Roger Federer's French Open win has ignited this debate on whether he's the best ever tennis player. Even though the question admits to only two answers, there are many shades of opinion! There are those who insist that players cannot be compared across eras, and the only measure of greatness can be vis-a-vis contemporaries. So a Rod Laver or a Pete Sampras could lay claim to the greatest-ever title just as much as Federer.
Then there are those who say that greatness isn't just about results, but also style. A John McEnroe wasn't nearly as successful as these worthies over the course of his career, or even compared with contemporaries like Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl. But I know whom I'd rather watch on any given day...
And then there are those who dare to compare across eras... Tennis, like other sports, has not just evolved, but improved over the years. If you took a 25-year-old Rod Laver and pitted him against a 25-year-old Roger Federer (with the 60s-era racquets, say), who do you think would win? Certainly, Federer. Similarly, if you pitted a Jesse Owens (or even Carl Lewis) against Usain Bolt in a 100m race, I'm pretty sure Bolt would win. There are some types of sport where human ability has simply improved over the years, and so the modern greats are indeed the all-time greats. Athletics (minus the doping) and tennis would seem to fall in that category.
What about cricket? Has cricket improved consistently over the decades? Can we claim that a Sachin Tendulkar is 'greater' than a Don Bradman, or that Kumble is better than say, Chandra? I don't think so. Over the long-term, there's definitely an improvement in human physique and conditioning over the population, in statistical terms. But I'm not sure that this applies at the level of the greats in cricket. Is today's fast bowler necessarily faster than those from the 1920s for example? Or even back to Fred Spofforth and the likes? Probably not. The outliers in the 1920s were probably just as strong, and fast, as those we see today.
And that's just raw physical strength we're talking about, not skills. Cricket (at least, Test cricket) is dominated by skills rather than strength or other physical attributes. Is there any reason to believe that human skill levels have improved over the span of a century? Are today's carpenters more skilled? Or weavers? Or bowlers? I don't think so. Certainly one could postulate that today's "strongmen" are (a bit) stronger than those of 100 years ago. But the likelihood of the true outlier in terms of physical strength also having enough bowling skill to become a feared fast bowler in Test cricket, is minuscule.
It's similar with batting. You do see rare examples of fierce hitters like Andrew Symonds or Yusuf Pathan doing well in limited-overs cricket. But the true greats of the modern game aren't greats because of sheer power. Better bats have helped, as have helmets and other protective gear. But the primary thing that differentiates Sachin, Ponting, Dravid, Kallis... from the rest is their skill -- skill in judgment, concentration, timing, placement... skills that haven't improved over the decades really. And what about slow bowling? Certainly, improvements in the human body haven't contributed anything to the art of spin bowling.
So my contention is that it really should be possible to compare cricketers across eras. But one needs to be careful with using statistics blindly to make such comparisons. Test statistics are inevitably influenced by various factors outside of sheer skill. For example, a bowler's statistics have a dependency on his fielders' catching skills. A batsman's career stats depend on the quality of opposition he faced, and even on the quality of his own support cast. Was he always shouldering the burden of his team's batting, or was he one of several good batsmen? And for many of the oldies, the sample sizes are simply not large enough for statistics to be reliable. So many of them played barely one Test series a year, and had large gaps between series. Today's cricketers play far more, are more fatigued, but can benefit from highly productive streaks of form.
So it's best not to rely on statistics for comparisons across eras, but on visual evidence of skills. Of course there is very little Test cricket footage available up until the 1960s or 1970s. But there is a lot of cricket writing, news coverage, etc. that serves us reasonably well. And we should be justified in making some conclusions on that basis, such as, Tendulkar better than Vishy (just as an example), or Richards better than Lara, or Lillee better than Brett Lee (surely no one who has seen both can deny that!).
In a subsequent post, I'll use this compare-across-eras justification to indulge in the armchair critic's favourite pastime -- picking "all-time greatest XI" teams! Till then....