

Furthermore, as a virtual recluse late in his long life, he had a well-known aversion to the listing of the best players and the naming of best XIs and the like, although it is true that one such compilation surprisingly appeared under his name.

So the age-old question of who is the best batsman after the Don has currency for yet another generation.

He may not have liked subjective exercises of this nature but, wittingly or not, as far back as 1950, Bradman prepared a template to assist our judgement. In Farewell to Cricket, one of his five books on the game, he observed: "Figures are not entirely conclusive, especially short-term figures, but it is difficult to avoid their significance if a man produces them year after year against every type of opponent and under all conceivable conditions."

Visionary he may have been but not even Bradman could have imagined the dimension and complexity of cricket's New World and that the rival for his mantle as the game's pre-eminent batsman would hail from the Indian megatropolis of Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar has irrefutable claims to the distinction. He is the Bradman of his day, of the New Age.

It is well documented that Tendulkar is deeply embarrassed by any comparison with Bradman and deftly steers any such conversation in another direction. At the same time he is proud that his style and success evoked in Bradman memories of his salad days. That Lady Bradman also clearly saw the comparisons delighted the Don. And Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey, the only survivors of Bradman's undefeated Invincibles to England in 1948, also are of the view that Tendulkar is the only player they have seen to rival their master and mentor. This counts for a great deal.

If only we knew what was said when Tendulkar, cannily chaperoned by Shane Warne, visited Bradman at his home in Holden Street, Kensington Park, South Australia to wish him a happy 90th birthday in August 1998.

There are, of course, inherent dangers in making comparisons and judgements across the ages, and ideally this debate should always extend beyond a comparative study of the exploits of Bradman and Tendulkar.

That said there are issues that must be addressed given Bradman's conviction that the significance of certain figures cannot be avoided if they are produced year after year against every type of opponent and under all conceivable conditions.

For all his greatness and his mind-numbing average of 99.94, it must be remembered Bradman played his entire 52-Test match career on uncovered pitches at ten grounds in Australia and England, over a 20-year-period ruptured by World War Two. He only toured England - on doctor's advice he was unavailable for the tour of South Africa in 1935-36 - and played at home against England, West Indies, South Africa and India.

As a point of interest Tendulkar's first ten Tests were played on different grounds outside India and completed four months after his 17th birthday.

At the time of writing Tendulkar is in his 24th year in the international arena and had played 198 Test matches on 59 Test match grounds in 14 countries, if you respect the sovereignty of the constituents of the West Indies Cricket Board. He has complemented this with 463 one-day internationals and captivated crowds everywhere with 100 international hundreds and an imposing Test average of 53.86.

These are remarkable statistics that provide some measure of Tendulkar's greatness - figures that would have enthused the Don.

Tendulkar has complemented his unique and thrilling batsmanship with exemplary courage, sturdiness, discipline, adaptability, consistency and resilience, which are admired by his contemporaries and, indeed, his predecessors the world over. Keen of mind, intensely competitive, intuitive and self-effacing, he is, in his 40th year, still blessed with a boyish and infectious enthusiasm that has uplifted all of us who love the glorious game.

Like Bradman before him, Tendulkar has taken the art of batting to new and unimagined heights and made the cricket world a better place.

Mike Coward is an Australian writer who is establishing the interview archive at the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame

****

Ian Chappell

Sir Garfield Sobers is easily the best cricketer I've ever seen, and if you're not convinced, then accept the opinion of the next best allrounder, Keith Miller, who once declared: "Best batsman of all time - Bradman. Best cricketer of all time - Garry Sobers."

Sobers is also the best batsman I've ever seen. Just like he could do everything on the field - bowl three different styles, take brilliant catches and throw down the stumps regularly - he was also a great all-round batsman. I rate him just ahead of another fine left-hander, South Africa's Graeme Pollock, on the basis that Sobers hooked and Pollock didn't.

In a 1960-61 tour match, one of Australia's fastest bowlers bounced Sobers and followed up with a stream of invective. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Sobers responded casually: "You're not fast enough to bowl bouncers."

With smoke coming out of his ears the quickie delivered his fastest bouncer and Sobers hit it like a rocket in front of square leg. Having completed the swivel that follows a well-executed hook shot, Sobers looked the bowler in the eye and said: "See, I told you you're not quick enough to bowl that stuff."

