Ian Botham bats

Powered by electrocuted grilled chicken: Botham in Bombay, 1980

Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images


The line of greatness

Some soar over it, some walk it, some fall cruelly short. A brief history

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan  |  

On the night of February 14, 1980, Ian Botham sat in his hotel room in Bombay with "only two bottles of brandy and some room-service tandoori chicken for company". The TV wasn't working, he says in his autobiography Head On - Ian Botham, and when his attempts to adjust the set failed, he threw a chicken drumstick at it. "It missed… bounced off the wall and got stuck in the back of the set, at which point the television mysteriously started working."

Sharing a room with Derek Underwood and Underwood's ghostwriter Chris "Crash" Lander, Botham had a typically "late and liquid night". Next morning, Crash woke up "to find that someone had tastefully arranged the remains of his tandoori chicken on his pillow like a halo around his head".

Too hung-over to cover the game, Crash switched on the television, noted the first-day score and was about to go back to bed - when he "saw a plume of smoke rising from his TV set… only to discover that the same helpful person had stuffed a few more pieces of tandoori chicken in the back of the TV, where it was (over)cooking in the heat."

Having thus set the stage, Botham goes on to inform us, rather casually, that despite the "prodigious hangover, and similarly savage ones" he suffered on each morning of the Golden Jubilee Test, he took six wickets in the first innings, seven in the second and scored a century in between as England won by ten wickets. "Perhaps," he says as glorious afterthought, "I should have been preparing for all my Test matches the same way."

Statistically, Botham's all-round performance may be unmatched in Test history - and is likely to stay so. He bowled 22.5 overs on the first day for six wickets; rescued England from 58 for 5 on day two with a commanding 114; bowled an astounding 24 overs unchanged for six more wickets on day three, and added a seventh on the fourth morning. He battled the heat, humidity (and self-inflicted headaches) - and got through the match with almost no sleep. "This Test," Simon Wilde wrote in the biography Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory, "saw Botham in excelsis… the ultimate expression of Young Botham - implausibly brilliant heroics on the field, fun and games off it, superhuman staying power in both arenas."

A batsman may take multiple paths to greatness but a bowler has only one option: nab wickets and lead the side to a win

There may be no definitive formula for quantifying a great cricketing performance but Botham's Bombay epic ticked most boxes. He a) won a match, b) beat a side that was strong at home (India hadn't lost a home Test for three years), c) conquered foreign conditions, d) turned in marathon spells (both economical and wicket-taking), and e) revived his team with an accomplished century. No one, in more than a century of Test cricket, had scored a hundred and taken ten wickets in a match. And only two others - Imran Khan and Shakib Al Hasan - have managed it since.

Several attributes can turn a fine Test performance into a great one. Historical context plays a part, so does match-winning and series-winning ability. The quality of the opposition is a major factor, as are the knotty questions posed by the pitch and the weather. Thriving in conditions abroad sometimes trumps playing at home, and history rarely forgets triumphs achieved under severe pressure. Battling pain during a dazzling innings or spell adds a heroic subtext. And to stun the world on debut is to leave an indelible mark.

Sometimes, though, none of the above criteria match up to one exceptional class of sporting achievement: the statistical freak. The sheer immensity of these performances allows them to stand on their own two feet. Like Jim Laker's 19 for 90 (played on a sticky dog, at home) or Brian Lara's 400 not out (on a batting paradise, at home, in a drawn dead rubber): these may have come in helpful conditions against lacklustre opposition but the mere fact that nobody else has scaled these peaks gives them a pronounced gloss. Statistical outliers invariably find their way into cricket lore. Bob Massie and Narendra Hirwani took 16 wickets on debut - and though both were aided by favourable conditions, the scale of their return is enough to take the breath away. Anil Kumble's 10 for 74 was followed by plenty of gripes about the quality of the pitch and the umpiring, but can anyone really dispute the magnitude of the final figures? Lara was slammed for selfishly piling on 400, paying little heed to winning the Test, but Matthew Hayden summed up the general sense of astonishment: "It doesn't matter who the opposition is, what the count of the series is, where you're playing - to bat that period of time is an incredible achievement."

