Who is the Greatest of Them All?
Rehman Sobhan tries to resolve the oldest argument in cricket
Sitting in the lounge of the Fulbari resort in Pokhara, Nepal, overlooked by the magnificent Annapurna mountain range, we watched Sachin Tendulkar, on a widescreen TV put the South African attack to the sword, en route to his record breaking unbeaten double century.
Our watching was unfortunately episodic, as we were in Pokhara to attend a board meeting of the South Asia Centre for Policy Studies, and our chairman, rather unhistorically, demanded a more regular attendance from us at the meeting. We, however, saw enough of Tendulkar, in full cry, to inspire me to revisit the age-old question amongst cricket lovers: Who is the greatest batsman of them all?
The Bradman Legend
To the cricket aficionado this may seem a rather redundant question. Sir Donald Bradman, the Don, was without question the greatest batsman of all time. He scored a record 29 centuries in test cricket in 52 matches and retired at the end of the fifth test at the Oval in the summer of 1948 with a test average of 99.94.
He had needed just four runs, when he went into bat in his last test at the Oval, to attain the magical average of 100. But as luck would have it, Eric Hollies, a rather mediocre leg spinner, who played for Warwickshire, bowled him for a duck. The Don could have redressed this joke on history in the second innings but the all-conquering Australians won the match against England by an innings, bringing to an end their historic tour of England with an unbeaten record.
Many have rated the 1948 Australia test team, led by the Don, as the greatest Australian team of all time. Other batting greats such as Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris, the opening pair, Lindsay Hasset and the brilliant left hander Neil Harvey who at 18 was making his debut in test cricket, backed up the Don at the crease.
This formidable batting line up was followed by the dashing and handsome Keith Miller, perhaps one of the greatest all rounders of all time, who could score a century as fast as he could bowl in partnership with one of the all time great fast bowlers, Ray Lindwall. I rate Miller who was also a brilliant slip fieldsman, as a superior version of Ian Botham, who was perhaps the leading all rounder of his generation.
In his time, when Bradman was invested with the accolade of the greatest batsman of all time, the distinction was challenged by the old timers, who spoke with reverence of W.G. Grace, who practiced his trade as a doctor and batsman in Gloucestershire in the late 19th century. Later this title was passed on to the Australian opening batsman, Victor Trumper, who was Neville Cardus' favourite. The mantle then fell on Jack Hobbs, the elegant opening batsman who was the mainstay of England's batting line up in the 1920s.
But at the end of the day, in the pre-World War II era, no one could remotely approach Bradman's capacity for accumulating runs against all types of bowlers, on all sorts of pitches, with such consistency and speed. Bradman, was not as handsome in his stroke play as Victor Trumper, Ranjitsinghji, or Hobbs. But Bradman could score fast and is the only batsmen to score 300 runs in a single day of test cricket.
I have never had the privilege of watching Bradman bat, except in rather poor quality black and white videos of his career, where you can get a glimpse of his economical, yet efficient batting style. The first time we could hear if not see Bradman in action, was during England's tour of Australia in the winter of 1946-47. The English team, led by Walter Hammond, who was Bradman's closest rival in the 1930s to the title of leading batsmen, had a strong batting side, with Len Hutton, his opening partner Cyril Washbrook, Dennis Compton, and Bill Edrich.
But their bowling line up was weak, with Alec Bedser, a medium fast seam bowler, as the only quality bowler. The English attack was slaughtered by the Australians, and the Don scored several centuries, including a double century, in an innings where he was partnered by Sid Barnes, who also scored a double century.
In those days, we listened to the matches on the radio where skilled commentators, gave us an accurate and exciting account of the state of play. But we did not have the visual pleasure of seeing the brilliant stroke play, or the movement of the ball off the pitch, all supported by action replays in slow motion, which makes the watching of cricket on the screen today no less exciting than seeing it live on the ground. I also heard the cricket commentary of the subsequent Indian tour of Australia in the winter of 1947-48, led by Lala Amarnath, who were also annihilated by the Australians led by Bradman, who continued to score centuries.
