Pay attention to the numbers
Hashim Amla's exploits in one-day cricket have led to the debate about how good he really is. He was surprisingly left out of a poll of the world's best all-time one-day players, which is bordering on lunacy.
The man averages in the mid-50s with a strike rate bordering on 90. His conversion rate of centuries to matches played is staggering. He gets a ton after every five or so innings. He doesn't pad his figures by just beating up on the minnows either. The only country he doesn't average 40 or more against is Australia. Statistically then, Hashim is probably unmatchable as a one-day batsman at this point in his career.
And yet a lot of West Indians would argue that he isn't as good as Viv Richards, who averaged 'only' 47 with a very similar strike rate. They will argue all day that in Viv's day, the standard was higher and 'dem man yah nowadays can't bat like dem man deh!'
It's not so much that we are just being parochial, although that is part of the reason in the Amla-Viv debate. The truth is that most people in the world suffer from the 'good old days syndrome', not just in life in general, but in sports. The reason we won't accept that Amla may well be better than Viv is the same reason we won't accept that Messi is probably better than Pele, or Tyson better than Ali, or LeBron James may have been a better all-round basketballer than Jordan. To suggest any of the above in a crowd of sports lovers is almost certainly to risk being ridiculed.
Things get better with time
The reason is simple. People tend to romanticise their past. It's almost an instinctive human thing to do. Most of us will argue that our schooldays were better than those going to school now; music was better then; movies were better then; better books were being written; and, generally, life was nicer when we were younger! It's all in the mind.
When we were younger, we were far more impressionable. Our sport heroes were not mere players; they become a symbol for us to gravitate to and, therefore, were almost demi-gods in our subconsciousness.
But the naked truth is that humans have evolved and almost everything is 'better' than it was in a previous generation - cars, phones, TVs, computers - almost any machinery you can think of.
Man learns from his predecessors. Each generation learns and improves on the generation before.
Track and field is the sport that depends the least on subjective judgements to know who is better. There are not too many grey areas, not too many room for arguments.
We accept that Bolt is better than all sprinters before him for the simple reason that we can't argue with a stopwatch. What is interesting is that in every facet of track and field, man has improved. Man is now running faster, jumping higher and further, and throwing greater distances than ever before. The clock won't lie. If there were no clocks or no system of measurement in track and field, the argument would still be from the old-timers that "Bolt nuh good like Quarrie!"
How interesting is it that in all the sporting disciplines where things can be objectively measured, man has demonstrated that he is better than those of the previous generation, but in all the sports where subjective judgement applies, there are so many arguments. In other words, why are we running faster, jumping higher, lifting heavier, but we are not necessarily passing better in football, or batting better, or getting better in basketball?
If we are better in every sport that can be measured objectively, why are we not better in the sports of judgement calls? If we really think about it, we will realise the thing for what it is. Man develops an attachment to his heroes of the past and is reluctant to admit that anybody can be better.
So at the risk of sounding like a neophyte, I am prepared to accept that Amla may well be better than Viv, or Messi better than Pele. Common sense, if nothing else, should tell us it's not as far-fetched as most of us seem to think!
- Orville Higgins is a sport journalist working with KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.