Numerically staggering feats often tend to eclipse everything else in the game. Greg Chappell's splendid hundred and John Snow's 5 for 57 in the Lord's Test of 1972 are largely obscured; instead the mind readily recalls "Massie's Match". Martin Crowe's 188 and John Reid's 108 in the Brisbane Test of 1985 have receded from memory; what looms large is New Zealand's first Test win in Australia in "Hadlee's Match".

Study in sweat and metal: Atherton and Russell in Johannesburg, 1995

Study in sweat and metal: Atherton and Russell in Johannesburg, 1995 © Getty Images

Massie may have played just five Tests after Lord's and Hadlee may have gone on to take more wickets than anyone before him, but when it comes to staking a claim for the greatest Test performance both stand on equal footing. As American historian Stephen Jay Gould said, though in a baseball context: "A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendent event to fix him in permanent memory… Detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event."

One of cricket's most iconic images has Michael Atherton squatting, his gloved left hand clasping his helmet, his gloved right hand resting on an upright bat, like a limp flag over a pole, grinning. His face is flushed with a combination of joy and relief, as if he has just witnessed his wife giving birth. His batting partner, Jack Russell, leaning over, seems to be sharing an inside joke.

Here was "Iron Mike" at the end of a 643-minute vigil, having defied Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and friends to save a Test. England had been skittled in less than 70 overs in the first innings; Atherton effectively batted for 82 overs in the second. The post-match verdict was unanimous: Atherton's innings was a backs-to-the-wall classic. Former England captain Ray Illingworth, the coach at the time, hailed the 185 not out as "one of the greatest ever played - I have never seen a better or gutsier knock". Seven years later Atherton would write in Opening Up: "If he is lucky, a batsman may once play an innings that defines him; one that, whether he likes it or not, he will be remembered for."

In 2013, Patrick Ferriday and David Wilson co-wrote Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries, and found through a "rigorous and intensive analysis using statistics" that Atherton's innings did not make the cut. Reviewers criticised the authors for the glaring omission, but earlier this year Ferriday explained their reasoning in All Out Cricket. Atherton's innings, he said, was played on a "completely lifeless pitch against a middling-to-average bowling attack". He admitted that there was "not much middling" about Donald but reminded us that Pollock was only in his second Test while the support cast - Meyrick Pringle, Brian McMillan and Clive Eksteen - was far from world-class.

Yet Atherton's rearguard lives on in the memory, not as much for its intrinsic value or impact (England lost the series after all) but for what it symbolised. The pitch and the quality of the attack were secondary; what mattered is that Atherton - a captain no less - weathered ten hours and 43 minutes, unbowed, undefeated. "There are two guiding national fantasies when it comes to great sporting prowess," wrote Simon Winder in the Independent a few days after the Test. "First there is our love of Great Escapes… More important, there is our unswerving devotion to never-say-die heroics, to the dogged they-shall-not pass spirit we perhaps fear we possess no more."

There may be no definitive formula for quantifying a great cricketing performance but Botham's Bombay epic ticked most boxes

Hanif Mohammad, Bridgetown; Allan Border, Port-of-Spain; Mark Greatbatch, Perth; Gary Kirsten, Durban; Brendon McCullum, Wellington; Gautam Gambhir, Napier… each a defensive masterpiece, each celebrated not because it led to a victory (none did) but because they staved off defeat; each a triumph because, as some commentators love to say, it allowed the team to live to fight another day. So here's a question to ponder: would these innings have been so enshrined in legend had they, in fact, resulted in wins?

