15 June 2023

The greatest fallacy

During the third session of the first day of a test match in Melbourne between Australia and the West Indies, history was made. It was the 6th Test (which Australia would go on to win and complete a satisfying 5-1 series win).

The historic moment unfolded in this way. Lance Richard Gibbs, right arm off break bowler, playing in his 79th and final test, had Ian Redpath caught by Michael Holding, then just 18 years old and playing in his maiden test series, for 101. It was Gibbs’ 308th test wicket. With it he surpassed the record set by Frederick Sewards Trueman more than ten years earlier.

I haven’t dug into the newspaper archives of that time, but I am sure there would have been talk of him being the greatest spinner if not the greatest bowler ever. After all, Derek Underwood (slow left-arm orthodox), who ended with 297 test wickets (in 1982) would have been far behind when Gibbs reached 309. Richie Benaud, who retired in 1964 had just 248 test wickets to his name.

Richard Hadlee (431), Imran Khan (362), Dennis Lillee (355) and Bob Willis (325), all fast bowlers were in the early stages of their respective careers and would probably have had quite a ways to go to get to 309.

Morne Morkel did get to 309 but that was in 2018. Thirty other bowlers have surpassed Gibbs since. Of them, only seven are spinners: Daniel Vettori (362), Harbhajan Singh (417), Rangana Herath (433), Ravichandra Ashwin (474), Anil Kumble (619), Shane Warne (708) and Muttiah Muralitharan (800).  

Warne and Murali approached the (then) magical number 500 at a time Sri Lanka hosted the Australians in a three-test series. I remember Warne saying something along the following lines: ‘if someone reaches 500 in this series, his team would probably win the series.’ Warne did and Australia took the series. No one talked about Gibbs at the time. No one talks about Gibbs today either.

This is the fate of all those who have had ‘The Greatest’ tag pinned on them or, as in the case of the young Muhammed Ali, pinned it on themselves. Time passes. Records are broken. Others approach, reach and surpass.

Ten years ago who would have thought that three tennis players would win twenty plus grand slam tennis titles and, moreover, would be playing at the same time? Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer: all of them have been talked of as the ‘Greatest of All Time’ or as The GOAT. John McEnroe had that tag as did Bjorn Borg. Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras won a spate of titles in the 1990s. In the women’s circuit we’e had Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Venus Williams (in the early days of her career) and of course Serena Williams in GOAT talk. Margaret Court too. Different eras though. Different rules. Different technology. Different pressures.

My friend, the late Sampath Agalawatta never got drawn into such debates although Royal College, under him, won all the rugby trophies on offer, a feat as yet unmatched. He simply said, ‘different rules, it’s now a different game.’

A few days ago, Novak Djokovic won the French Open and thereby broke a tie with Nadal for the most Grand Slam victories. He’s on 23 and counting, Roger Federer (20) having retired and an ageing Nadal (22) plagued by injuries.  The GOAT question was laid to rest, most people said. It’s Novak, they said. And he was asked to comment.

‘I don't want to say that I am the greatest, because I feel, I've said it before, it is disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in a completely different way than it is played today. So I feel like each great champion of his own generation has left a huge mark, a legacy, and paved the way for us to be able to play this sport [on] such a great stage worldwide.’

Garry Kasparov, World Chess Champion from 1985 to 2000 would have been considered ‘The Greatest Ever’ at some point. Bobby Fischer, Alexander Alekhein, J R Capablanca and even Anatoly Karpov have been likewise labeled. That tag has since been transferred to Magnus Carlson, World Champ from 2013 to 2023. Kasparov wrote a series of books, analysing the games of previous world champions. He titled them ‘My Great Predecessors.’ He was basically saying what Novak said. In a different language.

Novak said it straight. I can’t help but agree. Some may say it is misplaced modesty, but I think Novak was being honest. He, moreover, would know, since he played with two men also thought of as the greatest of all time. They were of his own generation.

Someone, one day, will surpass Novak Djokovic. For now he has laid to rest the GOAT debate in tennis, and not because he holds the record for the most number of grand slam titles. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart




Anonymous said...

Well written!! Spot on Malinda!!