A tale of two giants

NIRMAL SHEKAR

THE longer the time you have spent in the business of sport, the deeper your mistrust of any sort of exercise that seeks to compare athletes and performances across generations and then list them in some seemingly scientific order of merit.

RAJEEV BHATT

Sport, like some of life's finest things, is as much art as it is a science, as much a celebration of instinct as it is an activity that rewards logical thinking.

And, art being art, it seldom lends itself any kind of attempt to quantify its value and slot it in a ranking ladder. This is not so much the madness of art as it is the magic of art.

For, any great creation that is touched by the hand of God is immune to academic analysis. Who can say that Shakespeare's 154 sonnets are superior to Milton's Paradise Lost? Or, that Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is a greater piece of art than Van Gogh's Sunflowers?

Indeed, nothing that is truly life-enhancing and soul-lifting - Mozart's Requiem, the magnificent upsurge of vital energies that constituted the dancer Nijinsky's art - can be rated by a computer, however resourceful the men who feed the machine are, however well-meaning their intentions.

At a lower level, you can say as much about great sporting spectacles too. Which is the more breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold: Ranji's leg glance or G. R. Visvanath's square cut? Walter Hammond's cover drive or Viv Richards' on-drive? Pete Sampras' running forehand up the line or Stefan Edberg's crisp-as-chips volleys? Ayrton Senna's waltz in the rain in a Formula One car or Michael Jordan's gravity-defying leap for a slam dunk?

Yet, sport is an activity where comparisons are unavoidable. In fact, much of sport's fascination has to do with the fact that we enjoy the largely unscientific exercise of trying to establish who the greatest of all time is. Is it Don Bradman or Gary Sobers? Rod Laver or Pete Sampras? Pele or Maradona? Senna or Michael Schumacher?

While this may be a wonderfully exciting coffee-shop pastime, it can never be much more than that. You can say as much about performances, too, when they involve something that was enacted in the early 20th century and another that was authored last year. There are far too many things that cannot be factored in scientifically to make for a meaningful comparison.

On the other hand, when the time span is just over a quarter of a century, and the game itself, at the international level, has existed only as long as that, it becomes possible with the help of a computer to come up with a list that seeks to rate the 100 best individual performances in that time span.

And this is precisely why Wisden.com's Top 100 One-day international batting and bowling lists released recently would appear to be lot less controversial than the Test match lists - which dealt with data that went back more than 120 years - that came out last year.

What is more, when you saw the first two entries in the Batting Top 100, you knew that, for once, computer analysis of a pair of sporting masterpieces that might have seemed beyond the powers of a machine to analyse and interpret, is very much on target.

Sport - particularly something as ubiquitous as limited overs cricket - rarely makes you want to exclaim, "That's it, I will never see anything like this again in my life." For, every other day, the thrill-a-minute version of the great game throws up some exciting batting performance or the other and a professional sportswriter is always wary of saying anything as definitive as that.

But, if this writer did say exactly that after watching Vivian Richards' incomparable 189 not out against England at Old Trafford in 1984 on tape a few months after that epic had been authored, then, 18 years on, I know I have not seen anything quite like it since.

After one of his great dance performances that left the audience in a state of thrall, Nijinsky said, "I am God in a body."

Anyone who had been lucky enough to have watched the great West Indian master bat on that day at Old Trafford would have been sure that the man was God in cricketing whites. If batting is a batsman's form of self-expression, then few men on a cricket field could ever have expressed themselves quite as lucidly as did Richards that day.

Supremely confident, oblivious to the precarious situation in which his team found itself, his magnificent arms drunk with their own power and striking up a partnership with his eyes like a sitar maestro's fingers and the strings of the instrument, Richards came up with a tour de theatre that would never be matched in the sport.

Those were not days when the English bowling was made up of Whites and Hoggards. Leading the attack were Ian Botham and Bob Willis, with Neil Foster and Derek Pringle for support. And West Indies, at 102 for seven, were staring down the barrel when the great man seized his moment. Of the 106 he added for the last wicket with Michael Holding, the bowler made 12.

Richards hit five sixes and 21 fours in that innings of incomparable majesty which surpassed even his own outstanding 138 not out in the 1979 World Cup final against England, an innings whose climax was incredible, to say the least. Dancing his way down and across to the left, Richards nonchalantly lifted a perfect leg stump yorker from Mike Hendrick into the Mound Stand at Lord's.

Over the last few years, ever since much was made of Don Bradman's remarks about Sachin Tendulkar - that the little genius from Mumbai reminded the game's greatest ever batsman of his own style of play - I have wondered if it is right to say that India's greatest cricketer and its most popular sportsman of all time is, innings for innings, stroke for stroke, a greater batsman than Viv Richards.

Four of Tendulkar's great innings are in the Top 100 in the One-day list, making up perhaps for the fact that not one of his centuries made it to the Test Top 100 - a sure travesty - but the point of this essay is not about how many times either man has been mentioned by Wisden.com in its lists. As interesting as lists are, beyond a point, they are as useless as yesterday's weather charts.

