Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Tendulkar and Bradman
Now Sachin Tendulkar's got his 50th Test century, the media have predictably revived the debate about whether he's the greatest batsman of all time. Well, of course not. Donald Bradman's clearly the greatest batsman who ever lived by a wide margin.
Batting averages have not shifted all that much in the past century. After a long career, a good Test batsman typically ends with an average of between 40 and 45; an exceptional one with an average of between 45 and 50; and an all-time great with a 50 plus average. That, at least, was the case before helmets became the norm, grounds grew smaller and bats more powerful. When helmets were rare, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were four batsmen in the entire world with an average of over 50: Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards and Javed Miandad. Chappell was replaced by Allan Border as the 50 plus Aussie in the 1980s. In the first sixty years that India played Test cricket, Gavaskar was the only batsman to end a substantial career with a Test average above 50 . Contrast this with the fact that the current Indian team itself has four batsmen averaging 50 plus: Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag and Gambhir. Pretty much every major team has one or two players in that category.
Judging by the stats, batting's become easier than it used to be; certainly no harder. It is reasonable to assume, then, that batsmen of the past would have had more or less the same success if transported to the present; their average would be in the same ballpark.
How, then, is there even a suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar, with an average in the mid-fifties, might be the equal of Bradman who averaged virtually 100? There simply is no comparison. Bradman is one of those outliers that defies comprehension; he is so far above any other batsman to have ever played cricket that he becomes a serious contender for the title of greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. I can't think of any sport where one person has left his contemporaries quite so far in his wake.
In any debate about the greats, Bradman should be left out of the equation, he's way greater than everybody else. What Sachin's done in the past year, I believe, is to put himself at the top of that group of 'everybody else'. About five years ago, Brian Lara and Sachin had similar records, and there was a valid debate about who was the preeminent batsman of their generation. Ricky Ponting had hit such a purple patch it seemed he might in the end overtake both Lara and Tendulkar. Well, Ponting's career graph has described a trajectory quite normal among great batsmen: a peak between the ages of 28 and 32, when the career average rises to the high 50s, and then a gradual falling off till it gets to about 50 at the time of retirement. Dravid's graph shows the same pattern, a rise to 57 or 58 and then a decline back to 52 - 53; The careers of Richards and Miandad also followed a similar arc. Sachin has defied this trend, by getting an improbable second wind late in the day. Having played more tests, scored more runs and hit more Test and ODI centuries than any other batsman in history, he's cemented a place as the second greatest batsman to have ever lived.