I finally recollect our religious presence, in the study of the headmaster of St. Paul's School, Darjeeling, where some of us were invited to come in after supper to listen to the live commentary of Don Bradman's last tour of England in 1948. The record of that tour was brilliantly captured by Jack Fingleton, who was an opening batsman for Australia in the 1930s but went on to be come a famous sportswriter, from where he wrote on that epic tour in his book, Brightly Fades the Don.
Other cricket writers who have left indelible images of the Bradman era in my mind are Arthur Mailey, himself a famous leg spinner who played for Australia in the 1920s, who wrote a famous book on the infamous bodyline test series in Australia in 1932-33, And Then Came Larwood. And finally, Neville Cardus, who perhaps better than all others, wrote of the Bradman era in a series of books beginning from the 1930 Australian tour of England, in an elegant prose which has no equal among sports writers.
Having grown up in an era where the supremacy of Bradman as the greatest batsman of all time, was unquestioned, why do I choose to revisit this question? I have in recent years been pondering this question, as I have directly watched in action on the cricket field, but mostly on television, such great batsmen as Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Brian Lara, and most recently Sachin Tendulkar.
The most relevant question which comes to my mind is the quality of bowling faced by these great batsmen when they were accumulating their vast treasure trove of runs. Sobers, then Lara, successively went on to score the highest individual test scores. Bradman, with his score of 334 in the 1934 tour of England, held this record until it was broken by Len Hutton, in the final test at the Oval during the Australian tour of England in the summer of 1938.
Hutton had scored a rather laborious, record breaking 364, which prevailed until it was broken by Sobers in the 3rd test at Sabina Park, Kingston, in his massacre of the Pakistani attack led by Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammed, and Mahmud Hussain on their tour of the West Indes in 1957-58. It may be mentioned that on that tour, Pakistan's famous opening bat, Hanif Mohammed, also scored a match saving 337 in the opening test in the longest innings in test history. Sobers record was again broken by Brian Lara, when he made 375 in his slaughter of the England attack, during their tour of the West Indies in 1994.
Other record-breakers who have challenged Bradman's record, include Sunil Gavaskar, who went on to break the record of 29 centuries scored by the Don, but took many more tests than the Don to attain this record, with a test average that does not exceed 60. Sachin Tendulkar, who now holds the record of 47 test centuries, and may well cross the half century mark before he hangs up his bat, also took a rather long time to attain his record with a test average which, though higher than Gavaskar's, is still below 60.
Contemporary cricketers get to play many more tests and innings than did Bradman during his test career, even though the calendar span of their career may be the same. This owes in part to the larger number of countries playing test cricket today and the much greater frequency of the various test series around the world. Bradman, in his day, primarily played his test cricket against England, with the odd series played against the West Indies and South Africa and the rest. In such circumstances Bradman, could accumulate his centuries with greater frequency as measured by the number of innings played, than any of the major batsmen I have cited above, and could do so at a much higher average score per innings.
So wherein lies the challenge to Bradman's record? In looking through the test record of these great batsmen, it may be argued that the quality of the bowlers faced by Bradman, was significantly weaker than those faced by the contemporary greats. During his test career, Bradman, faced only one bowler, who could be rated among the all time greats and that was the England and Nottinghamshire, fast bowler, Harold Larwood. Reportedly Larwood could bowl over 100 mph, a pace which was only matched by the Australian fast bowler, Jeff Thompson, Frank Tyson an English test bowler in the mid-1950s, Brett Lee, and a few others, including Shoaib Akhtar of Pakistan, who occasionally cross the 100 mph mark. But this century in speed was rarely attained amongst even the really fast bowlers such as Hall, Lillee, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Wasim, or Waqar.
Bradman, scored a record breaking number of test runs in the 1930 test series in England, off Larwood, who was then supported by the aging Maurice Tate, the dominant medium fast pace bowler of the 1920s. To cope with the Bradman phenomenon, Douglas Jardine, the captain of the England team to Australia, for the 1932-33 series, introduced what came to be known as "leg theory" backed by "bodyline" bowling.
With Larwood at the centre of an otherwise mediocre pace bowling attack, composed of fast medium or medium fast bowlers such as Bill Voce, Bill Bowes, and G.O. Allen, at a given signal, in the first test match, Jardine switched his entire field to the leg side, with I think, just one player on the offside. The fast bowlers were then asked to bowl fast down the leg side, with the rising ball targeted at body level, hence the term "bodyline."
