Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is Federer the greatest ever?

I know, I know, this is a cricket blog -- so who's Federer, you ask... But bear with me, this is indeed a cricketing article.

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....

9 comments:

Amit Paranjape said...

Nice post. I am a big Federer fan, and tending towards 'he is the all-time great' stand. Only open issue in my mind is Nadal's domination over him. How can the 'greatest all-time player' cannot win consistently against an oponent of his era?

Also in terms of batting skills, I agree with your view point. About bowling speeds though, I am not sure. I guess we would never know since there were no speed-gun statistics prior to the 1970s.

Amit

Neeran Karnik said...

Thanks Amit. Re. Nadal's domination... nobody's perfect, just "great" or even "greatest". So Viv was troubled by Chandra, Gavaskar by English swing bowling, Bradman by bodyline (which is routine today).

Re. bowling speeds, at least there hasn't been significant change in 30+ years (since Thommo clocked his 99mph). I feel the old-timers -- hardy folks like Larwood for example -- must've been in the 90-95mph range as well, like today's fastest bowlers.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

Neeran, good post... Re Nadal's domination, there are two views that I hold:
1) If you take the clay-courts out (where Nadal is a truly a specialist), the record is almost even - across grass (where it has become slower these days) and hard court.
2) I also think Nadal graph is rising, whereas Federer's is looking down from the peak; so the best of Nadal isn't playing the best of Federer (the same era problem)...

In any case, i tried to a mathematical compare of Fedex vs Sampras in my blog...

http://thegoodblahg.blogspot.com/2008/11/genius-vs-genius-who-is-better.html

- gautham -

Neeran Karnik said...

Thanks Gautham. Interesting analysis but one that inherently ignores 'style' of course :) In style terms, I have a personal preference for Federer over Sampras, and of course McEnroe over Borg.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

Neeran: Yep, I tried to keep my personal preference and subjective params out...
I used to love Sampras' serve-volley and the precision and power with which he'd do that. However, for the whole story on serve and volley for grace and beauty - nothing to beat seeing Edberg play - it was poetry, right from his service and his balletic movements at the net...
...Federer has similar grace like Edberg - just all over the court :)

Anonymous said...

I think that Federer is indeed the all time great. One can certainly compare technique over eras and I think his technique is superior to others from the previous generation. Certainly, my all time great has been Borg but I must concede that Federer is more skilled. Sampras was too skewed towards serve and volley and ditto for McEnroe. Federer has a more balanced game.

I agree that to a certain extent cricketers can be compared over generations, but there is an element of innovation that is seen with any field, where the previous generation is improved upon by the current. But then can one ever say that today's researchers are better than Einstein?

Neeran Karnik said...

Interesting that the comments on this post are more tennis than cricket :)

@Anon: I agree, there's innovation in every field, so that today's stars are usually quantifiably "better" than yesterday's. But there are some fields which depend purely/mostly on human skill. While human strength may have improved slightly over the decades, I'm not sure that skill has! Are today's bowlers necessarily more skillful than those of the 1920s or 1960s? And similarly, are today's carpenters, or sculptors, or artists, better?

I think (first-class) cricket falls into that category of skill-dominated activity, because of which it's fair to compare.

Anonymous said...

The final point I would like to make is that, skill and physical ability (strength, dexterity) are inseparably intertwined. So for e.g. one cannot optimally express skill if one has weakness in a limb. So it is possible that improving strength may improve skill as well. Isn't the "skill" of Dale Steyn, Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee largely dependant on pace (strength). If they had bowled a lot slower would they have the same "skill".

Also, the human mind probably needs a bench mark and then works on bettering it. The benchmark keep moving upwards with every generation.

The kids of today have more information than when we were young. This could be partly related to information technology. Information technology may also play a role in cricket where the cricketers of today are able to watch video recordings of their stroke play in slow motion and detect faults in technique etc...

So I think there may be many small factors. We always talk about Sunil Gavaskar versus Sachin Tendulkar. Can you take anything away from Gavaskar who would open the innings against the likes of Holding, Roberts and Marshall without a helmet.

BijayaLaxmi Nanda said...

It is indeed very hard to compare across eras. And I feel the debate is endless - statistics vs objective analysis battle will never end.

What about the pressure and expectations of the fans (Tendulkar managing such huge stress as compared to Don would have ever handled)? Playing under stress and still able to hold to one's style/skill is better, is not it?

And what about the mindset of the player (ex: Yuvi's temperament defeats him more than the rival bowler - otherwise he would have accumulated lot of statistics to be really compared to Viv)? So, is only comparing style/skill enough? Is not it better to have the skill and statistics both?

IMO, potential is one thing (Yuvi can be Viv), actually achieving the numbers is another thing (ex: Tendulkar).

Can the comparison be based on how the rivals felt/viewed them ? (ex: what Warne/McGrath/Muralitharan/Kumble/Shaun think about Tendulkar).

And can we say that what Don was to Australian cricket, Tendulkar was/is to Indian cricket? Who will win in that case :) ?