Consider this: 11 days before his 40th birthday, with his place on the line and a match in the balance, Gordon Greenidge walked into the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown and ground down the Australian attack for 677 minutes. He finished with a Test-best 226 - in a game where nobody passed 32 in the first innings and nobody else passed 99 in the second - and gave the bowlers enough of a cushion to take West Indies to a huge win, putting a seal on the series. Greenidge batted for longer than Atherton did in Johannesburg. He scored more runs than Atherton and inspired his team not to a gritty draw but to a smashing win. But here lies the rub. Unlike Atherton, Greenidge was not David, but part of a team of Goliaths. He wasn't supposed to doggedly resist; his task, especially at home, was to trample the bowling. By taking on a role that went against the image of an all-conquering champion, Greenidge had turned into an Everyman. Naturally, there is no momentous image of Greenidge battling in the trenches, no lengthy tributes hailing his immovability. Instead the knock has gradually faded from memory, its aura seemingly diminished by the lopsided nature of the result.

A batsman may take multiple paths to greatness - sustained acceleration, patient accumulation, dogged resistance - but a bowler has only one option: nab wickets and lead the side to a win. Few books celebrate tireless spells or maidens bowled; and a bowler who tries to draw a Test - by targeting a negative line or by wasting time - is swiftly chastised. Marathon spells are not as fondly recalled if they don't influence the result. Wickets matter, victories matter. The more games won, the greater the bowler.

Take two Tests played within 14 months of each other in the mid-1980s. In December 1987 Abdul Qadir sent down close to 105 overs on a shirtfront against England in Karachi and finished with a match haul of 10 for 186. He also scored a Test-best 61; his tireless all-round effort won him the Man-of-the-Match award and Pakistan the series. A little over a year earlier, in October 1986 against West Indies in Faisalabad, Qadir took fewer wickets and scored fewer runs. He made 14 and took 1 for 58 in the first innings. He was out for 2 in the second innings. West Indies needed 240 for victory. And when Qadir was handed the ball on the fourth afternoon, spin had accounted for just five of the 32 wickets. In his 9.3 overs Qadir bagged 6 for 16: a devastating display of legbreaks and googlies that shot out the great West Indies batting line-up for 53, their lowest Test total at the time.

Brisbane 2013: Johnson catches fire

Brisbane 2013: Johnson catches fire © Getty Images

The Karachi Test against England is viewed as a testament to Qadir's stamina. The burst in Faisalabad, often revived thanks to a grainy video clip online, is seen as conclusive proof of his maverick genius. Six wickets in ten overs: foxing Larry Gomes, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson, and stunning the tail, bamboozling one of history's greatest sides in a matter of minutes. Wasim Akram may have taken six wickets in the first innings and scored a rapid (some may even say match-winning) 66 in the second but it is Qadir's blitz that is celebrated for posterity.

Cricket loves a quick kill, both with bat and ball. A quick-fire century (like Richards' 56-ball hundred) is hard to forget. Ditto a spell that brings an innings to an abrupt halt. Curtly Ambrose's 7 for 1 in 32 balls in Perth in 1993; Sarfraz Nawaz's 7 for 1 in 33 deliveries at the MCG in 1979; Wasim and Waqar combining to take 7 for 28 in Hamilton in 1993; Dale Steyn's 5 for 3 in 22 deliveries in Nagpur in 2010: all unforgettable passages when the live action held the rhythm of a highlights package.

Fans smack their lips when a bowler, or set of bowlers, enters the zone, rattling a string of hapless batsmen. Every ball is alive with possibility. The run-ups are well oiled, pinpoint. The fielders are electrified. An anticipatory buzz runs around the stands. The batsmen (and those in the dressing room) sense the mood. Here's Kevin Pietersen writing in his autobiography about the Brisbane Test of 2013, the first time in the series that England realised what lay in store for the rest of the summer:

Boom: First ball from Johnson hits Trotty on the glove as he jumps back and tries to shield his face. It was a violent bumper that jumped up at him like a startled rat. Everybody watching says, whoa, shit. WTF?

A shudder ran through the dressing room.

Jonathan Trott fell for 10. England for 136. And nobody had an answer to Mitchell Johnson's nastiness over the next few months.

