Up with the GREATS

2010-01-09 00:00

GRAEME Smith’s innings in Cape Town confirms that he deserves to be considered as a candidate for batting greatness. It is not a word to be bandied about. To the contrary it ought to be applied to the absolute cream of the crop or it has no meaning at all. Indeed it is possible for greatness to be absent at any particular time. Indeed it can be argued that none of the current bowlers belong in the category. Pace bowling was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s. Before that a few magnificent speedsters had graced the game, but they came in fits and starts. Spin was at its sharpest in the 1930s and 1950s and experienced an unsuspected renaissance in the 1990s, a decade it handled better than Kurt Cobain or the Spice Girls.

As far as batting is concerned the supply of great players has been steady. Advocates of the Golden Age point towards the graceful willow wielders appearing a hundred years ago as the finest exponents of the genre. Mathematically-minded observers point towards the huge scores compiled between the wars by Bill Ponsford, Don Bradman and others and suggest that productivity of that sort cannot be ignored. Almost every major country has its claimants. Oddly enough the decade recently completed counts amongst the weakest as far as great batsmen are concerned. Plenty played in those years, but most of them took guard in the 1990s.

Since South Africa returned to the fray it has produced two great cricketers and another strong contender. As a batsman alone, Jacques Kallis commands a place near the top of the order. Amongst contemporaries only the brilliant Brian Lara and the extraordinary Sachin Tendulkar can be confidently regarded as his superiors. At his best, too, Rick Ponting had an aggression missing in Kallis’s game. No one else surpasses him. Others knock on greatness’s door but none knock it down. Rahul Dravid is next in line.

Add his incisive bowling and adroit slip-catching and it is clear that Kallis is both a great batsman and a leading all-rounder. The best all-rounders have shone in one discipline or the other. Most of them have been top-class bowlers. In Kallis’s case batting has been the main factor, a little too much to put him alongside Gary Sobers, still the best of them all owing to his fast scoring and versatility. Only those who did not see Sobers doubt his eminence. To put Kallis close behind is no insult. To the contrary it is a high compliment.

Allan Donald was a great fast bowler. Although not as consistent or strong-minded as the best of the West Indians, namely Malcolm Marshall, he was a superb sight in full flow and also extremely fast. Shaun Pollock is the third contender. A super seamer, as accurate as an accountant and as probing as a detective, he belonged near the top of the class. His batting was lusty, too, and he counts amongst the most valuable cricketers of the period. Whether he was incisive enough in either capacity is a moot point.

Now Smith’s position requires consideration. In the past it was possible to settle the issue by looking at batting averages. For 50 years a special place was reserved for any batsman averaging over 50. It was a convenient and accurate gauge of quality. Now all that has changed. Batsmen have been having an easy time. Whereas in the 1990s only four players scored 50 per innings, in the recently completed decade the figure jumped to 21. And the 1990s were themselves regarded as easy years for batsmen owing to dry pitches, helmets, thicker bats and so forth.

Accordingly it is not enough to study Smith’s statistics. Better to look at performances. Smith has made a massive contribution to South African cricket. Appointed as captain from the 2003 World Cup, he has regularly played imposing innings, often against England, and has also held his side together in the most testing of times. As captain and opening batsmen he has been an immense figure. His powerful hundred in Cape Town turned the series on its head and confirmed that he does not mess round with little things.

Smith’s technique may not please the purists, but he has a strong mind, a powerful game and has overseen a transformation in South African cricket. A young team and a new country have flourished under his leadership. As batsman and captain he has matured on the job and nowadays he is respected wherever the game is played, not least in Australia. He scores a lot of runs at the top of the order and in tight situations and has overseen changed attitudes in the team.

To my mind he fulfils all the demands of greatness in cricket and batting.

* Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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