Looking beyond the cricket tsunami
By H Natarajan
A few months back I wrote in my column about the impending tsunami - an exodus of superstars - from international cricket. The dawn of a new year is probably an apt moment to look ahead and identify the next generation of stars who are likely to occupy the exalted pedestal players like Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne occupy now.
Virender Sehwag, 27, buccaneering and iconoclastic, has confounded everybody – the purists, in particular – by his success in all countries. For a man who was considered too aggressive and too cemented to the crease to be in with a realistic chance of scoring big hundreds, Sehwag’s 39-Test appearances have yielded 10 hundreds, including scores of 309, 201 and 195. No batsman averaging over 50 in Tests has scored at his blistering pace. His batting style and flamboyance often draws comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar as does his box office appeal.
Ramnaresh Sarwan, 25, has already scored close to 4,000 runs and will be the biggest Caribbean star once Lara retires. But the man who could rewrite many records if his career progresses along promised lines is Graeme Smith. He has already scored 11 hundreds, over 3500 runs at 50-plus and taken 56 catches. At 24 years he can be expected to play for at least 11 more years by which time he would have become a legend.
It does not take long to appreciate that Michael Clarke, 24, is Mark Waugh II. The precocious prototype has the same elegant stance and the wristy stroke-production of Waugh. There is no doubt that Clarke is a class act, evidence of which he gave on his Test debut – a knock of 151 under pressure. But he is the same age as the South African captain and has lost out trying to break into a strong Australian team. Of course, Clarke is more fortunate in comparison to Mike Hussey, 30, who had to wait in the wings for a long, long time before he got the opportunity to parade his huge talent.
Kumar Sangakkara, 28, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, 24, have emerged as challengers to take over from Gilchrist as the game’s premier wicketkeeper-batsman. A left-hander like Gilchrist, Sangakkara has given evidence of being the Australian’s heir-apparent in both forms of the game. Like the Aussie, Sangakkara is imperious at the crease and is a high-quality player in terms of consistency and ability to produce big scores; three of his eight Test hundreds include scores of 270, 232 and 230.
Still wet behind the ears and course as sandpaper, Dhoni could devastate any attack on his day, but whether he will polish his game – both, in front and behind the wickets – to challenge Sangakkara is a bit premature at this juncture. Dhoni has a sense of theatre – be it his looks or his attitude and approach at the crease - which has already seen him seal ODIs with sixes more often than any other player in the world.
But the ’keeper who is moving without much attention towards establishing a new Test high is Mark Boucher. The South African is in third place behind Ian Healy and Rodney Marsh with 337 victims. At 29 years, Boucher promises to not only overtake Healy’s Test tally of 395 but go well past the 500 mark. With Gilchrist in the twilight of his career, the nearest challenger – Sangakarra - is way behind with 144.
The man who is fast becoming a rock-star like icon for the generation next is Andrew Flintoff. His batting has that savagery of Ian Botham’s early years while his bowling has the pace of a younger Imran Khan and the guile of Kapil Dev in his pomp. As a package, he looks more Mike Procterish, with high degree of brilliance in batting and bowling. England’s 2005 Ashes series victory was scripted largely by the heroics of the beefy all-rounder who scored over 400 runs and took 24 wickets.
At 21, Irfan Pathan is seven years younger than Flintoff - the principal rivals in the stakes for the No 1 all-rounder in the world. Pathan has talent and time on his side. His bowling, in the Wasim Akram mould, has the stuff to bulldoze through a plethora of records, while his batting has the kind of correctness and temperament to make him far valuable than he likes to publicly admit. Two successive series with 40-plus batting series averages is evidence of his rising stature as a batsman. And four half-centuries (including scores of 93 and 82) and six five-wicket haul from just 18 Tests are proof of his consistency with both bat and ball.
Jacques Kallis lacks the charisma of some of the top all-rounders in the game, but there is no doubting his ability as both batsman and bowler. He has played around the same number of Tests as Garry Sobers and his batting average of nearly 57 is also around the same as the West Indian legend. Kallis needs under 500 runs to going past Sobers as the leading run-scorer among the all-rounders. His tally of Test runs and wickets (currently at 7563 and 187 respectively) will look lot more formidable once he retires in around five years time. In fact, Kallis will be a front runner - with Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting - to assault the record run aggregate that is either Lara or Tendulkar are post.
If it’s Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble the spin aces in contemporary cricket, then it should be trio of Harbhajan Singh, Danish Kaneria and Daniel Vettori taking their places in the years to come.
At 25, Harbhajan has played 50 Tests and 117 ODIs. He has already hauled 219 Tests wickets and with the potential to last at least another decade, the Sardar looks the biggest challenger to the record Warne or Murali will leave before retiring. Harbhajan is a destroyer when he is in the zone, as his 17 five-fors and four 10-fors indicate. And with his famed spin partner, Anil Kumble, in the twilight of his career, Harbhajan will be India No 1 spin weapon in the years to come. The only hiccup, if any, could come from his penchant to get into trouble with the ICC over his bowling action.
Vettori, who will be 27 this month, and Kaneria, 25, are seasoned campaigner with 208 and 143 respective wickets in their Test kitty. Vettori is New Zealand’s main bowling force, but unhelpful pitches at home and a back that has already suffered a serious stress fracture are factors that could impede his effectiveness.
Since taking over from Saqlain Mushtaq, Kaneria has been Pakistan’s main match-winning bowler with Shoaib Akhtar. He has emerged with credit when pitted against the best in the business. On the 2004-05 tours of Australia and India, he got more wickets than the home team’s trump cards Warne and Kumble respectively. Eleven five-fors from 31 Tests speaks highly for Kaneria’s high quality, fastish leg-spin and googly.
It’s a comforting thought that India has at least four players in Sehwag, Dhoni, Pathan and Harbhajan who can serve the country for a long time to come.