Alan Massie: ‘Greatest of all time’ debates in sport are impossible to settle
SOMETIMES you are irritated by the pronouncements of modern players, and the assumption that they are better than their predecessors.
The other day, for instance, Kevin Pietersen blithely assured us that South Africa’s Jacques Kallis was “the greatest cricketer of all time”. Well, he is a very fine one, and his overall record as batsman, bowler and slip-fielder is remarkable. But the greatest of all time? Pull the other one. It’s not merely because his record against Australia and in England is decidedly average; it’s also because he doesn’t have the eye-catching dominant presence of the greatest all-rounders I have seen – Keith Miller, Gary Sobers, Ian Botham and Imran Khan.
In all sports, records tumble. In cricket this is partly because so many more Test matches are played now. It was astonishing to realise the other day that Pietersen has played more Tests than Wally Hammond, and Alastair Cook more than Len Hutton. Those who saw Jack Hobbs were sure he was the master batsman – but he played only 61 tests in a career lasting almost a quarter of a century. Don Bradman, the one player of whom one can say with certainty that he set a record which will never be broken – a Test batting average of 99.94 – played only 52 tests between 1928 and 1948. Cook and Pietersen have played more Tests than Bradman had Test innings. When I was young, Wisden used to list all the batsmen who had scored more than 1,500 test runs; now, to save space, it’s all who have scored more than 5,000.
One of the minor curiosities is that people are ready to maintain that recently-retired players are better than some playing now. They may be sure that there’s no spin bowler today as good as Shane Warne. They don’t, however, extend the same generosity of judgment to the more distant past. Yet, even when Warne was in his prime, I wondered if he was any better than Bill O’Reilly, the Australian wrist-spinner of the Thirties, whom Bradman thought the best bowler of his time.
This year’s Wimbledon has re-established Roger Federer in the opinion of many as the greatest tennis player of them all. It’s indeed commonplace to hear the assertion that Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic surpass all their predecessors. Maybe they do, but how can you tell? Conditions and equipment have changed. Are they really better than Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe? Certainly they have won more slams. But then Borg and McEnroe both retired in their mid-twenties (albeit the latter returned after a sabbatical); Federer is now 30. Better than Rod Laver who won Grand Slams in both the amateur and open eras? Better than Ken Rosewall, who won four slams before he turned professional in 1956, aged 22, and then four more when the sport went open in 1968, the last in 1972 at the age of 37?
Tiger Woods is extraordinary, unquestionably the outstanding golfer of the last 15 years. But better than Jack Nicklaus? One can answer that question no more certainly than if one asks: was Nicklaus better than Ben Hogan, Hogan better than Bobby Jones, Jones better than the pre-First World War triumvirate of Harry Vardon, J H Taylor and James Braid? Give Tiger a set of hickory-shafted clubs and see how well he would control the ball. Comparison poses similar questions in all sports. In rugby, Scotland in my time has had four outstanding full-backs: Ken Scotland, Andy Irvine, Gavin Hastings and Chris Paterson. I would hesitate to rank them, remarking only that Paterson played 109 international matches, which is a remarkable achievement, and Ken Scotland a mere 27.
As a goal-kicker, Paterson had a superior record, in terms of percentages, than the other three. He would be the first to admit that the modern ball and the kicking-tee make goal-kicking that bit easier than it was over, say, 20 years ago. Even in athletics, where everything is measurable, one may have doubts about the superiority of the moderns. How fast would Usain Bolt have run on a cinder track – or indeed a grass one? Moreover in any comparison of past and present you should try to take into account the improvement that has resulted from more scientific training methods and nutrition.
Curiously, there is one sport where in Scotland anyway we might all agree that standards have slipped and that the players of the past were better than those of today. This is of course the most popular of all, football. What would the Scotland manager, Craig Levein, give to have a striker like Denis Law or Kenny Dalglish, or a winger like Gordon Smith or Jimmy Johnstone. Pitches are better but is there any Scottish player today who can pass as well as Jim Baxter or Bobby Murdoch used to do on a mud-patch? There again, however, if you look away from Scotland, you find people asserting that Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer of all time. Perhaps he is. But I am sure we can all spend happy hours discussing such questions and becoming more and more vehement in the expression of our prejudices. All the same, not even that lovely piece of bowling with which Kallis saw Ian Bell off yesterday will convince me that he is the greatest cricketer ever. What about W G Grace, after all?
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