Two remarkable champions

LAST fortnight, the world of sport celebrated the record-breaking feats of two remarkable champions, two men who have something in common yet are worlds apart in many ways. While the epoch-making sixth Formula One drivers' championship won by the near-invincible German Michael Schumacher helped him join the ranks of Pele, Muhammad Ali and Don Bradman, the beefy Australian opener Matthew Hayden carried his rich vein of form to another peak — the tallest of them all for a batsman.

Schumacher's unprecedented success was celebrated all around the world, barring perhaps in the United States, where Formula One is as popular as cricket might be in Germany. Hayden, on the other hand, was the toast of the cricket playing world although his world record 380 against Zimbabwe in the Test match at Perth might not have found a mention even in the most international of newspapers in Schumacher's native land.

Hayden and Schumacher, as celebrities, are far apart. While Schumacher is one of the most readily recognizable superstars in most parts of the world and makes 10 times more money in a single season than Hayden may earn in his entire career, the Australian, even in his own sport — and no matter his string of tall scores in the new millennium — is still nowhere as big a celebrity as a Sachin Tendulkar or a Brian Lara.

Then again, as champion sportsmen, these two tall performers have a lot in common. Both are tremendously hard working, wonderfully disciplined and have the ability to shut out all distractions when they are called to perform. Ferrari built a team and a dream banking on Schumacher and the German did not let them down.

After every success, the first people he turns to for celebration are his engineers and mechanics. He may be a great superstar, but on the track and in the pits, he is no more than a team-man.

As much can be said of Hayden too. Ever since he cemented his place in Steve Waugh's side scoring a series high 549 runs in India in 2001, he has not only been his team most successful batsman — Hayden has scored 3,380 runs at an average of 72 since taking Michael Slater's place and has hit 14 centuries in 32 Tests — but a superb team man as well, rising to the occasion almost every single time.

During the off-season, Hayden trains harder than anyone in the Australian team, running three or four times a week on the steep sandhills near his holiday home in Queensland. Little wonder he looked as fresh as he did after 10 hours at the crease in Perth.

He is probably the fittest batsman in world cricket today. If this is arguable, then what is not is the fact that he is the most powerful hitter of the ball around. Few batsmen have the capacity to hit a fast bowler back over his head as well and as often as does Hayden.

The Aussie left-hander may not be quite as attractive to watch as Lara or Mark Waugh but then he makes runs and makes them quickly too, bludgeoning bowlers of all sorts in varying conditions. An amazing aspect of his 380 at Perth was that he faced just 437 balls. That is a strike-rate, which any opener would be proud of in one-day cricket.

Of course, the Aussies have taken the opportunity to back up their claim that Hayden is the best batsman in world cricket today. While there may not be any doubt that he has been the most successful batsman in the game over three years, the mere fact that he now holds the record for the highest individual Test score may not, by itself, turn him into the greatest of this era.

Even if you don't deduct points for the runs having come against lowly Zimbabwe, connoisseurs of the game would still put Tendulkar and Lara above the Aussie opener in terms of pure skills.

This apart, comparisons based merely on statistics are meaningless. Again, this is the reason why it would be out of place to celebrate Schumacher as the greatest Formula One driver of all time. That he is the most successful of all time is indisputable but, in terms of pure skills, there have been a few others who were in his league.

A few critics still believe that, drive for drive, the late Ayrton Senna of Brazil would rate higher than anybody who ever got behind the wheels. But the enigmatic genius died on the track before his journey could be completed, so to say.

No matter all this, Schumacher's feat should rate among the greatest achievements in the entire history of sport, right alongside Pele's 1000-plus goals and three World Cup titles and Bradman's career Test average of 99.94. It would take a lot of doing, going for these records. And to think that Schumacher is still an active driver and has a few years ahead of him!