Tuesday, 21 July 2009 00:23
Contributed by Jonathan Cumberbatch
Roger Federer’s banner 2009 has engulfed his sport with debates amongst observers and journalists regarding his consideration as the best to ever competitively play the game.
Numerous relativist arguments have ensued with such factors as wooden vs. graphite racquets, court preparation and indeed court surface changes (the US Open has been played over three different surfaces over the last forty years) making comparisons virtually impossible.
Indeed none other than Rod Laver, perhaps the Swissmeister’s only genuine peer across all generations, has requested that arguments be directed at off-the ball court movement and dexterity rather than title accrual.
Surface and climate differences have always been a part of Test Cricket and the relativist argument has traditionally been fine-tuned to that of pitch preparation techniques, the core issue being the standard non-coverage of pitches until the 1960s. Large innings produced on uncovered pitches remain asterisked to have occurred at a greater degree of difficulty than those in the modern era and have therefore greatly contributed to the determination of Sir Donald Bradman as the best Test batsman in the game’s history.
The emergence of Brian Lara in the last twenty years has however placed considerable pressure on this long considered non-argument. The Trinidadian entered in the advent of another cogent relativity that this writer believes is of far greater significance, it is that of technology.
Not that it was ever of much assistance regarding the numerous erroneous decisions made against him, but its advent is in the form of the computer-based analysis of all modern players with the dissection of all strengths and potential weaknesses quickly assessed and circulated to respective opposing bowlers. The sweet spots of yesterday are quickly snuffed out as today’s bowlers are directed to keep to particular lengths, varieties and angles.
Rather than follow the direction of that point regarding the future of the game to develop the mercurial superstars of tomorrow, let’s return to my central thesis which heralds Mr. Lara as the game’s greatest batsman, and by some way.
‘The Don’ has long been presented as a primer to all new fans of the game as the paragon of batsmanship at the highest level of the game. That staggering Test average of 99.94 often closed most arguments before they began and while counter-grumbles have long simmered regarding (i) the prevalent number of matches against the same opponent (England), (ii) the quality of out-fielding in the 1930s and 40s and (iii) the inability to communicate or even articulate analyses of his batting strengths across teams and continents and (iv) the existing context that a Test series served as a diplomatic gesture amongst commonwealth countries i.e. save for the ‘bodyline’ period, test series of the pre-WW2 era would easily suggest an absence of ruthlessness from the opponents of the day.
Separating men from their myths is never easy and the passage of time presents an increasingly rosy tint on the sharpest of witness memories.
Let’s cut to the chase with a presentation of the career overviews of both men:
Bradman played 52 Tests and he exceeded 50 runs on 42 occasions going on to a century 29 times and, of course, retired at 99.94 (interestingly, he entered his final inning with an average of 101.39. However, this was reduced following his storied final ‘duck’.)
His first class career closed at an average of 95.14 which suggests sustained excellence and an obviously rare talent.
Lara’s 131 Tests yielded 82 innings in excess of 50 of which he went on to score 34 tons. His Test average stands at 52.88. His first class average of 51.88 is a virtual rarity in the modern game and we shall get to more on that later.
On first blush, it’s clearly advantage Bradman and numerous scribes have detailed the significance of his one significant innings: the classic 270 vs. England in 1937 (his two trebles have also been worth a jot), using reams of data all of which seem intent on obscuring the singular fact that Mr. Lara’s career (and century roster) spanned eight nations. Mr. Bradman, played against four with 71% of his test career played against one opponent, and quite regularly. 63% of his 80 Test innings were in a contest for the Ashes.
This writer is certain that this is not the first time this revealing statistic has been identified. However, what is most striking is the continued short-shrift it receives. Such a statistic virtually by definition significantly dilutes the significance of Mr. Bradman’s Test achievements – think Tiger Woods participating at Augusta or Sampras at Wimbledon for three quarter of their careers and where their already jaw-dropping achievements would stand today. This raises further major questions regarding the quality of the bowling attacks faced and the quality of out-cricket practiced at this time.
