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Measuring greatness

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Measuring_Greatness_legends_comparison_numbers_stats_cricketIf you ask any cricket fan “Which batsman has scored the most runs?” or “Which bowler has taken the most wickets?” The answer is quite easy: Sachin Tendulkar and Mutthiah Muralitharan respectively. But if you ask them “Who is the greatest cricketer of all time?” there will be a lot of different responses ranging from Sir Don Bradman to Sir Garry Sobers to Jacques Kallis or Shane Warne, to name a few. This goes to show that just because you have the best numbers doesn’t always mean that you’re the greatest.

A lot of fans, reporters and even former players are now falling in the trap of throwing around the words “Legend” and “Great” quite casually. Consider these examples:

 

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Every sport, and every country, has its own set of “Great” players to whom people equate their successors in the coming generations. For Australians, it is Sir Don Bradman. For India, it is Sachin Tendulkar, and prior to him it was Sunil Gavaskar. It’s Sir Viv Richards for West Indies followed by Brian Lara. And so on and so forth for all cricket playing nations.

Sir Don Bradman is the pinnacle of praise. For many, he is incomparable and hence the current crop of players is compared against the benchmark of the previous generation; sometimes the current players are considered even greater.

 

Every time Virat Kohli scores a century, there are murmurs that he is a greater batsman than Sachin Tendulkar, the most prolific run-scorer in the history of cricket. Virat Kohli, who has been quite vocal about how it was Tendulkar who inspired him to become a cricketer, would never agree with this comparison to Sachin.

Kohli is expected to break a lot of records over the course of his career but calling him greater than Sachin, or for that matter calling Sachin himself the greatest ever, might be erroneous. They both played in different eras. Tendulkar had longevity on his side and played for 24 years. He started in 1989 and played through the 90s where a batting average of 35 at a strike rate of 75 was considered above average. To score at an average of around 45 at a strike rate of 84 clearly indicates he was an outlier in that era.

Prior to Tendulkar was Sir Viv Richards, the original “Master Blaster”, who in the 1970s and ‘80s averaged 47 at a strike rate of 90. Sir Viv is probably the first name and first set of stats that come up when comparing ODI batsmen over the years.

When comparing Warne and Murali, two of the most successful Test bowlers of all time, while Murali has taken more wickets, the numbers discount the fact that Murali played most of his Test cricket in the sub-continent: 97 off 133 games to be precise. Outside the subcontinent, Murali averages 26.08 while Warne averages slightly better @ 25.11 in 120 games. While Warne won Tests in almost every country he played in, the same couldn’t be said about Murali. To come to a conclusion that which of the two was greater needs more than just numbers, it needs context.

 

Cricket, as we know, is ever evolving. From the era where a team could successfully defend 183 in a World Cup Final (1983) to an era where even 350+ scores aren’t out of reach, the game has come a long way. When comparing players with only their numbers, there are times when one discounts the difference in the kind of pitches, size of bats, pace of the game, rules (like powerplay) among other things.

Sometimes evolution in sport is very subtle. For example, the average run rate in ODIs has increased gradually from 4.33 (between 1971 and 1990) to 4.89 for the games played from 1st January 1991. The frequency with which ODIs are played increased from 659 in the first 20 years to 3145 in the last 25 years.

During the same period, the number of Tests played has also gone up from 484 to 1074. This gives us some perspective: going forward, there might be more games played and in the same manner, more wickets taken and runs accumulated. Murali and Sachin Tendulkar, the leading wicket takers and run-scorers respectively in both Tests and ODIs, might have to relinquish their records to someone from the current lot, just as their predecessors did. As time passes, the numbers change, and hence judging someone’s greatness purely on numbers might be a bit foolhardy.

Numbers do provide us a great base to debate about the most successful players. The thing one should consider is that most cricketing nations’ “highest run getters” and “highest wicket takers” have retired in the last decade or so. And as time passes their baton will be passed to the current generation and then the next. Records will be broken and we will have a bigger sample size to help us decide the success of a player.

There probably isn’t a set metric to measure someone’s greatness, and many fail to realise that it is quite possible that multiple players can be equally great. To paraphrase American rapper Kanye West, maybe people should let the comparisons be put to rest and just enjoy the greatness.

 

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