To face Larwood, bowling at close to 100 mph, targeting the body, with a packed leg side field, was a life-threatening proposition. Using such tactics, even a moderately fast attack led by Voce or Bowes who were not particularly quick, could be dangerous. Faced with this bodyline tactic, Bradman still managed an average of around 50 in the 1932-33 test series. But he hit only one century, a score of 102 in the second test and carried many bruises on his body. Lesser batsmen could hardly face this attack using leg theory and some suffered serious injury.
England eventually won the series 3-1, their only series victory over Australia until 1953, 5 years after Bradmam had retired. But the bodyline tactic aroused the entire Australia nation to great fury and even threatened diplomatic relations. Eventually, bodyline, leg theory bowling was banned by the then Cricket Council. The series all but ended the test career of Larwood and Jardine, though the latter, a supercilious upper class Englishman, appeared to have few regrets and believed that wining the test series justified his tactics.
Whether Bradman would have dealt with Larwood, sans bodyline and leg theory, had he to face him through the decade of the 1930s and continued to score centuries, remains a matter of speculation. Obviously, on the hard Australian pitches compared to the green English pitches, Larwood, who was not only fast but accurate, would have been a formidable opponent even for Bradman. But the Don was spared this hazard and through the rest of his career, mostly batting against England, he faced quite nondescript pace attacks none of whom could be called fast, and until he faced Alec Bedser, between 1946-48, were not even particularly good pace bowlers.
It was reported that in a single series against the West Indies in Australia in 1930-31, Bradman was given an uncomfortable time by Francis, who was, at best, fast medium, and the all rounder Learie Constantine, who was not much more than medium fast but could bowl some serious bouncers. Bradman however, did score two centuries against the West Indies in that series, which was matched by the famous George Headly, then known as the Black Bradman, who also scored two centuries for the West Indies in the test series.
At the end of the day, none of the pace bowlers faced by Bradman during his career were, in any way, comparable to the formidable fast bowlers of the post-war era. Even in Sheffield Shield cricket the Don faced few pace bowlers of quality since the Australian pace attack, led by the likes of McCormick and Tim Wall, were even more feeble than the English attack.
The only taste Bradman had of facing a genuine pace attack, was in the post-war era, in Sheffield Shield cricket, when his team, South Australia played New South Wales where Bradman had to cope with Keith Miller's fiery bowling or Queensland, where he had to deal with the even more formidable pace bowling of Ray Lindwall. Fortunately for Bradman, he never had to face these two as an opening pair in the cauldron of a test match.
In the area of spin bowling, again, at the test level, Bradman faced few bowlers of quality. England's leading spin bowler, in the 1930s was the Yorkshireman, Hedley Verity, a left arm spinner, in the style of Underwood. But few would put Verity in the class of Underwood, Locke, or Bedi. Verity's only claim to fame was to once catch Australia on a famous English sticky wicket where he won the test for England with a haul of 15 wicket. But in Australia, Verity's record was poor.
Other England spin bowlers such as Peebles, or in the post-war era, D.V.P. Wright, the Kent leg spinner, Eric Hollies or Peter Smith, were quite forgettable tradesmen, who retired unsung. The best spin bowlers of the Bradman, era, C.W. Grimmet and Bill O'Reilly were, fortunately for Bradman, Australian, who could only bowl to Bradman in domestic cricket, on the relatively inhospitable Australian pitches which hardly favoured spinners. Had Bradman regularly faced these two wizards on English pitches, it would have tested all his skills.
Sunil Gavaskar: The Giant Killer
In contrast to Bradman, let us look at the bowlers faced by Sunil Gavaskar, when he went on to score his record number of test centuries. Gavaskar, a puny man, was a giant among opening batsmen who faced up to some of the most lethal fast bowlers of all time, mostly without the benefit of the protective gear available to openers today.
He began his career in 1971 with three centuries and a double century against the West Indies, on their home ground, which gave him an average of 124 and India its first series victory over the West Indies, then led by Sobers. In the course of his test career in the 1970s and early 1980s Gavaskar, faced the formidable West Indies attack which initially consisted of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft.
