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Alone on Mount Olympus
G.H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician who mentored Ramanujan, used to class mathematicians in cricketing terms. The best were in the Hobbs class, named after the great English opening batsman. Then along came the Bowral Boy and Hardy, reluctantly but fairly, demoted his countryman and created a new category, the Bradman class. The rightness of naming the summit of achievement after Bradman is obvious, but it does raise a question: having created the category, who on earth could Hardy have found to fill it?
We who follow cricket know that Bradman is one of a kind. Cricket is the one game in the world where every debutant for the last 50 years has known with complete certainty, that he will never get within shouting distance of the records set by a man who retired in the middle of the twentieth century. If you wanted to bet that Rod Laver's achievement in completing two tennis Grand Slams wouldn't be surpassed in the next 50 years, a long-lived bookmaker might take your wager. If, with the Tiger on the prowl, you wanted to put money down on the invincibility of Jack Nicklaus's tally of major championships, he'd grab your money. But no bookie in his right mind will bet against Bradman. With that average of 99.94, Bradman lives alone on Olympus. Tendulkar, the best batsman today, with an average hovering around 57, labours in the foothills.
The singularity of Bradman's record doesn't simply lie in the distance between him and the next man; what makes it unique is that the gap shows no sign of closing. Think of another sport, of some extraordinary breakthrough that took the world's breath away when it occurred. Take Bob Beamon's monster jump in the Mexico Olympics. While the rest of the field was aiming at a record 28 feet, Beamon cleared 29. The record lasted a while then the world closed in and it was overhauled. In a comparable sport like baseball, Babe Ruth's home-run record stood for decades and was then broken in one season by two players. In the 53 years since Bradman's retirement, no batsman who has played 20 test matches has come within 30 runs of his average.
Sometimes, sports writers argue that earlier players shouldn't be compared with later ones. They argue that the sport has changed so much over time because of better technology and greater athleticism that players today play it at a higher level. By this reckoning, Laver's record can't be usefully compared with, say, Sampras's because tennis now is a faster, more competitive game. It's not an argument that works with cricket.
The changes in cricket's laws and the improvements in its technology have favoured batsmen. Contemporary batsmen play with more powerful bats and better protective equipment, they're coddled by restrictions on bouncers and supplied with pitches where the bounce is true. The helmet, by removing the risk of death and unbearable pain, decisively shifted the balance of power in favour of the batsman. Sir Donald played Larwood and leg theory in a cloth cap, he played nearly half his cricket in England where pitches were left uncovered and overnight rain made the ball skid and turn and he still managed to score his mountain of runs at a rate which would do credit to a one-day batsman.
Bradman knew when he retired that he was cricket's solitary immortal and for the rest of his life he tended his flame. He had a distinguished career as a cricket administrator and stockbroker so it wasn't as if he hoarded his aura by becoming a recluse. Till the end he spent more than three hours a day replying to the hundreds of letters he received. He accepted the honours and distinctions that came his way, the knighthood, the fan mail, the worship of his countrymen. What he resisted were the seductions of celebrity, the ribbon-cutting retirement that champions too often wallow in as they try to revisit the limelight or make a living.
Bradman played as an amateur before sponsorship and advertising made cricketers commercial entertainers. But had he chosen to, he could have hawked his immortality for a ton of money. He didn't so choose because he knew how much was enough. He also understood that it's one of the ironies of bourgeois society that it reserves its highest esteem for those who refuse to parlay genius into money. Tendulkar, Azhar and the rest show us every day that celebrity can be milked; Bradman knew instinctively that immortality must be guarded.
But to return to the Bradman Class. That Bradman is the twentieth century's greatest sportsman is true but banal; the real question who could live in Hardy's category alongside Bradman, from any field of human endeavour. Einstein? No, because any candidate must, in his field, be a nonpareil and in physics Newton is Einstein's peer. I challenged a friend to find me a name; he said, Shakespeare? The Bard and Brad? Yes, I think we can live with that.