I had the good fortune to play with Sobers in my late teens and then against him in the international arena. On a few occasions for South Australia he was awoken from sleep on the masseur's table with his pads on. He would simply shake his head, grab his bat and gloves and stroll to the middle to do battle. He wasn't a believer in early-to-bed-and-no-strong-drink but it rarely seemed to even up the on-field contest.

I only once saw him bat in a cap for South Australia. It was the maroon West Indies cap, in a game against the touring South Africans. He went out and flayed the tourists in making a century. Years later in a Barbados bar I quizzed him: "Garry, why did you ask Les Favell [SA captain] if you could wear the West Indies cap that day against South Africa?"

He took a sip of his Banks beer. "Ian," he laughed, "at that stage they hadn't seen a West Indies cap [because of apartheid] and I thought it was time they had a good long look at one."

For fans who didn't see Sobers play, he could be every bit as destructive as Viv Richards or Adam Gilchrist, but he was technically superior. He completed the demolition job with less risk. Because he was so successful there, it's assumed he batted at six, but in his early career he was either at three or four. His record over a significant number of innings in those positions is better than lower in the order on both average and strike rate. He was a born No. 4 but he could bat anywhere with equal flair. He chose to move down to No. 6 once he became captain and took on a greater bowling load.

He's one of only three players, Jack Gregory and Keith Miller being the others (and Imran Khan a borderline fourth), who were genuine new-ball bowlers and batted high in the order. Jacques Kallis is close but he doesn't qualify as a genuine new-ball bowler.

Sobers' name appears on most run-scoring graphics, but this one time a commentator chose to highlight another player. "There's Geoff Boycott," he said, "a great player."

I challenged him off air. "Boycott played for himself and averaged 47," I said. "Sobers played every second for the good of cricket and he averaged 58. That's a great player."

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

****

Martin Crowe

Donald George Bradman. Australia. Greatest Ever Batsman. Just rolls off the tongue, easy peasy. Question is, who comes next behind the great man? Daylight? No, a bit flippant. So how do we decide? Let me name four candidates from four different eras and then make a decision.

Do I need to go back to the start, to the 19th century? Not really, cricket was a bit raw back then. So how about we start with Bradman's era? Does this first candidate's name start with an H? It does, but it's not Hammond, it's George Headley, the Black Bradman, from the West Indies.

Headley over Hammond because he scored a century exactly every four innings, Hammond one nearly every seven. So Headley's ratio was closer to Bradman's than anyone else. Also similar to the Don was Headley's mindset. He spent a lot of time visualising what he wanted. He often didn't sleep prior to a match, so when he got to the middle he was calm and relaxed. Headley is the first candidate.

Next era is 20 years on and another West Indian, Garry Sobers, the flamboyant, brilliant left-hander from Barbados. It's not so much the record, which is lofty, but the way in which he played and dominated. Like Bradman, he was the best of his day. He succeeded in all conditions and in all situations. He scored big, he scored fast, he scored consistent Test centuries, one every six innings, on top of his all-round duties. Sobers is candidate No. 2.

Moving on to the next 20 years and to the batsmen who faced the might of the greatest fast-bowling attack ever, the vaunted West Indian big men. This was the hardest assignment of all: to survive, attack and conquer this uncompromising blitz of short fast bowling. The man to do it best was Sunil Gavaskar from India. Roberts, Garner, Holding, Croft, and Marshall - the little master stood up to them and scored seven* fine centuries against them, amongst his 34 Test hundreds overall. Gavaskar pips Viv Richards and Greg Chappell from that era for that one reason alone, that he passed the hardest exam, a test not even Viv would have topped. Gavaskar is candidate No. 3.

Twenty more years on, the final man is easily found; it's the other little Indian master, Sachin Tendulkar. Bradman himself thought Tendulkar looked the most like him - high praise indeed. Tendulkar continues to show us why. The greatest run-scorer, century-maker and household name, he is candidate No. 4.