Mr. Bradman was a ‘victim’ of his time regarding a Test career with fewer nations available for home and away series. However, an admittedly unschooled batsman succeeding at this scope (his Ashes average is 89.78) over twenty years with no notable published critique of his technique and the strategies employed by the oppositions of the day should bring the established cricket media under some scrutiny.
Mr. Lara enjoyed no such competitive monogamy and despite his famous ‘lost’ year of 1996, a review of his Test career reveals a delivery of centuries with astonishing regularity and of course, quantum. Like Bradman he crossed 300 twice and left the game behind only the Don regarding scores over 200. He, of course, also left the game as the only player to have secured a single, double, triple, quadruple and quintuple first-class century.
Let us now return to the fundamental difference between the two players which is that of the technological scrutiny Mr. Lara faced throughout his career, particularly after his phenomenal year of 1994. This, of course, could not have occurred in Mr. Bradman’s era. In today’s game, especially at the international level, video-taped and ‘super slo-mo’ analyses of opposing batsmen are provided to the world’s professional bowlers as a part of basic game preparation. Graph analyses of shot-making preferences and run-scoring preponderances are likewise digested en masse.
A pertinent example was found in Mr. Lara’s visit to Australia in 1996-97 where he soon discovered that the angled full pitched delivery to his sweet-spotted cover drive would no longer be forthcoming. Good enough to still score one century before the series concluded, the tour was best remembered for his numerous failures at the wily hands of Glenn McGrath et al. It was also a precursor of more (or better, less) to come from the world’s bowlers for the rest of his career.
I could pull out the graphs here but the point is best illustrated when one revisits both Lara’s epic 375 vs. England in 1994 and the monumental 400* against the same opponents ten years later. Unlike the former inning, the second knock is strikingly dominated with masterful on-side stokes and sweeps as Lara is required to seek run scoring opportunities from deliveries that were never bowled to him all those years ago.
Indeed it is Lara’s comprehensive reconfiguration in light of constant ‘laptop analysis’ and the unchanged desire and ability to score so heavily to retirement is central to this writer’s argument.
We are robbed of any extensive visual documentation of Bradman on the job but numerous readings suggest a man who often utilized his entire crease often innovatively perhaps a la Messrs Richards and Pietersen and was curiously loathe to go airborne. He apparently preferred to pull (often awkwardly from photographic evidence) ‘over’ the ball and cut with some flair. Otherwise, the adjectives stylish and entertaining are seldom mentioned. The crowds came and were often treated to a century but, save for the knocks mentioned above, not much more.
One leaves with the impression of Bradman as a less stylish Sachin Tendulkhar i.e. a run-machine bar-none with a low ‘memorable knock’ quotient. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but to this writer the measure of legend is in the quantity of storied knocks a la Lara (e.g. those ‘back against the wall items of 277, 213 and 153* all against Australia).
We now segue into the clincher: the safety net principle i.e. the quality of the team within which each man played. Bradman can claim to have begun in a middling national team but he ends with the ‘Invincibles’. Lara, the opposite, being cast as a virtual opener for most of his Test career due to the precipitous collapse in the quality of West Indian Test teams after the year 2000.
Like Richards, Bradman’s achievements become somewhat diluted here as each man was able to bat for the most part of their Test careers with the singular objective of pushing the score along. Lara’s fate was to be both go-to run maker and safety-net for his string of frail XIs, a task he accepted with a combination of graft and derring-do (his 202 vs. South Africa in 2003 is perhaps the best example of this as it includes the record 28 run over while tenuously attempting to hold another team collapse together).
Yes, Bradman scored 23% of his team’s runs during his tenure (Lara, 20%) but his efforts cannot be claimed to be the difference between a sound team score and abject collapse as often as the man-alone efforts of the Trinidadian (Sri Lanka 2001 anyone?).
Indeed this final almost benign statistic completes the case. 20% of a modern Test team’s total over 15 years against strategically prepared and athletically improved team after team - there really is no argument regarding the level of team fitness and out-fielding athleticism between those before WW2 and the present day - and this is perhaps the most staggering in the Lara arsenal. Scrutinized, it underlines everything written before laying a contextual landmark the likes of which we shall not see again.
(Click here to know more about Jonathan)
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