Moment fast approaching to say farewell to a galaxy of greats
By H Natarajan
Cricket’s World Cup, the quadrennial showpiece, is a little over 16 months away. This means we are looking at a possible year and half time frame by which several of cricket’s current heavyweights could bid adieu to the game. It’s debatable if any of the bygone World Cups brought down the curtain on so many legendary careers as the one ahead is likely to. A few are already on the edge of the precipice and may find their cricketing obits scripted even before the curtain goes up on the 2007 World Cup.
The once fearsome Australian juggernaut is now creaking. The list of potential pensioners runs long in the Aussie line-up. A few careers are on extension with the selectors exercising restraint in not resorting to large scale re-jig after the team’s collective failure ending in loss of face and the Ashes.
It was just last year that Matt Hayden drew comparisons with the greatest of them all - Sir Don Bradman. After a poor first series on his comeback, he was phenomenal. But he then amassed 2364 runs at a staggering 73.87 in 21 Tests since the start of the 2001 tour to India. He smashed seven hundreds from 10 Tests, a feat unmatched by any other Australian batsman apart from The Don, who had scored nine hundreds from 12 matches.
Hayden’s consistency and appetite for huge scores made Steve Waugh boldly predict that the opener would supplant Brian Lara’s then Test best of 375. He proved his captain right when he smashed 380 against Zimbabwe. Hayden’s Test average kept soaring like a helium balloon. At one point his batting average of 58.97 slotted him in third place, below Sir Don and Herbert Sutcliffe (60.73), among players who had played a minimum of 50 Tests.
Then came the tour that reversed his fortunes. If the 2001 tour to India triggered the bull run, then the tour to India in 2004 saw the commencement of the bear phase – a 16-Test stretch that yielded an average of 27 as he failed to get past 70. He escaped the imminent axe effect with an innings of 138 in the final Ashes Test. That may have saved his Test place for the moment, but probably not his ODI career if his axing from the Australian team for the ongoing Johnnie Walker Super Series is any indication.
Adam Gilchrist, arguably international cricket most destructive batsman since Viv Richards and who once raised visions of ending his Test career with an average next only to The Don, has lost that Midas touch - in front as well as behind the wickets. He endured a miserable Ashes series where he failed to get even a half century. He is under pressure now to prove himself. Gilchrist, however, did his one-day career some good when he came up with a man of the match-winning hundred in the decider of the NatWest Challenge – his first century in 43 one-dayers – that helped Australia clinch the series.
Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath made a lethal new ball combination for Australia. Gillespie, who went to England with 248 Test wickets in his bag, could add just three wickets for 100 apiece. This followed an equally poor one-day series. He lost his place during the Ashes series itself and looks superannuated for good.
Sourav Ganguly’s 10,123 runs rank No 3 in One-Day International history. He was, in his prime, a completely different player in the abridged version of the game compared to Tests. His opening partnership with Sachin Tendulkar, his murderous assaults on the spinners, his ability to caress the ball in a wide arc through the off, his effortless hits over the fence all made him formidable one-day batsman. But Ganguly’s survival today is on past glory and present political maneuverings.
Like Hayden and Gilchrist, Tendulkar too has looked more human at the crease in recent times. The batsman, whose wondrous skills reminded Don of his own batting, is unrecognisable from the player he was in his pomp. Gone is the explosive range of strokes and the ability to score at will, irrespective of the conditions, bowlers and situations. With injuries raising serious doubts about his future and effectiveness, the end of an era looks very near. If the World Cup looks distant because of form and declining ability for Ganguly, then it looks unsure for Tendulkar because just nobody knows if his injury will heal enough to resume his unfinished business. Age is not exactly against Tendulkar, but health worries most definitely are.
There is precious little that Shane Warne, 36, needs to achieve. He is the highest wicket-taker in Tests. He has played a key part in Australia emerging as the best side in the world. And he has also been part of a World Cup-winning Australian side. Most importantly, Warne does not fit into the ODI scheme of things; he last played an ODI for Australia in January 2003. Having won everything in his cricketing path, it won’t be surprising if he announces his retirement right away to win the losing battle with his personal life.
Glenn McGrath, inching towards his 36th birthday, is already a grandfather among fast bowlers. He has sacrificed a lot of family life for the sake of Australia and cricket. Much has been written about his unwavering commitment for the woman in his life who was struck with cancer when they were still unmarried. The joys of spending time with his two young ones and his wife must surely be far more appealing than punishing himself beyond the World Cup.
Anil Kumble is India’s highest wicket-taker in both forms of cricket and the country’s greatest match-winning bowler. He needs another 35 wickets to become the fifth bowler in Tests to get to the 500-wicket mark. And he should get there comfortably before the World Cup. Kumble will probably wait till the World Cup selection to see if the selectors change their opinion about him as a one-day player. If he doesn’t get picked, chances are that he would quit at 36 foray into the media as a TV expert. He has everything going for him – the intellect, the stature, the articulation, the personality and a rich, booming voice – to make a top class TV commentator.
In a nutshell, the impending tidal wave of retirements is likely to include the highest run-getter and century maker in all international cricket, the batsman with the highest individual score in both first-class and Tests (unlikely that Brian Lara will continue beyond the World Cup), the highest wicket-taker in Tests and the only one still playing of the five cricketers named in Wisden’s Five Greatest Cricketers of the 20th century, the finest fast bowler in contemporary cricket, the greatest batsman-wicketkeeper in the history would in all probability not play beyond the 2007 World Cup.
The rush at the exit could also find Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sanath Jayasuriya, now 35 and 36 respectively. With Tendulkar, Ganguly and Lara (who needs 23 more runs to become the fifth highest run getter) it would mean the farewell to the top five run-scorers in ODI history.
The list could get longer with the likes of Marvan Atapattu, Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns all in the twilight zone.
It’s tough to bid farewell to one champion. The emotion takes too much out of a passionate follower of the game. An example of the not so distant past was the tearful goodbye to Steve Waugh. So how does one cope with a cricketing Tsunami that could put an end to the careers of Warne, McGrath, Lara, Tendulkar, Kumble and Gilchrist in rapid succession?
You don’t see them as an Australian, Indian or a West Indian; you see them as incredibly talented men whose skill left a rich legacy for generations to come. That cricket will be shorn of such collection of class in a brief period of time is truly poignant.