So who will it be: Headley, Sobers, Gavaskar or Tendulkar? It's almost impossible to know where to start, to start removing anyone of these unbelievable batsmen. So I will add a new premise to finding the next best after Bradman. It is who would be the ideal batting partner to join Bradman? After all, isn't batting all about the partnership? So if you had the right-handed Bradman at one end, who would you want to see join him to bat with? Or if you were a bowler, who would you prefer not to see?

I have my answer. I believe the greatest batting partnership you could ever wish to lay your eyes on would be Don Bradman and Garry Sobers, the greatest left-hander of all time. The Australian and the West Indian; the short, fast-moving run machine and the tall, languid, carefree freak. The ideal contrasting yet complementary pair.

So there it is, close your eyes and dream the dream, Bradman and Sobers batting together at Lord's on a great pitch, with the sun blazing down on a full house. Enjoy it. It's heavenly.

*The number of centuries Gavaskar scored against Marshall, Holding, Croft, Roberts and Garner (facing at least one of the five in each match) has been corrected from nine to seven

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ZA77 on April 25, 2013, 20:59 GMT

    Special batsmen were fulfilling their required criteria for their era. Like Sutcliff, if you were weak against leg break, your survival was almost impossible. But on contra hand, quality fast bowlers were not there. For Bradman, two, three off breaks were there in career. But quality fast and fast medium bowling were almost absent. Obtaining same statistic does not mean that both bowlers of different era have same abilities. Grimmett (3 deliveries) and Warne (at least six different deliveries) almost have same statistic but Grimmett bowling average was more than 30 against England. In those days, you had to face hardly six to eight different type of deliveries per attack but now at least 12 - 15 (3- 4 special one like doosra of Saeed etc) different deliveries including stock balls of different bowlers too. So I think comparison of 99.94 with 53.86 is not possible. Here we should apply theory of evaluation in which bowling attacks are improving with having several types of deliveries.

  • SG70 on April 25, 2013, 18:54 GMT

    (contd) show you 100s of players who dont make it to the Test level after having played FC cricket (Never mind Club cricket which is the standard of cricket from Bradmans time when evaluated impartially with benefit of Hindsight) . The best examples of people who couldnt cut it at the Test level are Hicks, Ramprakash, Kambli, Lehman etc.

    Boycott is not like a impartial angel. At other times he has hailed Sobers as the best . I cant believe people buy what these "Experts" say at face value. He cant ofcourse get into the nitty gritty for obvious reasons but if you could have a private discussion where he can speak freely he might tell a different story and he will most certainly get stuck trying to explain Hobbs foortwork. Again go watch it at Britishpathe. It tells the story like no one else can. Dont believe your eyes? Then try to drive like Hobbs with both legs in air and the front leg at 40 degrees & "FEEL" the oddity. You will then realize how your theory is a non-starter.

  • SG70 on April 25, 2013, 18:35 GMT

    @BillyCC I never said batting standard has remained same. Infact I say the opposite i.e much high. Ditto with Bowling and Fielding too. You can twist as much as you want but this is the cold hard truth. People dont say these things out of respect but someone needs to call a spade-a-spade.

    The problem here is you have simply assumed that facing Bowes and Co is same as Amby and Co because their Bowling avgs are about the same and overall Batting avgs are in the same ballpark. This flies in the face of cricketing logic. Why ? Because Bowlers like Bowes,Tate etc will not get into some decent clubs these days. Even Boycott agrees that bowling standards are far better these days. Just go look at his best 11 bowlers. Hence for the modern batsman it would be very very easy to face bowlers from the 30s bowling according to 30s rules and conditions and equipment. So you need to prove that it is easier to step up to the next level than it is to go many levels up. I can literally (contd)

  • dummy4fb on April 25, 2013, 9:55 GMT

    When batting against a good bowler what do a batsman do? He playes him out and score against the not so good bowler. Just food for thought. Impliment this when next time you say that a player scored against the great bowlers. When playing in Aus, SA and England, when did the person get his runs First day or after that when pitch were flatter. How was the conditions on that wicket. Not all wickets in these contries are seaming bouncy wickets.

