A favourite pastime amongst cricket lovers of all ages is to debate on who is the best batsman/bowler/player in the history of the game.
Since the matter is so subjective, consensus is not easy. Despite the near 150 year sweep of the sport in terms of time, changes in these lists remain infrequent; which is why they are also so significant.
On Friday last, I've had to tweak my list of the Top 10 batsmen of all time. I suspect this would have been true of most people. AB De Villiers's astonishing 162 not out against the West Indies made this imperative.
"Three who figure in everybody's list I've been acquainted with -- Sir Don Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers and Sir Viv Richards."
It was not just the fact of making another century or the frenetic hitting, but the utter control and imagination in constructing an innings like that. There was both method and genius in the effort which makes De Villiers nudge ahead not just of other batsman playing currently, but barring very few from the past too.
Who makes the cut to be on the list of Top 10 batsmen is always contentious, though a handful I reckon would find universal favour. Three who figure in everybody's list I've been acquainted with -- Sir Don Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers and Sir Viv Richards.
Bradman, for reasons that hardly need to be explained beyond stating that his average of 99.94 might never be achieved again, is unarguably first on everyone's list. He was a run machine like none before or after. Even in his worst series, he averaged 56-plus! Following his incredible exploits in the 1930s and 40s, Bradman became - and remains - the Bhishma Pitamah of batsmanship so to speak.
Sobers was not only the greatest cricketer of all time (according to me) but with an average in excess of 57, also a specialist batsman with few equals - then and now. If he wasn't also occupied with bowling, or imbued with an abundance of amateur spirit, or if he had played for statistical achievements, his career figures would have been far better. But then he wouldn't have been Sobers as we know him!
The relatively more contemporary Viv Richards comes some way behind both Bradman and Sobers where Test career average is concerned. But he batted with such power, glory and intrepidity that bowlers would fear his very entry into the playing arena. His career coincided with the rapid growth in limited overs cricket, and Richards showed himself to be a master and blaster in both formats.
"How difficult the task is for the fan, expert and cricket academic alike can be gauged when you gloss over names even of the last three or four decades: Lloyd, Gavaskar, Miandad, Greg Chappell, Greenidge, Border, Steve Waugh, Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Dravid, Kallis, Inzamam, Laxman, Sangakkara, Amla to name just some."
There is understandable crush and jostle to fill up the seven other spots because of several outstanding batsmen in the long history of the game, differentiated in such debates by batting average, significance of performances, nuance of technique and/or temperament.
How difficult the task is for the fan, expert and cricket academic alike can be gauged when you gloss over names even of the last three or four decades: Lloyd, Gavaskar, Miandad, Greg Chappell, Greenidge, Border, Steve Waugh, Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Dravid, Kallis, Inzamam, Laxman, Sangakkara, Amla to name just some.
Go further down in time to the origins of cricket and this list rapidly swells to more than 100 batsmen of excellent credentials. How does one narrow down the choices then, and why does De Villiers make the cut in my list?
There are three aspects of batting that define greatness. Technical virtuosity is a strong criteria, but not the pre-eminent one as was believed till not too long back. Thinking around the game has evolved considerably from this premise, especially since limited overs cricket has come into existence.
Prolific run-getting is obviously a very determinant, and this goes hand-in-hand with quality of strokeplay to create the batting persona. A batsman who appeals to fans, experts and statisticians alike gets to be on a pedestal all his own. This acquires even greater heft if he can make his efforts more productive by winning matches.
" He is the bulwark, the saviour, opportunist, the destroyer depending on the situation, relying as much on immense self-belief, imagination and ambition to excel as on superb technique."
Over the past few years, De Villiers has ticked all these boxes. He averages in excess of 50 in both Tests and ODIs which is stupendous in itself, but it is the manner in which he bats that sets him apart.
Across formats, De Villiers is quite simply the most creative, versatile, dependable and destructive batsman in the sport today. He can save or win a Test match; he is also the best finisher in limited overs cricket. He is the bulwark, the saviour, opportunist, the destroyer depending on the situation, relying as much on immense self-belief, imagination and ambition to excel as on superb technique.
After De Villiers's incredible knock against the West Indies, Sunil Gavaskar, who knows a thing or two about using the willow, said that the South African captain was the A, B, C, D...indeed the entire alphabetical order of batsmanship.
Gavaskar was not being facetious. The last couple of years have seen De Villiers become a more-rounded, perhaps the prototype of the most complete batsman that can be in an age where Test, ODI and T20 formats all exist simultaneously.
Which brings me back to the debate over the best batsmen of all time. De Villiers, without doubt, has forced his way into my Top Ten. Only 31, it is conceivable that he could get even better from here if his fitness holds. What will be the pecking order of batsmen by the time he finishes provides the start to a fascinating new debate.
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