Spectators may have a soft corner for the gallant draw but they can be ruthless when appraising performances that end in a loss

Pakistan have long instigated hasty collapses; an occurrence so frequent that the writer Osman Samiuddin posited that this spectacle, the haal, was deeply ingrained in Pakistani art forms. Waqar Younis called it "a tamasha, a spectacle, but also a cross between a rolling circus and a fair… thak-thak-thak it was going, you don't need anyone to come and say 'no, no, we need to do it like this'… 'Tamasha lag gaya hai, chalne do isse [Let the tamasha run]. And it is a tamasha. I swear to God, we used to say it, we used to talk about it like this: 'It's begun, come, grab on to it', that kind of language in the middle."

Ambrose, like Waqar, was notorious for many irrepressible sequences, injecting panic into incoming batsmen and turning matches in a trice. When on song, "Ambrose knew so instinctively that he had bowled a ball in the right place," wrote Malcolm Knox in the Cricket Monthly, "that he would murmur 'Hoopsy, Hoopsy, Hoopsy!' as soon as he released it, knowing that the batsman would edge it to Carl Hooper at second slip."

Runs, catches, wickets, victories, tactics, inspirational choices: each plays a part in a cricketer's quest for greatness. Sometimes, though, to quote American historian James Harvey Robinson, greatness "is largely bravery - courage in escaping from old ideas and old standards and respectable ways of doing things".

Courage manifests itself in various forms on the cricket field. Basil D'Oliveira rose to the occasion under severe political pressure; Dean Jones overcame dehydration and vomiting during a match-defining performance. And then there are those who played on, battered and bruised, their feats considered great not only for the runs scored and wickets taken but also for their lionheartedness.

One of the most awe-inspiring innings in Test history was an unbeaten 80 in a match that was lost, in a series that ended in a 4-0 defeat. The scorecard tells us that in the Christmas Test of 1953 in Johannesburg, Bert Sutcliffe retired hurt when New Zealand were 9 for 2, returned when they were 81 for 6 and, with able support from the tailenders, helped New Zealand avoid the follow-on. They still lost by 132 runs.

To the winner, the 4WD: Man of the Series Curtly Ambrose gives his team-mates a spin around the WACA in his prize

To the winner, the 4WD: Man of the Series Curtly Ambrose gives his team-mates a spin around the WACA in his prize Greg Wood / © AFP

Here's what the scorecard doesn't say. A few hours before the start of the second day's play, the New Zealand team learnt that 151 passengers had died in a rail tragedy back home. One of their team-mates, fast bowler Bob Blair, had lost his fiancée in the crash.

There was more pain when play began. Sutcliffe tried to hook early in his knock, missed and, as he later wrote, "went out like a light". Blood poured from a split in his ear. When taken to the hospital, he fainted again, twice. Lawrie Miller was also hospitalised after being hit on the chest. Four other batsmen copped severe blows. With New Zealand 41 adrift of the follow-on mark, a bandaged Sutcliffe - "looking like parchment" and feeling "like a Sikh", as he recalls in Between Overs: Memoirs of a Cricketing Kiwi - walked in. He smashed the third ball he faced for six. And he soon ensured South Africa would have to bat again. When the ninth wicket fell, Sutcliffe assumed the innings was over, but he hadn't accounted for the bereaved Blair, walking in to lend a hand. The two walked to the middle arm in arm as a shocked stadium stood in silence. Sutcliffe went on a rampage, clattering three more sixes, and Blair hit one of his own. "It was a great and glorious victory," wrote the revered writer Dick Brittenden, "a story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother's knee."

The history of cricket is rife with body-defying heroism, of players putting limbs, and lives, on the line. Anil Kumble once dismissed Brian Lara while bowling with a broken jaw. Graeme Smith tried to draw a Test with a broken hand and injured elbow. Malcolm Marshall batted with his left hand in a plaster before blowing England away with 7 for 53. Eddie Paynter was summoned from hospital to win the Bodyline series. Greenidge cracked a whirlwind double-century on one knee. Rick McCosker had his jaw broken in the Centenary Test but walked in to bat in the second innings with his face in a bandage. The packed MCG was so moved, the spectators chanted "Waltzing McCosker" to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda".