  • dummy4fb on April 25, 2013, 7:48 GMT

    When we say tendulkar has played on all kinds of wickets just remember is is always dry and good to bat on. And when he played in asia where he played most of his games batting was not that difficult. During warne's time Australia also prepaired wickets to suit his bowling, Its only on certain wickets in australia where there was more bounce. Still my feeling is wickets today is easier than when the pioneers played. I still also maintain that you cant compare players from then to now. New shots were seen and practiced. Nobody knows how a bradman, a hobbs, a suthcliff would have been against this bowlers. Would they have been what they were. Its still hand eye cordination. When bradman played someone in table tennis he lost then practiced hard and next time he won. What does that tell you about the man. Don bradman was a great batsman who were way above his peers. Tendulkar are averaging 54 now and in that area there is about 6 to 8 batsmen. they are just as good as he is.

  • ZA77 on April 25, 2013, 5:35 GMT

    Why peer comparison is so important. When any field starts, it is very easy to obtain top positions as system has defects and some people can advantage of it. Now cricket has been played with ten countries with professionalism so chances of getting more telent is more as compare to cricket playing before world war II with amatuer players. Mainly two teams were there so how many peers had chances to compare themselves with Bradman as overall pool was very small. Take example of Headley he had to face prime attack of Australia as well 37.33 but when came to England his overall average was 71.23, overall average decline due to Australia. Sutcliffe batting average 66.85 due to three leg break bowlers, he lost his wickets 22 times to them. But he also had not played quality fast bowlers. But facing two leg breaks in timeless matches are becoming very difficult to survive. Overall (65 + 62 overs) equal to 763 balls it means almost 127 overs.

  • BillyCC on April 25, 2013, 1:11 GMT

    @SG70, the biggest flaw in your reasoning is that you think batting quality has stayed the same throughout the ages but bowling quality has suddenly exploded out of nowhere after the 1950s and 60s. That is utterly and completely wrong. The value of a run today is more or less the same as the value of a run in Bradman's era. Otherwise, why would Boycott name Hobbs as the second best batsmen of all time. Why are Hutton, Hammond, McCabe, and Ponsford talked about as great batsmen if their runs were not worth anything? I say more or less valuable because there have been periods when run scoring was more difficult. At the elite level during the era of the Windies quicks, Pakistani quicks and Indian spin bowlers, Chappell averaged 53, Gavaskar a touch less, Miandad about the same etc. This is about 4 to 5 runs less than the greatest players of other eras. It certainly doesn't explain a 40 run per innings gap no matter how you slice and dice it.

  • jay57870 on April 25, 2013, 1:05 GMT

    Geoff - Obviously the "best batsman ever" debate is far from settled! Per Boycott, Jack Hobbs was the "best player the world has ever seen" when considering (he repeats) "all types of pitches". And "nobody can compete with Bradman" when considering "good batting pitches". Clearly Geoff's opinion is openly split (& contradictory)! Both played Tests in familiar Eng & Oz (add SA for Hobbs): A very small & cozy world! So how in the world can they be called the best ever? By inserting an "in his era" qualifier! So how about the modern era? It's a whole new big world out there - complex & demanding - 3 forms, 24x7 scheduling, intense competition & (yes) extremely differing pitches & weather! It raises a whole new debate - especially when Sachin Tendulkar's name inevitably crops up! His international record todate: 34,273 runs & 100 tons on 105 grounds in 16 nations over 23 years! All before age 40! Frankly, isn't he the "best batsman ever" based on the "all types of pitches" standard, Geoff?

  • BillyCC on April 25, 2013, 0:58 GMT

    There are a lot of people referring to the 1990s as the period when Sachin dominated. Some come up with stats that he was 8 runs per innings better than the next best (which by the way is still 32 runs per innings short of what someone else has done). The point though is, what is so special about 1990-1999. Nothing really, it just happens to miss out Steve Waugh's golden year of 1989. If we did the analysis from 1989 to 1998, then Waugh averages 56.3 and Tendulkar averages about 2 runs per innings less. One might say that is unfair to Sachin because he debuted in 1989. Fine, let's take the next logical starting point which is 1995 to 2004. This was when Kallis and Ponting debuted and Sachin had a six year head start. Kallis and Ponting are about 4.5 runs per innings shy of Tendulkar even with the debut effect. This is hardly a compelling case for Tendulkar being miles ahead of the next best. The 1990-1999 is pure coincidence.