The most extraordinary batsman of them all
By Ian McDonald
April 20, 1999
Rohan Kanhai is back in the country. He is here to be inducted into our Cricket Hall of Fame and for the dedication of the new Rohan Kanhai stand at Bourda. The name and the man at once bring back memories of artistry, excitement and marvellous accomplishment on cricket fields all over the world. And it becomes a suitable moment to consider once again the age-old question that all cricket-lovers will debate until the last ball is bowled in the last game before the ultimate Umpire calls the end of play. What constitutes greatness in a batsman? Who was the greatest of them all?
A great batsman, like greatness itself, can be defined in many ways.
There is statistical greatness. If that is the criterion, one man surely stands above all - Don Bradman of Australia. Test average 99.9 runs, a century every third time he walked to the wicket in a Test innings. He was an almost unbelievably methodical and consistent scorer of runs. No one can excel him in the records book.
There is the greatness of the batsman who carries a team nearly alone, bearing almost the whole burden on his own shoulders. Here, surely, the greatest name is George Headley. Other great batsmen - Bradman included - had compatriots in their teams who were themselves outstanding. But in his time Headley was West Indian batting. Only the greatest of batsmen could have carried the responsibility of knowing that after he was gone the team was gone. For the sake of West Indian cricket I do not like to say it but perhaps Brian Lara is now entering this category.
There is the greatness that comes from pure athletic genius. Here it seems to me that Gary Sobers stands alone. A sportsman who if he had chosen could have won Wimbledon, matched Pele, run in the Olympics, beaten Nicklaus at golf. His batsmanship was pure instinct and unbeatable talent. It had the greatness of unrivaled agility, hawk-eye reflex and physical sharpness.
There is the greatness of simple tenacity, persistence, long consistent years of scoring thousands of runs at the highest level. Many names come to mind - Hobbes of England, who scored a hundred hundreds after he was forty years old. The massive Ponsford of Australia. Sunil Gavaskar of India. Geoff Boycott of England, that obsessive accumulator of runs. Alan Border of Australia.
Is there not greatness in elegance too? I would say yes. And in my memory the form of Frank Worrell appears with all the grace in the world, stroking the ball so softly, everywhere along the grass, with such beauty and delicacy, that the very ground seemed velvet smooth because the strokes themselves were so velvet smooth. Tendulkar of India also has this quality and is a mighty scorer of runs.
And there is the greatness of the hammer-stroke batsman, the batsman who any afternoon can suddenly put ruthlessly to the sword any bowler in the world. Weekes and Walcott of the Caribbean. Hammond of England, so history tells us. And of course Viv Richards is in this category, a man whose name means massacre on the cricket field.
There is also greatness in a team crisis and here for me the name that stands out is Clive Lloyd. I still vividly remember his famous innings at Bourda against Australia in April, 1973, when he held together the West Indian batting in a crisis, as he had done before and as he would often do again, and hit a marvellous 173. So often his greatness was the inspiration of his team. Steve Waugh, too often for my liking, plays the same role for Australia now.
And there is Brian Lara, mercurial genius in a category of his own, world record holder, flourishing again, perhaps destined to be counted among the very best of them all.
Greatness lies in all these names. They stand out in the annals of cricket and always will. Cricket lovers will name a hundred more. Some will name one the greatest of all. Some will name another. Each man to his taste, each man brings forward his own irrefutable argument. But for me, surveying the field, there is still the name which, if I had to choose, I would choose above them all - Kanhai of Guyana and the West Indies, this batsman who has something of all the greatnesses and, in their total combination, I believe surpasses all the others. For is he not statistically amongst the greatest Test batsmen? And was there not a touch of the Worrell grace in all his play? And on his day, was not his pure athletic ability supreme? And who on so many golden afternoons could tear a bowling attack to pieces like he did? And how many times did he not save and inspire his team in a crisis with the mastery of his batting when he really decided to put his head down? And was he not always in a category of his very own?
All the ingredients of greatness were there, like no other batsman. And mixed into that mixture already so supremely rich there was one final ingredient, a flair and a touch, that no one can define and no one can wholly grasp but which one knew was there and felt it as the man took the field and made his walk to the wicket - something uniquely his own, a quality that made excitement grow in the air as he came in, a feeling that here there would be something to see that made the game of cricket more than a sport and a contest, made it also an art and an encounter with the truth and the joy that lies in all supreme human achievement.