While these tales reveal the inherent dangers of the sport - as well as the fervour (and foolhardiness) of some of its participants - they are also indicative of how cricket writers rhapsodise acts of daring. The game, it often appears, is at its most gripping as pseudo war, as battered men try and ward off mortal danger, their feats likened to acts of military valour. "A wounded warrior battling to save his country, and in [Denis] Compton's case, the Ashes at stake… " wrote Max Davidson in Fields of Courage of Compton's bloodied eyebrow in the Old Trafford Test of 1948, "These are mythical events, etched in the collective memory as indelibly as Agincourt or Dunkirk."

Early in 1999, within a span of two months, the cricket world was witness to two unforgettable innings from the pre-eminent batsmen of their generation. Both were scripted in home Tests, in the final innings of matches. Both were composed of jaw-dropping strokeplay on wearing pitches, against virtuoso bowling attacks. Both were accomplished under strain - the first with shooting back pain, the second with captaincy on the line. Both are often revisited. But there seems to be little doubt which one was greater.

One of the most awe-inspiring innings in Test history was an unbeaten 80 in a match that was lost, in a series that ended in a 4-0 defeat

In January, Sachin Tendulkar sculpted a masterful 136 against the might of Wasim, Waqar and Saqlain Mushtaq in Chennai. He was out for a duck in the first innings - charging down the track to Saqlain, off the third ball he faced, and ballooned a catch to backward point. He walked in for the second dig with India tottering at 6 for 2, to become 82 for 5. With wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia offering support, Tendulkar unfurled an array of breathtaking strokes in between judicious manipulation of the field. He went on the attack against Wasim and Waqar's wicked reverse swing and waltzed down the track to nullify Saqlain's drift and turn. When Mongia fell, Tendulkar upped the ante. Though visibly in pain, he shredded the bowling, charging, pulling, slog-sweeping. With 17 required, he tried to loft Saqlain over midwicket only for a leading edge to soar to wide mid-off. Wasim held the catch. India went on to lose by 12 runs.

In March, Brian Lara carved a sublime 153 against the might of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne in Bridgetown. He was out for 8 in the first innings - fending at a short one from Gillespie and ballooning a catch to Ian Healy behind the stumps. He walked in for the second dig with West Indies shaky at 78 for 3, to become 105 for 5 on day five. With Jimmy Adams offering support, Lara unfurled an array of breathtaking strokes in between judicious manipulation of the field. He cut Warne and Stuart MacGill - sometimes with a flat bat in front of square and sometimes with a sliced bat, spinning it away from gully and teasing him all the way to the fence. McGrath and Gillespie were savaged when short and lofted over their heads when full. When three wickets fell in quick time, Lara pummelled the bowling, charging, pulling, cutting. With seven required he dabbed at one from Gillespie only for a thick edge to fly between the wicketkeeper and first slip. Healy, diving to his left, dropped the catch. West Indies went on to win by one wicket.

In the "Wisden 100" greatest Test innings of all time, Lara's unbeaten 153 sat at No. 2. The late Peter Roebuck called it the "greatest chase". Atherton called it the "best innings I have seen either as a player or observer of the game". The authors of Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries also slotted it at No. 2. Tendulkar's 136, on the other hand, seldom makes any such list. Some have said it might have been Tendulkar's greatest innings if he had taken India to victory. Back in 2010, when ESPNcricinfo asked six of his team-mates and John Wright, his former coach, to pick their favourite Tendulkar innings, nobody mentioned this one. Not even as an afterthought.

Spectators may have a soft corner for the gallant draw but they can be ruthless when appraising performances that end in a loss. Cricket may be a team sport but fans have high demands for elite players at the crunch, expecting them to pilot the chase (or clean up the tail) to the finish. Greatness rarely goes hand in hand with defeat. Had India won the Chennai Test - with Tendulkar smashing the winning runs - the innings would most surely have been anointed as one of the greatest. The image of a battle-scarred Tendulkar overcoming a rickety back to lead his side to a stirring win against their arch-rivals would have been immortalised. Seventeen runs: what India needed when Tendulkar got out, the margin between what could have been and what was. Seventeen runs: the difference between 153 and 136, that narrow gap where greatness lurks.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA