In one of my recent blogs on this forum (http://cricketblog.aol.in/2009/01/24/cricket-and-the-need-for-comparison/), I had vented my ire on the infatuation of the cricketing cognoscenti to indulge in comparison. Why, had I asked, must cricketers be put through this ignominy when the spectacle provided by every flannelled bearer is unique. Curtly Ambrose was no Glen Mc Grath, who in turn was no Malcolm Marshall, even as they all might have announced themselves as 'right arm-fast-over the wicket' to the umpire on a cricket field. And so having vented my spleen, I decided to look the other way when confronted with these never ending shortlists. Neither would I risk reacting to the quicksand of comparison, which tends to be the case when some of the game's greats are mentioned alongside each other only to create an arbitrary divide between them.
However, the events of the past week have denied me a shot at abstinence on the above count. Like a true cricket fanatic, who was doing his everyday rounds of that hallowed area of cyberspace - www.cricinfo.com - I happened to chance upon a compelling comparison between two of the finest all rounders to have graced the game viz. Sir Gary Sobers and Jacques Kallis. The patron of this insightful piece of prose was the esteemed cricket writer - Rob Steen. The argument made by Mr. Steen was that Kallis, over the course of a stellar career had earned every right to have his name mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Garfield Sobers.
Cautious not to leave the final opinion to the reader, Mr. Steen waxes eloquent on the contributions of Kallis and goes on to suggest that the South African might have his nose ahead of the West Indian. Mr. Steen writes and I quote "But distinguish we must, and the chief non-aesthetic, non-spiritual difference between Sobers and Kallis is that the latter's load has been far heavier.................... and it does not seem unreasonable to propose that, even though you might as well compare Dylan and McCartney, Kallis' consistency has been even more admirable". One can catch the full text of his thoughts at http://content-ind.cricinfo.com/magazine/content/current/story/391570.html
Now while any suggestion that puts Sir Garfield behind any other all rounder, past or present, may sound blasphemous to my old man's generation, what must be appreciated of Mr. Steen's treatise, is that by adopting a series of statistical yardsticks, he avoids the pitfalls of romanticizing the image of a player (in this case Sir Gary) from yesteryear. With time, great players acquire mythical proportions, sometimes much less than the actual scope of their exploits and in doing so put a player from the current lot at an unfair handicap. One also suspects that Mr. Steen may have witnessed the magic of Sobers in both flesh and soul and hence is entitled to a fairly unbiased firsthand opinion of both the gentlemen in question.
Because of this privilege, it would be foolish to disagree with Mr. Steen on account of how he could tread the road of sacrilege by having Sir Gary play second fiddle to anyone. It would also have been equally difficult for people from my generation (in the age group of 25 to 35) to differ with him, had he compared Kallis favourably with an Imran Khan or an Ian Botham or a Kapil dev, since the exploits of the latter trio were also before the advent of live cable television.
And so we must turn our minds to someone from the current generation, someone whose legacy can be reviewed as clearly as that of Kallis. A player who has had to carve his niche irrespective of the frenetic pace and burden of modern day cricket, the crucial factor because of which Mr. Steen puts Kallis ahead of Sobers. Someone whose multi pronged contribution has provided an added edge to the fortunes of his team.
And to all of these there responds the name of only one cricketer – Adam Gilchrist. In keeping with his biblical counterpart, Adam has been the first of his kind. Some might say that it would be unfair to compare the classical definition of an all rounder - someone who retains his spot in the side entirely on the strength of either skill (to which Kallis belongs), but think of the time before the first true all rounder came into the game. Before that a player was either a batsman or a bowler. It took the coming of one talented individual, who could both bowl and bat, to create the genus of the all rounder. Same is the case with Gilchrist. Because of his efficiency with the gloves behind the stumps, which thereby limit his contribution with the ball, Gilchrist has forced the classical definition of the all rounder to be broadened. In fact the very forum on which Rob Steen's essay appeared, also had Gilchrist running for the greatest all rounder ever from a shortlist of twenty - http://www.cricinfo.com/greatestallrounder/
Notwithstanding my dislike to nourish any argument by way of the succor provided by statistics, I find it imperative to take its recourse in this case, as it undeniably puts Gilchrist's all round ability in perspective. Gilchrist debuted in one day cricket in 1996-97 and it wasn't until 1999-2000 that he donned a test cap. So up to the Australian summer of 2007-08 where he finally called it quits, Gilchrist played 287 one day internationals and 96 test matches. Kallis who debuted in both forms of the game a little earlier in comparison (1995-96), has played the same number of one day internationals as Gilchrist to this day and 128 test matches which if pro-rated in comparison to Gilchrist's 9 seasons in test cricket would come to only about 83 test matches. So for the same duration that both men took to the cricket field, Gilchrist's workload had been heavier.
On closer examination of their all round skills in test cricket, Gilchrist again proves to be the better of the two. Kallis may well be the best number four batsman of his era statistically (averages 62.47 in 117 innings at that spot) ahead of Tendulkar (56.14 in 208 innings) and Lara (51.25 in 148 innings), but whether he would actually merit a place in any test side ahead of the aforementioned gentleman is worthy of debate (or is it). On the other hand, Gilchrist unarguably, is easily the greatest number seven ever, with a monstrous average of 46.44 in 100 innnings at that slot (overall test average of 47.60 runs per innings). Mark Boucher for a similar number of innings in that position averages a mere 26.28 runs per innings.
And even though it would not be the best thing to compare apples to oranges and compare Gilchrist as wicketkeeper to Kallis the bowler – it is important to take note of their respective achievements in these spheres vis-à-vis other contemporaries. So while Kallis dwarfs in comparison with his bowling average of 31.12 to Shaun Pollock's (another nominee for the greatest all rounder ever) 23.11, Gilchrist with 416 dismissals in 96 test matches (4.33 dismissals per test) ranks ahead of his closest contemporary Mark Boucher who has 466 dismissals in 123 test matches (3.78 dismissals per test).
One must also not forget Gilchrist's contributions in other spheres of the game. With scores of 54, 57 and 149 respectively in 3 consecutive World Cup Finals he left his best for the big stage. For a player whose team mates weren't always the model form of sportsmanship, Gilchrist often set a fine example in player conduct as when he walked on his own in the 2003 world cup semi final, having been given not out by the umpire. He also captained the Australian side that overcame the 'final frontier' that was India in 2004.
Mr. Steen's article makes for a telling read when viewed within the classical definition of the all rounder and by claiming ignorance of the effect of Gilchrist on this genre. Not for nothing are most wicket keepers of this generation forced to play more than a handy role with the bat – Sangakarra, Dhoni, Haddin and Akmal. To put things in proper perspective, if one goes with Mr. Steen's point of view, it took only fifty years to compare someone alongside Sir Gary. But in the 134 years that this great game of cricket has been in existence, there has been only one Adam Craig Gilchrist.
I rest my case.