In the beginning of the 1980s Croft was replaced by the even more formidable, Malcolm Marshall. This West Indian attack, who between them provided not a moment of respite to any batting order, was perhaps the most formidable bowling attack every assembled in cricket history. During his test career Gavaskar scored 8 centuries and 2 double centuries against the formidable West Indies, a record unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
Gavaskar was no less effective against other attacks. The then Australia attack, which Gavaskar faced in the 1970s led by Lillee and Thompson, was as deadly as the West Indian quartet but then there were just two of them. At this time the Pakistan attack was led by Imran Khan, who in his prime was one of the best bowlers of his era, backed by a less fast but quite impressive Sarfraz Nawaz. At this time the English attack in the early phase of Gavaskar's career was led by Snow and in the later part, by Bob Willis and Ian Botham. The New Zealand opening attack was led by Richard Hadlee who was perhaps one of the best fast medium bowlers of all time.
Every one of these pace bowlers faced by Gavaskar was, with the fleeting exception of Larwood, head and shoulders above any pace bowler faced by Bradman. How Bradman would have fared against the fearsome West Indian quartet of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall or even his fellow countrymen Lillie and Thompson, on the hard pitches of Perth or the Caribbean, remains an open question. The possibility of his attaining a test average of 99.94, would certainly have been far more contestable.
In the area of spin bowling Gavaskar faced less of a challenge. The best spinners were Lance Gibbs, the West Indies off-spinner who was in the twilight of his career when Gavaskar began his, Underwood the left arm spin bowler who sustained the England attack through the 1970s and Abdul Quadir the Pakistani leg spinner who was one of the best of his kind, ever. Here again these three bowlers were better than any faced by Bradman, except for his fellow Australians, Grimmet and O' Reilly.
Sachin Tedulkar: The Modern Colossus
Moving from Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar the quality of bowling faced by the latter is no less formidable. Sachin, at the outset of his career had to face Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, who were two of the best fast bowlers to serve the West Indies. Ambrose, 6'7" tall, was a bowler in the mould of the giant Joel Garner whilst Walsh was closer in style to Holding. Once this duo retired in the early 2000s from the West Indies attack and they were never replaced and West Indian cricket went into terminal decline.
During this same period and well into the 1990s, Sachin faced the Pakistani pace attack of Wasim Akram and Waqar Yunus in their prime. He also faced Imran Khan in the early phase of his career but the great Khan was by then, probably past his best. Wasim and Waqar were, at their best, two of the deadliest bowlers, ever, to open an attack. At that time these two pace bowlers were backed by the excellent off spin bowling of Saqlain Mushtaq, who supposedly invented the doosra, a leg break bowled with the action of an off-break.
During the 1990s the Australian team, led by Steve Waugh, was reaching its peak. The pace attack was led by Glen McGrath, a fast medium bowler of uncanny accuracy who accumulated a formidable record of wicket taking, backed by excellent support from the likes of Jason Gillespie and the incredibly fast, Brett Lee. However, Sachin's principal challenge from Australia, came from Shane Warne, an authentic magician in the practice of the dark art of leg spin bowling, who was arguably the best spin bowler of all time, superior, it is said, to both Grimmet and O' Reilly.
Those who saw Tendulkar thrash Warne, so severely in the test series in India, that he was rendered virtually impotent, proclaimed that the art of playing spin bowling demonstrated by Sachin had attained an altogether higher level. Whilst Tendulkar's batting was rarely sufficient to carry India to test victory against the much more formidable Australians team first led by Waugh and then by Ricky Ponting, Sachin, for over a decade, dominated the field.
Outside of the Australian and Pakistani bowlers, Tendulkar had to cope with Alan Donald and Shaun Pollock who constituted an impressive South African opening attack. However, Sachin's most formidable challenge came from the Sri Lankan off-spinner, Murli Murliatharan, who has emerged as the highest wicket of all time in both test and one-day cricket. Murli is arguably of the same level as Shane Warne and his career is far from over.
To have scored his record number of centuries in both test and one-day cricket, at a time when both Warne and Muliatharan were at their best, puts Tendulkar in a special class. Bradman never met anyone in his test career who came close to the level of these two formidable spinners or indeed could match, (Larwood excepted), the pace bowling of Ambrose, Walsh, Wasim, Waqar, or even Donald. Tendulkar may have slowed down in recent years but has acquired a new stamina to score centuries in the last few years, as was seen in the recent series against South Africa.
