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And quiet must flow the Don
Australian economist Nicholas Rohde has set the cat among the pigeons by publishing an analysis in which he claims that Sachin Tendulkar, not Sir Donald Bradman, is the greatest batsman to have ever played the game. He's quite right;and is not the first to say so in recent times. Indeed, the Don could be taken down a few more notches. But many are bound to disagree. Often blinded by tradition they will quibble that Rohde's methodology is probably not the best way to judge genius. Yet even Bradman's awesome statistics, long held up as prime evidence of his unparalleled brilliance, are unable to mask one crucial aspect of his legend: it is probably not his famous batting average (99. 94) but the quality of the bowling attacks he faced on which his greatness should be judged. Bradman's record would suffer greatly if that metric were applied rigorously in further analyses. He played almost 80 per cent of his cricket against only one team, England. When a destructive and unconventional player (as the Don certainly was) has the measure of mostly the same attack, he can hammer it all day;or throughout his career. Imagine Virender Sehwag, currently cricket's most destructive batsman, or even Tendulkar, playing mostly one opposition in just nine grounds once every two years and that too after six practice games in many timeless matches.
And to stretch this admittedly old argument, every other modern batting great is greatly exposed in the modern era to hugely different conditions and a variety of attacks - and forced to adapt quickly. Bradman mostly played just one decent side over two decades, home and away.
Besides, anecdotal evidence (often cited by statistics bashers as a better measure of greatness) and his own actions go against the Don too. In 1928-29, when making his debut as a 20-year-old, Bradman actually made an odd impression. Neville Cardus, England's captain Percy Chapman, and Surrey's Percy Fender all thought that Bradman, with his 'cross bat technique', would struggle in English conditions. There was also an attempt to make him change his grip, which of course he didn't. Indeed, Bradman was so unorthodox that his grip was only later accurately described as a 'rotary grip'. He kept the bat in between his two feet with a closed face. And ironically, despite his scoring tons of runs, not a single batsman anywhere in the world has been inspired to follow the 'Bradman Way' since. Recent biomechanical studies have shown why. While proving the Bradman grip's efficiency in some ways these studies have also suggested that it would be mostly unsuitable for top-flight cricket today. Tendulkar, on the other hand, is perhaps the most compact batsman we might have seen in two generations;and a model for many with his elegant stroke play.
So why then did Bradman make that famous comparison with Tendulkar in 1996? After watching the World Cup Bradman, then 87, said "I never saw myself play. But I feel that this player is playing much the same (way) I used to play. " What was Bradman really trying to say? Was he implying that his batting average of 99. 94 was achieved by playing like that? And so the equivalent of that in the modern era might be Tendulkar's 56? Could Bradman have actually been unaware of how he batted and how he was perceived? You have to completely misunderstand Bradman the man and credulously believe the Bradman legend in order to swallow that. The Don, it may be argued, was merely safeguarding his legacy.
In his masterpiece, Bodyline Autopsy, David Frith, cricket's pre-eminent historian, lists instances from which we may gauge just how zealously Bradman guarded that legacy. For instance, he tried hard in the 1960s to prove that Larwood was a chucker, as that would have explained why Bradman 'fell' from his high standards in the Bodyline Series.
Never the greatest of team players Bradman also went to his grave lying about an infamous dressing room leak in the crucial Adelaide Test of the same series, which led to all the acrimonious fallout of that tour. Further, consider the one line that Bradman could never erase, and now sits on almost every summary page you read about him: "Though his batting was not classically beautiful, it was always awesome. "
By comparing Tendulkar to himself Bradman was not elevating Tendulkar. He was in fact trying to obliterate such anecdotal evidence about himself for the modern age. Bradman had the numbers, especially that magic average, and what he badly needed now was a model. So, after perhaps decades of looking, he cannily chose the most perfect and compact of modern run-getters to serve his purpose.
What he really meant was that he got his runs by playing like Tendulkar does. And someday there would come a time when the last man to have watched him bat would have died, but the way Tendulkar got his runs would remain in public memory. By yoking his legend to the modern era's brightest star the Don was trying to perpetrate and preserve a false legacy. The researchers are right. It may still sound heretical to many, but Sachin Tendulkar stands head and shoulders above Donald Bradman.
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