Emerging talent

With the knowledge that McGrath, Warne, Langer and Martyn will no longer be at their disposal, the Aussie selectors have gradually initiated the next younger generation into their squad.

In the 19th century, the final performances of the great Australian Operatic Diva, Dame Nellie Melba, were numerous, frequently advertised and more often than not, premature. There was usually another last performance just around the corner. How different and conclusive was the ultimate cricketing pageant put on by Ricky Ponting's Aussie Test team in 2006/2007. Even before completing its 5-0 "whitewash" of England's Ashes-holding side, and extending its victory sequence to 12 games, no fewer than four regular members of the home side's winning combination had announced their intention to quit one form of the game or other. And this was no idle "Nellie Melba" threat, for already two of its number had left the stage, more than hinting that others might follow.

The first to take the cue to leave had been the veteran West Australian batsman, Damien Martyn who did not even wait for the curtain to come down on the Third Test before stalking off into the wings, leaving behind a written resignation, a host of baffled team-mates and no forwarding address. It was a strange conclusion to a lengthy career which stamped him as possibly the most orthodox and technically correct No. 4 batsman of Ponting's "Unconquerables" — and a player who in his country's youth teams seemed destined for national leadership. He appeared ill-suited to the one-day role — he was frequently asked to play — and he knew he would shortly be regularly asked to play in the World Cup. The sign of Martyn advancing down the pitch to cross-bat a good-length ball to cover jarred with my appreciation of him as a player in the classical mould. I was not surprised he chose the aesthetic way out.

Not far behind Martyn came the totally committed — indeed one might say obsessive — left-handed opening batsman Justin Langer aged 35. Here was a cricketer toughened mentally and physically by his experiences as a black belt in the martial art of Zen Do Kai; a sportsman who learned his craft in the school of hard knocks doled out by quick bowlers such as South Africa's Makhaya Ntini and England's Steve Harmison. Passionately dedicated to the "baggy green", his country and his team-mates, when Langer retired he had notched more runs than all but 19 batsmen in the annals of cricket. In spite of these statistical successes, however, he forever questioned his right to a secure berth in Australia's aging "Dad's Army." Consequently his career seemed to be one long drawn-out and draining struggle to prove himself.

Of an age with Langer and, with the same determination to leave the international scene, was "Pigeon", Glenn McGrath: a rangy pace bowler from Dubbo in the mid-West of New South Wales. A "Right Over the Top" approach to bowling methods — in the vein of West Indians Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose — yielded him a record bag of more than 500 Test wickets at an average of just under 20 runs each. McGrath was not express in speed; nor was he endowed with any great capacity to swing the ball. What he did possess was an impeccable stump-to-stump line, a 99% control of length, and an astonishing talent to make the ball lift off a good length and cut both ways. These gifts, allied to a prehensile cordon of unfailing slip fieldsmen made McGrath the best bowler I have seen to left-handed batsmen — and just the man that a captain liked to call upon to change the impetus of a game.

Leg-spinner, Shane Warne, was, like McGrath, another match winner. A maverick at heart — but one with magic in his finger tips — the Victorian "leggie" was a two-in-one bowler, who disproved the calumny that wrist spinners were profligate with runs. Warne had a fine cricketing brain and could choke the runs out of a batting team, tempt the batsmen to their downfall — or just as easily hit the stumps. More than 700 Test victims, including 23 in his last Ashes rubber of 2006/2007, more than proved this point.

It was intriguing however, that Warne chose to distinguish between the Tests and the shorter format of the game. I have the sensation that he was too much of a purist to pit his spin over the short span of 10 overs against the agricultural, but sometimes successful methods of the one-day specialist batsmen. Not that Warne was afraid of being hit; but like most slow bowlers he needed time and overs to work out his battle plan. Personally I believe that Warne's caution was overdone.

The one-day format is certainly favourite with the ICC accountants and spectators with a taste for excitement. It produces entertainment, thrills, close finishes and most importantly, money! I doubt, however, that filthy lucre is greeted so enthusiastically in the ranks of the bowlers, most of whom may be excused for thinking that the short game is weighed too much in favour of the batsmen. The bowlers may be forgiven for believing that they are treated as batting fodder — restricted in their field placements, compelled to bowl the ball at specific heights, along certain lines and on wickets which offer no assistance to them. Moreover, with the game being telecast and merchandised all over the world, the players have to contend with crowded programmes, which see them shuttled around a multiplicity of countries, with scarcely a day's respite between matches for rest and recuperation. Such a crowded fixture list apparently lays greater importance on television schedules than on quality cricket and player burn-out. Certain members of the current England team presently touring Australia expressed disquiet at this hurly-burly type of cricketing existence. Certainly there is a lot to complain about in a life which sees cricketers rushing through their tours without having time to smell the flowers along the way. England pace bowler, Steve Harmison was one of the casualties omitted from "Freddie" Flintoff"s one-day squad and packed off home to continue his county cricket existence. By a stroke of irony he will return to a first-class programme in which a high proportion of his obligations in the upcoming season will be in 40, 45, 50 and 20-over games!

Rationalistic Australia, for its part used the tri-national VB competition for its preparation for next year's World Cup. With the knowledge that McGrath, Warne, Langer and Martyn will no longer be at their disposal, the Aussie selectors, throughout the lead-up to the Caribbean junket, have gradually initiated the next younger generation into their squad. It must be a source of great satisfaction for Hilditch and his co-selectors, that players such as Stuart Clark, Michael Clarke, Hogg, Hussey, Symonds, Cameron White, Nathan Bracken, Tait and Hodge have proved themselves of Test class, qualified to blend without any sense of inferiority with their senior class-mates.