The Greatest ODI Cricketer - Some stats don't lie, but do they hide the truth?

Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar – who is the greatest ODI cricketer of all time?

You’re picking the Greatest ODI Player. You’d look among the Top 10 ODI Players, right? Why? They’ve been tested the most. Right?

Wrong, says a jury that voted for Viv Richards. Those tired claims again – World Cup ‘final’ heroics, bowling, fielding, captaincy.

In a history of over 3600 ODIs, do a few World Cup finals weigh that much? And do finals themselves matter as much as who has dominated these multi-nation tournaments over the years?

Sachin has the most runs, most fifties, most tons in World Cups, most runs in multi-team tournament finals and the most runs in a single World Cup. He is The Lord of World Cups. ODI greats such as Afridi, Jayasuriya, Ponting, Kallis, Sangakkara too have shone brightly in World Cups even if, according to some jurors, not as brightly as Richards did in two finals.

Sachin ‘bowled out’ the best ODI bats in his era, Richards did the same in his. Not specialist prowess but street-smart cricket, villainous field placement, variation. Both had it. Had Richards to bowl more deliveries his bowling average, economy rate and strike rate would be far more modest. Broadly there’s little to separate the two on bowling.

Both were fantastic fielders. Is Sachin’s tally of 140 catches greater than Richards’ 100? Did Sachin save more runs? Richards was more athletic but was Sachin any less effective? Not much to separate them on fielding either. And the impact of captaincy on team or individual fortune is too nebulous to credibly separate cause from effect. It’s easier to predict the weather at Lord’s.

Cricket is an eleven-a-side game with far too many moving parts. Few sports match its intricate play of role, rhythm, knowledge, skill, experience. Those who can unerringly rank one captain over others have stumbled on a new science, beyond mortals. And we must leave them to it.

What separates Richards and Sachin, after all, is batsmanship.

Some stats don’t lie. But do they hide the truth? Sure, Richards’ batting average and strike-rate were ahead of his peers. But importantly, both are part myth.

In a nearly 50-year ODI history wouldn’t you be looking for those who’ve been tested fiercely enough, long enough, differently enough and consistently enough? Achievement alone isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to just heap on runs, tons or to score faster than everyone else. What counts is resistance faced and overcome.

Richards was tested in about 5% of all ODIs, Sachin in about 13%.

Now look at the Top 10 ODI Walls of Fame: 1) Top 10 batsmen, runs scored; 2) Top 10 bowlers, wicket haul; 3) Top 10 fielders, catches held; 4) Top 10 keepers, dismissals. They’ve achieved the most, after having been tested the most and against the most proven ODI practitioners.

Some figure in TWO of these four walls of fame: Afridi, Murali, Jayasuriya, Sangakkara, Ponting, Kallis, Jayawardene and Sachin. Only one – Sachin - figured in the jury’s final five. One!? But at least Sachin figured. Not one of the other multi-skilled players did.

Richards was an ODI pioneer. The way Grace was a First Class pioneer and Hobbs, Hammond, Bradman were Test pioneers. But are pioneers the greatest? And everyone else ‘just shut up’? Are players the greatest because their contemporaries simply couldn’t keep up? Or are players the greatest because in the most competitive, busiest era when it was hardest to tower above a multitude of greats, they did just that?

In the most competitive era – batting, bowling, fielding, keeping, intrusive umpiring – it is Sachin who has towered. He is 4,000 runs and 19 tons ahead of the next man. His tally of nineties (18) is twice that of the next man. He has the most tons (9) in a calendar year. He was the first to break the ODI double ton barrier. By some distance, he has the most Player of the Series awards (15), the most Player of the Match awards (62).

On the pitch Sachin didn’t swagger. He didn’t chew gum. He didn’t stare down bowlers. But of the Top 40 ODI wicket-takers (195+ wickets) if you ignore the 7 Indians, he’s faced and bettered all the others. Richards? Less than six of the most proven 40 ODI bowlers seriously tested him.

ODIs nod to cricket’s great past while pointing to both present and future. One of the jurors, Suresh Menon, the editor of Wisden India Almanack has wisely said about Sachin: ‘The traditional and the cutting edge came together in him like in no other batsman.Tendulkar would be the first choice for Earth in a game against Mars’. Some clues there about where his vote went.

Now, does Richards figure in any of the four Top 10 ODI Walls of Fame listed above? Not one.

Yet, when the jury picked Richards as The Greatest ODI Cricketer of All Time we’re told that ‘29 out of 50 jurors placed him at first position, 11 more put him second’. That’s 40 out of 50 voting Richards in first or second place. Forty out of fifty! Forty out of fifty?

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is the author of the non-fiction book ‘GREATER THAN BRADMAN’

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Edited by Staff Editor