Settling matters or starting them?

Perhaps, it's way too complex measuring two teams against each other: isolate ground conditions and weather, and one still struggles to fathom how the chemistry of each side — catalysed by a hundred interplays — affects the other, writes Ram Mahesh.

Could Clive Lloyd's West Indians of 1979 have taken Steve Waugh's Australians of 1999? Or for that matter Ponting's Australians of 2003? Sir Garry Sobers reckoned the West Indies had it. "I don't think they (Australia) would have even won a single Test against Clive Lloyd's team, to tell you the truth," Sobers told `The Australian.' "Look at how the Aussies struggled against Steve Harmison in England. What would they have done against an attack with Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall?"

What indeed?

Sobers speaks of a mythical Test of course, not an ODI where the result is more of a lottery, a function of performance on the day; but, for a fraudulent argument — which is what this business of comparison is — it serves well enough.

One hopes to assuage the conscientious reader — the kind that delights in nitpicking — with the rationale that in an exercise such as this the errors of assumptions will counterbalance the errors of not having made other assumptions. How for instance does one weigh oiled bats and uncovered wickets against modern-day ground fielding standards and scheduling, perceptions from youthful days against judgements from grainy tapes?

The finer point Sobers makes, however, is beyond reproach: he merely asks if Australia would win the early skirmish during its turn with the bat. Much develops from there.

Sir Donald Bradman, in a wonderfully prescient essay titled `Whither Cricket Now?', which appeared in Wisden in 1986, argued otherwise. "How often I was asked whether Clive Lloyd's West Indians were the best team of all time," wrote Bradman. "Unhesitatingly I replied that they were the best fielding combination I have seen. But no matter how competent their batting, bowling, and fielding, they were so reliant on fast bowlers that they became out of balance on a slow, turning pitch."

Bradman goes on to write that his side of 1948 was "the best I ever saw, with Lloyd's team and Armstrong's 1920-21 Australian side not far behind."

Again, Bradman speaks of Test cricket, and his frame of reference naturally doesn't include the Australian sides of the 90s. But, by working backwards and making further fraudulent comparisons — using such worthy canon as the refrain that Australian sides of the late 90s till date were, alongside Ian Chappell's Australians, second to Bradman's Invincibles — one draws certain inferences, all of them shaky.

Perhaps, it's way too complex measuring two teams against each other: isolate ground conditions and weather, and one still struggles to fathom how the chemistry of each side — catalysed by a hundred interplays — affects the other. It may be instructive to pare the contests down to individual match-ups. It's fun if nothing else.

Consider Viv Richards and Glenn McGrath. Would McGrath's unyielding line have washed with Richards? Wouldn't the great Antiguan have placed his front foot outside the line — taking the leg-before out of the equation — and worked to leg? Kevin Pietersen did it, and he isn't — not yet at least — three-quarters the player Richards was. Or would McGrath, his reputation for big-name scalps well founded, have done Richards in the only way a generation of bowlers thought they could — with the precisely weighted delivery that straightens from middle, thus satisfying the necessary conditions of being both outside the orbit of the Richards on-drive and inside the ambit of the leg-before?

Or take Lloyd facing up to Warne. The former West Indian skipper had among the longest hitting levers the game has seen, and consequently among the largest striking zones. Would Warne have managed the change-up of length without compromising his dip?

How quickly would Roberts have sorted Gilchrist out? Would he have needed to bowl both his bouncers? Could Ponting have pulled Croft as assuredly as he does lesser bowlers? And wouldn't Holding have coerced Steve Waugh's fast, forcing hands into edging a beautiful, fast, fatal outswinger? See how difficult it is?

`Greatness in one generation translates to greatness in any other generation,' is the crutch most convenient for debates of such nature. After all, isn't adaptability the gold standard of greatness? Sure, peculiarities of a generation suit a particular entity more, and confer success — the finger spinner in the age of the sticky dog strip for instance — but greatness either works around such peculiarities, or, in a more evolved case, subsumes them.

And there we must leave it. Unless one convinces the makers of Rocky Balboa to part with the admirable computer programme that matches the past against the present virtually, and settles matters. Ironically the programme in the film doesn't settle matters; it starts them.