The thrill of making comparisons

Lewis Hamilton the Formula One debutant with McLaren, a mere apprentice of a driver, was handed a comparison that was absurd in its very uttering.-AP

Always we guess the worth of the emerging athlete, how far can he fly, how varied are her gifts, and that is acceptable. But a rating of novice athletes against more seasoned pros is both a burden and a limited exercise, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Is Sri Lanka 2006 as threatening and balanced as Sri Lanka a decade ago; are modern batsmen, so many with 50-plus averages, the equal of their predecessors 20 years ago; and if Bradman played 300 one-dayers would his Test average still be 99.94?

All this World Cup, this month, this year, we're going to be doing it, comparing, contrasting, evaluating, putting men against each other, and eras side by side, and holding teams up for scrutiny, and measuring them from every angle.

Few things in sport are more pleasurable than the examination of great careers, like the studious listing of fast bowlers Sunny faced against the quicks Ponting has met. No contest. Can we conclude that Ponting would be less successful against Marshall, Imran, Hadlee? That's up to you. Argue away. But talent mostly adjusts, champions of one era, usually, would become champions in any other. Clone Dhyan Chand, raise him on astroturf, and he'd still dazzle.

Not everyone will be convinced, but what delight there is in holding athletes up in each hand for simultaneous inspection. A Laver fan attacking Sampras' 14 Grand Slam titles might say this: Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962, and then in 1969. In total, he won 11 Grand Slam tournaments. Yet between 1963 and 1967, he turned professional, and was therefore disbarred from the Grand Slams and missed 21 of them. Imagine if he had not turned pro, might he have won 16 Grand Slam titles, 18, 20, instead of 11.

Except, in Laver's time, three of the four Slams were played on grass. And Sampras has a doctorate in lawn tennis, the ultimate professor of the turf, winning seven titles at Wimbledon. It suggests that if the Australian Open was on grass he might have won more than the two titles he did there; similarly he might have taken home more than the five he did at the US Open. Does that make his total 18, 20?

On and on we go.

Well, not everyone. Debate Australia versus the West Indies and discuss Muhammad Ali against Joe Louis and purists scowl. "Comparisons are odious" is the most dreary line in sport, and spoilsports will mock any attempt to cross between eras. Uncovered and covered pitches they will bleat, astroturf and grass in hockey, cinder tracks and artificial ones, primitive training against scientific methods, prehistoric pools versus fast pools and fast-skin suits, bouncer per over restrictions against bounce all you want, how can you compare, how impertinent to even try.

But the thrill lies in exactly that, in calculating altered pitches, length of boundaries, new surfaces, key rule changes, in computing how athletes might adjust, factoring in the quality of their team-mates, identifying the environment they were raised in, listing the tactics used in different generations. Of course, it eventually leads nowhere, no conclusion exists, but that is scarcely the point. The joy lies in the imagining, in the rapier debate, the exchanges of knowledge. Sport is adventure after all.

Would Seles have been Graf's superior if not stabbed, did Maradona glow brighter because he lifted an average team or Pele shine because he stood out in a team of giants? Who knows, but imagine not asking.

All day we can go on about whether batsmen are less technically assured than before. More batsmen appear to get hit than before, by lesser bowlers, unable to duck or dodge missiles that once Gavaskar and Miandad and Chappell played just with a cloth cap and confidence. Or is it just that helmets have made batsmen lazier, that protection has helped corrupt technique?

Comparisons need not be restricted by time, or even by sport. This is a more testing voyage of the imagination, for Tiger versus Federer, a popular recent debate, is a measuring of men with altogether different sets of skills, one sport born of stillness for instance, the other thriving on movement.

Which sport is harder to master will bring a hundred opinions and as many lost tempers. Golf seems more technical, yet as writer L. Jon Wertheim pointed out recently, Scott Draper, an Australian tennis player once ranked in the top 50, recently gave up tennis for golf and last month won the Victorian Open. It was a small golf event, but would a mid-level golfer be able to step into tennis and win a similar tournament after two or more years? Of course not. Is it because tennis demands an athleticism that golf does not need? On we bicker.

Yet Federer and Tiger, and Tiger and Michael Jordan, are friends, and one reason is because they identify with each other, they recognise kindred souls, similarities of approach, a sort of psychological likeness.

All champions will swear to the significance of the mind in competition (Connors said sport was 95 per cent mental, Steve Waugh said 90 per cent), and it is here inter-sport comparisons are possible and resemblances found. It is interesting that Tiger is seen as golf's hardest worker, the last to leave the range, and Jordan is remembered for being the first player at practice and last to exit. Jordan would remake his body so as to physically dominate; Tiger's musculature has altered golf and psychologically given him an edge.

Federer feels no fear, at his peak Tendulkar did not either, and Borg mentioned the only time he felt doubt at Wimbledon was after losing the 1980 tie-breaker to McEnroe. Still he won. Failure does even merit contemplation for these men. Schumacher and Connors are worth comparing because both seemed to own a distaste for rules and bent them with disdain.

Who's tougher, we could go on all day. But at one point we must stop. Where comparisons become feeble is when they are heaped on young players. Always we guess the worth of the emerging athlete, how far can he fly, how varied are her gifts, and that is acceptable.

But a rating of novice athletes against more seasoned pros is both a burden and a limited exercise. Comparisons work only when there is a body of work to argue with, some meat for the debate. But since we live in a generations of labels, we can't help ourselves: so Sehwag was the next Tendulkar, and Pathan the next Akram, and Flintoff the next Botham. Before they are ready, players are compared and anointed, and given destinations they are never really going to reach.

Last week, Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One debutant with McLaren, a mere apprentice of a driver, was handed a comparison that was absurd in its very uttering. Hamilton was a very gifted junior driver; he is also black; this does not make him exceptional, as there are numerous gifted young black athletes. Except by virtue of being the first black driver in the 56-year history of F1 he was seen, incredibly, as a possible Tiger Woods of his sport.

Tiger was not the first black player on the US PGA Tour. What he is, is a freak, a physical marvel, a psychological wonder, a confounding combination of genes, environment, sweat and intuition. To compare a novice to him is to defeat him before he has started.

Now Tiger and Jack, that's another story.