Cricket’s heavy emphasis on statistics reinforces the paradox that it’s both an individual and a team sport. There’s a delicate balance: good individual performances contribute to the overall cause – victory – but the focus on personal statistics can become obsessive, and individual milestones can become an end in themselves, to the detriment of the team ethos and collective achievement.
By the time this appears, India’s Sachin Tendulkar may have scored his 100th international century (going into the third test against Australia in Perth he had made 51 in tests and 48 in one-dayers), but the intense focus on this milestone had clearly become a major distraction for him and his team.
A few months ago, India was the top-ranked test-playing nation. After six successive crushing defeats away from home – three were by an innings and change; the narrowest was by 122 runs – the No 1 ranking has gone south along with a fair bit of credibility.
However, India’s collapse into mediocrity since winning last year’s World Cup has often seemed secondary to the Little Master’s quest to become the first man to score 100 hundreds. Each time Tendulkar walks to the crease, the commentators embark on a tiresome “Will this be the day?” routine; each time it turns out not to be, the state of play and the contribution of the other 21 players are overshadowed by the fact that “the wait goes on”.
Ricky Ponting had a two-year wait between his 39th and 40th test centuries, prompting much speculation over what, if any, role he had to play in a new era in Australian cricket. His standard and stoic response was that he believed he still had a lot to offer.
Thus when he made his 40th century in Sydney recently, the general reaction was “Ponting proves the critics wrong.” Really? Given enough opportunities, any highly experienced test batsman will eventually make a century. Another way of looking at it is this: getting a hundred against India’s modest bowling attack on a wicket on which his team amassed 659 for four and Michael Clarke barely raised a sweat while racking up 329 not out merely proves Ponting hasn’t lost it altogether.
Ponting is 37, and although there may be lies, damned lies and statistics, the evidence of his decline is hard to ignore. Between 2002 and 2006 he averaged 73.6 in test cricket, only once averaging below 50 in a calendar year. Over the past five years he has averaged 38.4, without ever averaging above 50 in a calendar year.
There’s a notion that players of the stature of Ponting and India’s middle-order triumvirate of Rahul Dravid (39), Tendulkar (38) and VVS Laxman (37) have earned the right to depart the stage at a time of their choosing. Given Tendulkar’s demigod status in India and the volatility of that country’s fans, it would be a brave selection panel that decided to take the decision out of his hands. All concerned are kidding themselves, however, if they think that approach is compatible with the core principle of team sport: no individual is bigger than the team.
While the cricket world fixated on Tendulkar and Ponting, a player with a strong claim to be better than both of them was quietly but relentlessly going about his business, as he has done throughout his career. South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis played a starring role in his team’s series-clinching victory over Sri Lanka in Cape Town, scoring 224, taking three wickets for 35 in the visitors’ second innings and holding six catches.
Kallis’s batting average in tests and onedayers is virtually identical to Tendulkar’s and better than Ponting’s. He’s also a very good bowler, having taken over 500 wickets in the two forms of the game at much the same average as Daniel Vettori.
The dashing and extraordinarily versatile West Indian Garfield Sobers, who played test cricket from 1954 to 1974, is routinely described as the greatest all-round cricketer of all time. Going by the cold, hard stats, Kallis is right up there with him.