The Also Rans
During his time, Brian Lara could be classed as a close rival to Tendulkar, since he too faced the same attack which tormented Sachin sans Ambrose and Walsh, who were playing on Lara's side. However, Lara had to deal with the quality spin bowling of Anil Kumble, who was on Sachin's side. However, it is arguable that Lara's record is less consistent and sustained, compared to Tedulkar's.
Similarly, during the same era Vivian Richards could run Gavaskar very close to being the best of his time. However, Richard's, fortunately for him, never faced the formidable West Indian pace bowlers. Indeed Viv's handling of Lillee and Thompson was not very impressive. To the best of my knowledge, Richards never fared well against Lillee and Thompson. He faced both of them in 1975-76 series, Thompson alone in 1977-78 and just Lillee in 1979-80 and 1981-82. In these 23 appearances against their pace Richard's scored only two centuries, and was dismissed on 14 occasions either by Lillee (8 times) or Thompson (6 times).
When Richard's faced both Lillee and Thompson together in Australia in 1975-76 he averaged only 32 and was dismissed 4 times by Lillee and 4 times by Thompson, having scored just one century and one fifty in 11 innings. In 1981-82, at the end of Lillee's career (Thompson had retired), in a series in Australia, Richards averaged only 26 in 6 innings, scored only one fifty and was twice dismissed by Lillee.
With such a record, Richards does not demonstrate a strong capacity for dealing with high quality pace bowling and was fortunate, unlike Gavaskar, in never having to face the formidable West Indian quartet who, served him faithfully as a foil to his otherwise formidable batting skills.
The other challenge in the post-war era to Gavaskar and Tendulkar comes from Sobers, who was ending his career when Gavaskar began his. Sobers, in the early part of his test career which began in 1954-56 during the Australian tour of West Indies, faced the pace bowling of the English attack, which included Freddie Truman and Brian Statham, who were both fast and skilled.
In his later years Sobers faced Snow, who was fast though hardly comparable to his West Indian contemporaries, Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffiths, and Roy Gilchrist. The Australian pace attack, after the retirement of Lindwall and Miller, was led by one of the best of the fast medium bowlers, Alan Davidson, though other members such as Garth Mackenzie and Neil Hawke were not in the same class.
In the realm of spin, Sobers faced the likes of Locke, Wardle and Illingworth in the English attack, who were good but hardly comparable to Warne or Murli. Sobers did face the skilled leg spin of Richie Benaud the Australian captain and also handled the formidable Indian spinners, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkatraghavan with considerable finesse. But again it could be argued that the bowling faced by Sobers was not strictly of the overall calibre faced by either Gavaskar or Tendulkar.
Is Tendulkar the Greatest of Them All?
Can we, in the light of the available evidence, conclude that Gavaskar or Tendulkar, were superior batsmen to the great Don, on the grounds of the far superior bowling talent against which they attained their formidable scoring records? Bradman, of course, made his runs in an era of uncovered pitch but faced rather impoverished bowling, the best of whom, the medium fast English bowler, Maurice Tate, was past his prime when Bradman began his career, and Larwood, whose career ended after the bodyline series in 1932-33. For the rest of his career, up to his retirement in 1948, Bradman faced pace and spin bowlers who would not have found a place in the best Australian or West Indian teams of the post-war era.
In contrast, Gavaskar faced possibly the most formidable generation of pace bowlers ever, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Thompson, Lillee, Imran, and Hadlee. So did Tendulkar who not only faced the pace of Ambrose, Walsh, Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib, Donald, McGrath, and Lee, but also faced the two greatest spinners of all time, Shane Warne and Murali.
On balance I would rate Tendulkar above Gavaskar, but it would be a toss up. Would I rate either above the great Don? The record suggests yes. But then perhaps a person with the extraordinary talents of the Don would have also managed to score his centuries against the extraordinary galaxy of bowlers who were dispatched to the boundary by Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. I have fired my salvo in this unending disputation. Let the debate continue.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue, and the Chairman of Forum's Editorial Board.