Measure of greatness

Greatness lies in raising one's game when challenged, fighting odds and in DELIVERING CONSISTENTLY over a period of time.

Among cricket's all-time greats there is, by universal approval, Bradman at the top, followed by Sobers. Next in line are a clutch of players with excellent credentials, all of whom have impressive records, each having made a mark that extends beyond stats. While there is general agreement about the greats of yesterday, there is absence of consensus about current players who have attained this exalted status. One problem in choosing the greats, and separating them from the not-so-greats, is lack of perspective which makes it difficult to judge what is immediate as objectivity is affected by personal biases.

Add to this the sheer extent of cricket played. When matches are on every day some record or the other will be surpassed each afternoon. So, how do we distinguish ordinary players and ordinary performances from those that demand a second, more respectful, look?

Time was not many batsmen averaged 50 in Tests, 10,000 runs were considered the output of a genius, and 35 centuries appeared unreachable. Now, while all these are still rated as high benchmarks, they no more carry the ungettable tag. Dravid averages almost 60 in Tests and there are many, including relatively unfancied Mohammad Yousuf, who top 50 in an innings. Flat wickets and a genuine lack of raw pace across the world have helped batsmen dominate cricket in the last two decades, as a result almost every known batting record has tumbled, or is on the verge of collapsing.

What then is the true measure of greatness, who are the modern masters, the current Bradmans and Soberses? Surely players like Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Inzamam are a cut above their contemporaries and match up favourably with the best from any previous era. But some of their performances are diminished when stringent tests of quality control are applied; for instance, runs against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh look good in the score book but are unlikely to be remembered 20 years from now.

Similarly, while Shane Warne's critical comments about Murali's record against weak Test sides were tactless, the stats in this case tell a definite story. Lara did not have a stunning series against India but his battling hundred — to save a Test — demonstrated that he is extra special, and that true excellence lies in overcoming adverse conditions. His knock was totally against the tide and showed that great batsmen play for their team, not only to win matches but also save them from defeat.

In the Test against India in St. Lucia recently, the West Indies were squarely on the mat, struggling after following on many hundreds behind. Lara's own form was miserable, as scratchy timing and dismissals to Munaf Patel earlier would suggest. Yet, he put his head down, leaving all flashy shots in the dressing room. Dravid's two half centuries in the last Test in Jamaica, when batting was a huge ask, is another example of pure class, a great effort constructed in extreme adversity. When Dravid is done, many years from now, he will possibly rate these two knocks more precious than some double hundreds he made.

In cricket, or any other field for that matter, going against the tide is never easy. When bowlers are on top, and the wicket doing a bit, batting is more about character than cricket. Which is why we must celebrate the remarkable skills of individuals who rise above routine, and leave a lasting impact because of their extraordinary talent.

Salute the seniors who continue to compete — with success — in a sport that is getting increasingly faster and younger. That's why Sachin's legacy is not only the millions of runs he scores but his awesome attitude and commitment, the relentless passion and continued enthusiasm he brings to the game. When he first walked out of an Indian dressing room in Pakistan, Sreesanth was probably not old enough to stay on his feet. But Sachin is still there after 17 years of outstanding achievements, ahead of his colleagues, ahead of youngsters. Inzamam, closer to 40 than 30, is another great example of sustained brilliance and elder statesman-like stature. So is Lara.

Some senior bowlers also defy age, and have wonderful records. McGrath, ancient by current standards, is still an integral part of the Aussie attack. Shane Warne, almost a senior citizen, is pure genius. Kumble soldiers on, his measured efficiency continues to win matches for India, every captain tosses the ball to him when wickets are needed.

Greatness lies in raising one's game when challenged, fighting odds and in delivering consistently over a period of time. Usually, what makes individuals achieve this is an inner urge, a fierce will and a raging desire to succeed. Most top performers are self-driven, their self-discipline undisturbed by activities peripheral to cricket. About Rahul Dravid, a true professional, it is alleged he takes a step, and even breathes, only after doing a swift cost-benefit analysis. So intense is his focus that anything that comes in the way of cricket is immediately rejected.

In the competitive environment of high level sport, only those willing to make these sacrifices come good. Cricket is occasionally easy (openers feasting on medium-pacers on a flat one-day track) but the game changes when two wickets have fallen for little before the first drinks in a Test. Also, there is no joy for spinners when the ball, instead of jumping and turning, dies after pitching. Only the genuinely talented rise above conditions and go against the tide.