Greatness is a rare thing?…

2011-07-16 00:00

GOLF and cricket have much in common. In both cases a great champion has fallen and the field has been left open for anyone possessing the talent and desire needed to seize the top spot. In both cases, too, the latest twist in the tale will be told in England where the game’s finest golfers and two of the strongest cricket teams are exchanging blows.

None of the current crop of golfers can be deemed great. It is not a tag to be attached to every outstanding performer in any field. Luckily sport provides objective criteria absent in other arenas. I think Barack Obama is the greatest American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it’s merely an opinion.

Greatness can be more easily defined in individual sports and games because, ultimately, clocks and statistics tell the tale. In batting it is not enough to play a few great innings. VVS Laxman has produced some of the most majestic innings the game has known, yet he falls short of greatness because he lacks consistency and self-belief. Nor can Kevin Pietersen be acclaimed; he has not played well enough for long enough.

Greatness is not so easily distracted.

Amongst current golfers, Tiger Woods apart, Ernie Els, so easily forgotten, has come closest and Phil Mickelson has the ability, but not yet the single-mindedness. Nor is it possible to achieve greatness without winning majors. Sergio Garcia is a brilliant player, but brilliance is another matter. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are admirably consistent, but need to follow in Nick Faldo’s ruthless footsteps before earning the final acclaim. Greatness relishes the greatest stages.

By rights it ought to be more difficult nowadays to gain a yard on the pack or win a tournament by eight shots, because so many more hats are in the ring. With every passing year sport becomes more democratic. Yet Usain Bolt can leave rivals in the dust; Woods and Roger Federer dominated for long periods, darts champions can remain unbeaten for years. The truth is that a champion is a champion.

They come along once, maybe twice in a generation. And you know them just by watching them. Ordinarily, I have no interest in horses, yet could watch a champion claiming a big race 20 times over. Makybe Diva kept winning the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops Australia, and the nation roared him on. Along the way he showed another quality essential in champions, an undying spirit

Now and then several great sportsmen appear at the same time. Decades ago, boxing was lucky enough to have George Foreman, Joe Frasier and Muhammad Ali competing in the heavyweight division, and Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard further down the scale. Their rivalries produced numerous pulsating bouts. Not that greatness needs to be stretched. It can crush as well as compete. Cruelty is within its capacity.

Whether or not Rory McIlroy is destined for greatness remains to be seen. He is a thrilling player, but then substance is more important than style. Its possible to become great by doing the basics better than anyone else. Faldo used to grind out his victories, plan them meticulously. Determination and ambition were his main assets. Great runners just need to finish in front, time and again.

In cricket, India has the best chance of achieving greatness. In terms of individuals, Sachin Tendulkar’s status is not in doubt and strong claims can be made for Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid. But most of these fellows are past their peaks and India is still trying to establish itself as the top team. Much will depend upon a younger generation that mostly failed on the recent trip to the Caribbean. However, one of the youngsters impressed and, crucially, he was a pace bowler. Ishant Sharma’s ability has long been recognised, but like so many youngsters his career surged ahead of his knowledge and the last two years has been spent closing the gap. Struggle is informative. Now he is back at his best, and was a handful even on slow pitches

England lacks the cutting edge needed to dominate. Suggestions that Andrew Strauss’s side is the best his country had produced can be discounted. England does tend to get carried away. Instead, Strauss and company ought to aim to take their country to the top of the official rankings for the first time since 1956.

And South Africa? Jacques Kallis is great, AB De Villiers and Dale Steyn are rising, Hashim Amla is excellent and JP Duminy is a player of immense and currently confused potential. But the team has not yet imposed itself.

In both sports the field is open. The capacity for greatness is rare. but excellence is within many grasps.

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