Damn. One of the downsides (among many) of being away from my “homeland” is being unable to follow cricket matches on the telly—even if I am barely able to catch the ones involving India sometimes, there is absolutely no chance of following matches played by other countries.
Which is a pity because you can only appreciate the subtlety of this great game when you are watching a match between two teams—none of which you feel emotionally tied to.
Double damn then because I missed out on watching live the South Africa-Australia game (even though I followed the last overs on Cricinfo) and thus was deprived of seeing what is being touted as the greatest ODI in history.
But wait, here’s my question. Based on what is this the greatest ODI ever?
In general, I have issues with the use of absolute superlatives like “best” and “greatest” in serious sports writing. Of course we do use such terms always—like “You are the best husband”, “This chicken is the greatest”, “Anna Nicole Smith has the biggest…”
However, we usually confine such hyperbole to informal conversations.
We don’t use such words in a research paper. Neither in a presentation to the boss. Not also in a job interview (Saying “I am the best candidate for this job” may not be the best way to ace it—perhaps Gautam Ghosh can tell us more).
If such be the case, then why do serious sports writers use superlatives in such a loose way?
Coming back to the main question: What makes this the greatest ODI ever?
It would be a combination of these three, non-independent reasons.
1. An unheard-of, unbelievable number of runs (434 ) were scored by Australia and even that mammoth total was overcome by South Africa.
2. The finish was extremely close.
3. The cricket was of an exceptionally high standard —so high so as to have never been seen before in cricket.
With respect to point 1, it is undeniable that this match has set a new standard for what a safe total is—-it has now been shown that even a required run rate of 8.5 over 50 overs is attainable. Anyone who has ever played cricket (as opposed to Stickcricket) knows how nigh-impossible this rate of scoring is. And yet it has been done–a barrier has definitely been broken.
But such barriers have been broken before too. There was a time in the not-so-distant-past when a dream start meant 50 runs in the first 15 overs. Krish Srikkanth’s over-the-top hitting in the 1985 B&H Cup changed all that. No captain had the courage to go into a ODI match with spinners—and that too with two of them. Gavaskar did in 1985 and India became the best team in the world. This was pretty revolutionary for that age. And then Jayasurya came in 1995 and 100 runs in 15 overs now became par for the course.
However none of the matches where the bar was raised on scoring rates would ever deserve the label “greatest” —would it?
Now point 2. There have been several matches as close or even closer than this game. At least South Africa was on course for the total from the get-go—there are countless games where one of the teams have fought back with their backs-to-the-wall and scrapped out a miraculous victory. How come one of these matches do not qualify for the sobriquet “the greatest”?[For example: the India-Pakistan Shajah Cup Final 1986]
Lastly point 3. It is very difficult to quantify “standard of cricket” and almost nigh impossible for anyone to say that the high standards (if they were indeed high in the SA-Australia match) have never been attained before.
Here’s the bigger issue. How is “standard of cricket” quantified ? Merely by the number of runs scored? There are pitches where scoring 30 runs takes more skill than scoring 178 on such feather-beds. Also remember (and it is difficult to remember this) that cricket is a battle between “bat and ball”—if the batsmen can pile on runs at 8.5 p/o over 50 overs: how does that translate to great cricket? Great batting–perhaps. Great bowling—oh no sir.
In this respect, this match was not a close contest. It was total domination of bat over ball—a one-sided battle where one of the fighters had no chance. How is it in any way different from one of those myriad Australia-Bangladesh matches where the only point of interest is to see if Rajin Saleh crosses 10 or not?
A four and six are exciting because they are supposed to be few in number. That will not be the case if teams regularly make above 400—as a comparison, how exciting would goals be in soccer if they became as commonplace as baskets in basketball? [There was once plans to do away with the goalkeeper to make soccer more exciting—-ridiculous]
I fail to understand how this match is any “greater” than a match in which a side chased down 270 in 1988 [Getting 270 then is about as miraculous as getting 440 now] or a match where 123 was successfully defended?
Call me an old timer but I pine for the days when chasing 250 was a challenge. Even then we had close finishes, dramatic reversals, moments of drama but the game in itself was more equitable.
I remember an unofficial (I am not sure of that) match in 1984 in Delhi (day and night) where India squeezed out an almost-impossible victory against Pakistan. There it was Kirti Azad who played a dramatic, hard-hitting innings that helped us win once our top order collapsed (somethings don’t change). At the height of his orgy of sixes, Mohammed Nazir the Pakistani spinner bowled a maiden over to Azad with supreme skill.
That was what defined the “greatness” of cricket—a seamless interleaving of two battles —one between two teams and one between bat and ball.
Not any more.