“Records are there to be broken,” Sobers observed when asked how he felt when Lara eclipsed his world record Test score of 365. Of course, some last a lot longer than others – that famous 365, for instance, which endured so long that it became part of our mental furniture. For a while we missed its memorable ring – one run for each day of the year – until Lara’s 375 in turn sank into our collective consciousness. Of course, it did not stay there very long. For every Test match played in 1958 ten are now played, so quite soon Matthew Hayden of Australia overtook Lara only to have Lara quickly snatch the record back when he became the first batsman to score 400 in a Test.
Are there any sporting records that will last forever? It seemed that Bob Beamon’s Olympic leap out of the pit in that rarefied Mexico City air in 1968 would endure for generations as the long jump record – but it didn’t. In cricket in particular most records have insect-long lives – not a week goes by without somewhere some record being broken.
However, there are four records in cricket which I think will last forever, even though I know forever is an exceedingly long time and gives plenty of scope to would-be challengers. The four records are: Bradman’s Test average of 99.96 (with all due respect to my old friend Andy Ganteaume’s Test average of 112 made in the only innings he ever played); Laker’s 19 wickets in a single Test match; one batsman, Brian Lara, holding the highest Test and highest first-class scores simultaneously; and Jack Hobbs’s 197 first-class centuries, one hundred of them made after he reached the age of 40.
As I think of Hobbs’s achievement it makes me wonder why our great West Indian batsmen retire so soon. Certainly, for instance, the magnificent Test career of Roy Fredericks could have continued with distinction for many years after he retired – the sharpness of reflexes, his pugnacity, his mental strength had in no way abandoned him.
One of the most famous of all records was no record at all. Until the non pareil Usain Bolt, there never was such a run as Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic world record 100 meters dash. Anyone who saw it was overwhelmed by the sheer power and the glory. He surged over the ground beyond all mortal catching. Even Carl Lewis, the greatest athlete of his time, was down-sized to ordinariness. That run should have stood as a wonder of sporting prowess for all to remember. Instead infamy surrounds it – the desperate run of a proven cheat. And yet I for one cannot quite forget that for a day that marvellous surge towards the winning line gave us the very image of a supreme athlete excelling all.
I treasure the records of those who also ran. We should not forget them. They are the cannon-fodder without whom wars cannot be fought and gloriously won. To my shame I have forgotten the name of one of my favourite Test cricketers in all the history of the game – but it will come back to me or some cricket lover will find it in the records and remind me – his name deserves immortality. He was selected to play for Australia as a middle-order batsman. He went in to bat in Australia’s only innings that match, no doubt with thoughts of undying fame, and was out first ball, clean-bowled so he could not even say he put bat to ball. What were his thoughts as he trudged back to the silent pavilion? He did not take a catch. Probably he fielded at deep fine leg and never touched a ball in the entire match. He was never selected again. That was his one Test match. But do not despise him. They also serve who stand and fail. Without the hopeless also-rans, without those who merely make up numbers, there would be no sport at all – indeed there would no victories, no life itself. The poet Bertolt Brecht asked the right questions:
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
There is one record-breaking event in sporting history which, it seems, is unique. It has not made the slightest difference that the record commemorated is now hopelessly out of date, broken routinely not only by champion runners but by mere schoolboys who train hard. I am one of those who remember the event very clearly. I was preparing for final exams at Cambridge but found the time to gather with a crowd of others to watch the race on the one flickering black and white TV set we had at Clare College in the junior common room. At the Oxford sports ground Chris Basher and Chris Chataway did the early pacing – then fell away as the man attempting the record that had remained unbroken it seemed forever raced through. I still recall the baggy long shorts and the gangling legs and the desperate pumping arms. In those days there was no stopwatch ticking away the hundredths of a second on the face of the TV screen. So we had to await the timekeeper’s announcement. He was Harold Abrahams, himself a famous Olympic gold medalist. He began to speak – “Three…” The rest was drowned out because with that one word it was already known that the young runner who sagged exhausted beyond the tape had secured his fame. Roger Bannister had broken the four-minute mile barrier.
Dr Roger Bannister, who later became a distinguished physiologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, said that you can do a simple equation to work out how much oxygen can be pumped into the human heart and that you can calculate that three and a half minutes looks like the ultimate time for the mile. Bannister thinks that men will spend many decades trying to get to that ultimate time. But his own fame is secure. On that misty May day all those years ago he raced into history with the one record which seems to outlast all others.