There are many qualities that define greatness in sport. Endurance doesn’t appear to be one of them though.
And by “great” I mean the real thing, not the overused sense of the word.
Ignoring for a moment the hype over Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, which three names come to mind immediately as the greatest strikers of all time? I would say Pele, Diego Maradona and Gerd Muller. Yet Germany’s Miroslav Klose and Brazil’s Ronaldo share the record for the most goals – 15 - in World Cup football finals, with Klose probably having the opportunity to add to his equalising effort against Ghana on Saturday depending on how deep the Germans go into the tournament in Brazil.
Okay, so now name your three greatest basketball players. Let me go with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell. If you add another three you might still not get to Tim Duncan, who has just won his fifth American NBA Championship in 18 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
And last, but not least, how about the top three among the greatest-ever West Indies batsmen? I’ll say George Headley, Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Garfield Sobers. Your first reaction might be how I could have omitted Brian Lara or Sir Everton Weekes. Not many though would be batting for Shivnarine Chanderpaul, even if he is second on the all-time list (behind Lara) for the most Test runs by a Caribbean player.
In deciding generally on who we would describe as our all-time greats, it appears that impact is far more important than durability and accumulation. In essence, the argument goes that if you’re above average and manage to play long enough, inevitably your final numbers will be extremely impressive, even if you haven’t had the sort of influence compared to others with apparently inferior stats.
So when we’re talking about greats, we mean those who are match-winners, those who can change the course of a contest by virtue of their own performances. There is also an element of style to go with that game-changing substance. We want our greats to not only take their teams to victory but take us to another level of enjoyment beyond the result.
Therefore those who occupy the rarefied stratosphere of greatness must also take our breath away: Maradona’s second goal of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England, Jordan’s gravity-defying lay-ups or Richards taking a bouncer on the chin and hooking the next delivery 20 rows beyond the long-leg fence at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
At the lunch interval on the last day of the second Test between the West Indies and New Zealand at Queen’s Park Oval last Friday, I walked into a furious row that had broken out in the radio commentary box over who was more delightful to watch: Sobers or Lara. By the way, in my limited experience, it’s always in the radio box where the liveliest discussions take place off-air. In comparison, the television commentary box has this smug “I’m too important and I’m too well dressed to descend to the level of the radio riff raff.”
Anyway, back to the story of the radio box rumpus.
Dr Keith Clifford, chairman of the First Citizens Sports Foundation, lit the fuse by stating emphatically that Lara was the greatest thing he had ever seen in the realm of batsmanship. Well, the only thing that Colin Murray didn’t do in response to that was get a heart attack.
Amid the rapid-fire volley of insults, I could just about make out references to people who only now start watching cricket. Not satisfied with the verbal tirade, the former West Indies Under-19 captain and short-lived contender last year for the post of senior national football coach proceeded to offer a demonstration of Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee, in his fearsome tearaway youth, reacting to a Sobers straight drive whizzing past him on his follow through.
Nothing was said about runs, centuries or averages. Just looks, just impact. Scorer and statistician Harold Eastmond wasn’t even moved to remind anyone about those numbers, because as he and everyone else who was witness to the spectacle realised, statistics would not have made a blind bit of difference to the argument.
True greats inspire us to such emotive, and thoroughly entertaining, outbursts when it appears their status is being questioned. Perseverance, dedication and consistency are qualities to be highly commended in any individual. But what we really want are majestic moments of inventive, incomparable brilliance with a little style and swagger on the side.
It’s not that the work of the likes of Klose, Duncan and Chanderpaul is overlooked. No-one questions how consistently good they are. But great? Well, I’ll see what the boys in the radio box at Kensington Oval later this week think about it.