An intriguing point is how influential Richards might have been if he had played all his cricket in the 1990s and 2000s instead of the 1970s and 1980s. Surely, many of his innings - both in Test cricket and in limited overs internationals - would have found a much, much greater audience and would have been celebrated that much more everywhere as has happened in Tendulkar's case today.

As batsmen, as personalities, and in the context of the teams in which they have played, there is a vast difference between Richards and Tendulkar and the one big thing they have in common is their status as two of the finest batsmen the sport has produced.

But as batting geniuses, the one obvious difference between the two, in my mind, is this: While bowlers everywhere, from Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne down to Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald look at Tendulkar with a great deal of respect, sometimes even awe, the Bothams and Willises and every man who ever had to turn his arm around in front of Sir Vivian might have felt a cold shiver run down their spine the moment they saw the batting Emperor with the famous Roman nose walk out to his seat of power.

Richards' body language was enough to make even battle hardened bowlers feel butterflies in their stomachs and want to visit the dressing room toilet to relieve themselves urgently and nervously. The touch of arrogance was unmistakable - it defined the man, it was a statement of his pride as a destroyer of bowling, mediocre, good and great.

Like a handful of extraordinary sportsmen over the last 100 years and more, men whose natural talents were so phenomenal that they could get away with murder, so to say, on the field of play, Richards was a sure one-off in cricket.

How many batsmen, however gifted, could have got away with sticking their front foot out and swinging the bat across the pad to whip the ball through mid-wicket as many times as Richards did in his career? It's like trying to beat someone as intimidating and powerful as George Foreman at his peak with rope-a-dope tactics as did Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974. It's futile. It just doesn't work for others.

Oh, well, Richards' detractors would say. There you are - he was far too unorthodox to be a purist's delight, far too flashy to be dependable, by far too imperious to be a team-man.

Now, let's take guard, and face up to this business of orthodoxy. Why are a handful of purists so much in love with what they term orthodoxy? And what is orthodoxy if it is not another name for the familiar, the time-tested, the conservative and the conformist? Stripped to its essentials, orthodoxy - when it is not practised by someone as gifted as Sachin Tendulkar - means a boring sameness.

What the purist seems to demand is that everybody should bat the same way, along the classical lines of batsmanship, scientific batsmanship. Three Boycotts and three Dravids would fit the purist's bill perfectly. But not that of the lay fan. He knows best, after all.

Let's get this straight: batting is more than just an art of survival at the crease, more than even an art of accumulating runs. It is about surpassing heroics, smoulderingly brave heroics, soul-stirring heroics of the brand symbolised by Richards.

From the mid-70s right up to the late 80s when his powers waned, Richards did not have a peer as a people's batting hero all over the cricket playing world. The nerve-tingling excitement, the heart-racing feeling you experienced when the gum-chewing genius was at the crease... these just could not be matched.

Of course, Richards' batting often seemed risky business. A Tendulkar would never have played the sort of stroke that Richards did when he had things in control in the World Cup final against India in 1983.

In this, the Indian maestro, who has managed to please both the lay fan and the connoisseur alike with his batting, is very much Richards' superior. He has managed his gifts so much better than did the West Indian. His technique is water tight and he combines the finest virtues of Asian batsmanship and the old-style English batsmanship.

And, quite the most amazing aspect of Tendulkar's batting is how logic blends wonderfully well with instinct at the crease. He is like a virtuoso Formula One driver on a race track - logic rules the start but quickly instinct takes over when all thought ceases. It is unadulterated cricketing talent on show, pure and simple. And by nature he is not as carefree a risk-taker as was Richards.

When Tendulkar walks out to the middle, bowlers simply sigh, a sure sign of resignation. If at all he is intimidating, it is because he is as supremely gifted a batsman as he is, it has nothing to do with body language.

And, in comparison with Richards, Tendulkar has suffered simply because he has never been part of a great team. He has had a greater burden placed on his shoulders than Richards ever had to carry with India struggling to hold its own on the international stage - especially outside the country - for the most part of Tendulkar's career.

Then again, on the flip side, to look as good as Richards did in the elite company of Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd, it took exceptional talent, to say the least.

In the event, where does that leave Tendulkar vis a vis Richards? Who is the greater batsman?

As great batsmen, these two are as close as any other two batsmen could have been, right up there, just below the Don.

Where Richards scores is in this: not even Tendulkar can dominate the bowling and destroy bowling attacks quite as amazingly as did Richards time after time. And it is precisely because of this the West Indian genius was a greater match-winner than Tendulkar.

This is the reason why Richards has played more innings that had a great influence on his team's fortunes than has Tendulkar - match-winning innings, pure and simple.

Where does that leave us? Well, Tendulkar is Beethoven; Richards is Mozart. The choice is yours.