World Cup Last Hurrahs: Part One
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Cricket World Cup is the quadrennial snapshot it provides on the natural cycle of decay and renewal in the ODI game, as new players (well, new-ish in an age of blanket TV coverage) emerge to stake their claim to greatness, while departing legends hope to sprinkle stardust on their final World Cup outing.
Here's a handful of the latter: great limited-overs cricketers for whom 2015 will be a last hurrah on the grandest stage of all.
There’s no better example of the speed at which cricketing favour and affection can shift than Michael Clarke. Feted for his statesmanlike handling of Phillip Hughes’ death, and prematurely mourned when his chronic back condition (and associated ailments) moved him to suggest he might never play Test cricket again, it seems that many in Down Under are hoping the skipper’s recovery doesn't happen.
Why? Because they can't squeeze him and replacement George Bailey into a top six with Finch, Warner, Watson, Smith and Maxwell (or Marsh). Averaging 44 from 238 ODIs, albeit at a strike-rate (78.6) considered a fraction slow by modern standards, Clarke has a wonderful World Cup record (669 runs at 83.6 and a strike-rate of 93) and it would befit a great career if he could become the fourth Australian to lift the trophy.
For that to happen, three more of Australia’s old guard will have to come to the party. It’s hard to think of Brad Haddin (118 ODIs) and Mitchell Johnson (145) as great limited-overs players, having each only played one tournament (and Mitch might even make one more), but the man two months’ Clarke’s junior – his one-time vice-captain and reported nemesis, Shane Watson – and another with a creaking 33-year-old body unlikely to be seen in 2019, especially with a generation of Big Bashers emerging, has a massive role.
Enigmatic in five-day cricket, Watson is a colossus in this format: a super-aggressive batsman to send shivers down even the best bowlers’ spines (180 ODIs: almost 5,500 runs at over 40 and a strike-rate fractionally under 90) and a more than useful, not to mention canny and ultra-competitive, change bowler. He also has big-game temperament to back-up the chirp, as attested by two Champions Trophy final MoMs and a more than handy CWC record across two tournaments.
So frequently have the co-hosts been described as 'dark horses' that at one stage they decided to adopt ironic shirt sponsors in Lloyd’s Bank. This time, the Black Caps are a little bit more than that. Of their over-30s, Ross Taylor and skipper Brendon McCullum are likely to be around for one more tournament, while the latter’s brother Nathan and Luke Ronchi are lesser lights bidding farewell. Kyle Mills has been running in stiffly to nip it away since 2001 and is an unsung hero in a team full of them, even if he struggles to make the best XI here, his third CWC.
Yet the one true Kiwi legend to be making a final bow, 18 years after his debut and 286 ODIs later, is cricketing proto-hipster Daniel Vettori. All too often in the past, opposition batsmen have been able to sit in against Vettori’s subtle variations, but with a stronger support cast this time round, the veteran twirler might pick up the wicket hauls that his pressure-building deserves. If ‘Dinyul’ gets hot, expect NZ to go one better than their achievements in the previous two tournaments, when they were knocked out in the semi-final by Sri Lanka.
Holders India, under the imperturbable tenure of Duncan Fletcher, have overhauled their batting to such an extent – shedding Sachin, Sehwag, Gambhir and Yuvraj, four of the leading eight batsman at the last World Cup – that it is now a young, dynamic and yet still experienced unit that offers plenty in the field and, bar one man, is likely to be around in four years time. Kohli, Rahane and Raina get the headlines, but their skipper MS Dhoni is still the man to fear, averaging over 50 across 254 ODIs at a strike-rate of 89.
Surprisingly, the iceman finisher and leg-slip fetishist has only made one CWC half-century, although that was of course in the 2011 final, when he promoted himself to No5 and calmly steered the frothing excitement of a billion people to a safe, golden vessel. Repeating it this time would be a miracle – particularly given the sense that he may no longer be the team’s spiritual leader; particularly given these conditions and that attack – but you can never count against him. Either way, his last stroll should be savoured for its helicopter shots, out-of-the-box calculations and sheer sense of perspective amidst the froth of it all.
Dhoni’s men’s first opponents in the tournament are of course Pakistan, who, last time a World Cup was played in these parts, ended up as winners. Perusing the squad lists from that event, it’s only a mild surprise that neither His Serene Highness Misbah-ul-Haq nor Shahid Afridi were part of things, so long do they seem to have been around.
Misbah, of course, has only really been a nailed-on selection for Pakistan since the spot-fixing scandal, since when he’s calmly steered a difficult ship through difficult waters, scoring the joint-fastest hundred in Test history while often being pilloried for his sedate getting-my-eye-in starts. It will be a shame not to see him on this stage again, but he isn't really an ODI legend.
Afridi, on the other hand, is: a supremely indulged and frustratingly self-indulgent man-of-the-people, occasionally looking like a gifted ball-striker, usually like a pig-headed kamikaze slogger. Still, what he fails to bring in batting sanity he usually compensates for in those darting, curving, occasionally (occasionally enough) ragging leggies (joint top wicket-taker at the last CWC), that inspirational extra-cover fielding, and all-round ability to get the volatile support on-side. Whether biting balls or pirouetting on a length, he’s pure box office and will be sorely missed.
Part Two looks at Sri Lanka, West Indies, England, South Africa and the rest.
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