The other day, Brian Lara apparently said that Sachin Tendulkar was the greatest cricketer ever. Certainly, that's how it was reported. Now, I can see why he will have said it: Tendulkar is certainly a great cricketer. He has more aggregate runs than anyone else ever. He's in his final match, so naturally everyone is a little emotional.
It's also quite a nice gesture from Brian Lara. While they were both playing, the debate was over which of these supreme batsmen was the best, the one who was setting records for total runs and numbers of hundreds, or the one who was setting records for the highest individual score in first class and test matches.
Yet I think it's an argument that simply cannot be sustained, and I think I should say that even though I'm probably going to get shouted down by any passing Tendulkar fans. He is certainly a great, but the greatest? As a batsman, one obvious figure makes that a problem: Bradman. Sachin Tendulkar, on relatively friendly modern pitches, wearing a helmet and all the protection afforded to players these days, averaged 53.72 runs per test match innings completed before the start of his final match earlier today. It may go up a fraction, but it's only going to be a tiny fraction. Sir Donald Bradman had a much shorter career, thanks to the combination of the Second World War and the difficulties of international travel in those days, but he averaged 99.94 runs per innings over the course of 52 test matches. Or, to put it another way, he was worth very nearly two Sachins. Which just goes to show how special he was. Yes, we can make a case for Sachin having done more for the pride of his country, but please remember that Australia was emerging as a nation in its own right while Bradman was playing. He carried Australian hopes on his shoulders at least as much as Sachin. Even in the fame stakes, there are serious comparisons in the way he was mobbed by autograph hunters and fans through his career, far above his team mates or opponents.
All this is before we pick up on the other point in that comment by Lara, which is that as usual, the batters have forgotten about us bowlers. Even if we were somehow to forget about the Don, would that leave Sachin as the best cricketer ever? No. As amusing as his spin bowling is, it's a part time option. Which is problematic when we consider two of the best all rounders to grace the game: Sobers and Kallis.
Jaques Kallis is often overlooked among modern greats, perhaps because he's an all-rounder and seems to fit a different category, or perhaps because his batting has occasionally faced accusations of dullness. He currently plays all the same teams as India do, and he averages more than Tendulkar does with the bat (at 55.44) as well as taking wickets at 32.61 a piece, to make him a front line part of South Africa's bowling attack. No one else has made more than 10000 test runs and taken more than 200 wickets as well (at 288, he should go past 300). And if the reason Tendulkar has made so many runs needs more explanation, consider this: Tendulkar is playing his 200th test. Kallis, who is of the same generation of players and who is a major workhorse for South Africa, has played 164.
Finally, let's talk about the man who has the biggest claim to being the best all round cricketer ever: Sir Garfield Sobers. Gary Sobers averaged 57.78 with the bat and 34.03 with the ball, bowling a mixture of fast-medium, finger spin and wrist spin as required. He took more than a hundred catches. More than that, so many of the achievements of others, he did first. Lara's test batting record was previously held by Sobers. He was the first man to hit six sixes in an over, too. Until Kallis came along, his 200 wickets and 8000 runs left him in a join aggregate class of his own as an all rounder. He knew what it was like to be a national and regional icon too, playing for and captaining the West Indies at a time when it was an important symbol of the islands' identities.
So that's why, for me, Tendulkar is great, but not the greatest.