They have a lot to play for

Published : Feb 17, 2011 00:00 IST

Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis arrive at the World Cup through different routes, but hope to leave in the only way that makes everything worthwhile, a victory that will put the final stamp of approval on their greatness, writes Suresh Menon.

The shorter the duration of a match, the greater is the importance of statistics. Great Test players do not necessarily have the best figures. Victor Trumper, the Australian whose name is usually preceded by the description ‘Immortal', had a Test average of 39, Ranji's average was 44. They batted on dodgy, uncovered wickets, sixes had to clear the fence and bats were primitive.

By the time one-day cricket had established itself, there was a uniformity of wickets and rules and the quality of bats and batsmanship had improved greatly. A Ricky Ponting or a Sachin Tendulkar batted on more or less similar tracks across the world; the bowling, if not rendered toothless had certainly had some serious dental work done on it.

The three greatest batsmen at the 2011 World Cup are an Indian, an Australian and a South African. They are three of the only five players with over ten-thousand runs in both forms of the game. Yet, only Ricky Ponting of the three has been on a World Cup-winning side (he has three titles). Sachin Tendulkar is looking to break his duck on his sixth attempt, while Jacques Kallis knows that this will be his last chance too.

What impact the passion of the non-winners will have on the World Cup will be interesting to see. Tendulkar and a billion intimate friends of his already see this tournament as the crowning glory to the career of the finest batsman in the short version of the game. The player himself has, unusually, given his reticent nature, let it be known that he concurs. Those who see him as some kind of a cricketing Alexander, with no more worlds to conquer, understand that their ambitions for him match his own. All the planets seem to be in the right alignment — the World Cup is being played on the subcontinent, where twice before poor captaincy and bad judgement have caused India to bow out in the semifinals, and the team's recent record has been impeccable.

With two other 10,000-run men, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid no longer a part of the one-day plans, India will have to attempt victory without their finest batting squad ever. A miss here, and four years later, with some of the seniors gone, it will be a team that is rebuilding all over again.

It is no consolation to either Tendulkar or Kallis that two men in the 10,000 club in either form of the game haven't won World Cups. Brian Lara, stuck with a steadily deteriorating national side, could not play a lone hand over a whole tournament, although he had done it across several Test series. Dravid, key member of the golden era of Indian batting, scored more runs than anyone else at the 1999 World Cup, but when he returned as captain in 2007, the team began to disintegrate in the West Indies.

The World Cups 1999-2007 belonged to Australia, and in many respects, to Ponting. In the 2003 final, Ponting did what Clive Lloyd had done before him, stamping his class on a match with a century of startling proportions. It left India 360 to chase, and the smile never left Ponting's face from the fifth ball of the innings when Tendulkar was caught and bowled by Glenn McGrath.

Ponting has always been a more attacking captain in one-day cricket than in Tests, and when he has contributed with the bat — which has been most of the time — he has looked the complete one-day package. Early in his career, Australians considered him at least the equal of Jonty Rhodes at cover point. His catching at slip was brilliant, and unspectacular in the manner of the best Aussies in that position — the Chappells, Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor.

Despite his World Cup record — and only Tendulkar has more runs than his 1537 in the tournament — Ponting, 36, comes to the subcontinent with more to prove than either Tendulkar or Kallis, which is strange. This is the tyranny of sports' chronology — you are only as good as your last effort, and Pontings' last was the Ashes defeat. Australia might have beaten England 6-1 in the one-day series, but Ponting was not part of that rout, an injured finger keeping him out.

Ponting broke the little finger on his left hand at the Perth Test, and in hindsight, made the wrong decision to play the following match in Melbourne where he aggravated the problem. He has had an operation since and hopes to be fit to lead Australia again. Another World Cup win — his third as captain — would place him on a pedestal that will remain unoccupied by anyone else for a long time.

It is unlikely that Ponting will be any less charged up than the other two. Towards the end of their careers, sportsmen become aware of their legacy, and while there is one lot (without significant achievements) which focus on making as much money out of the game before they retire and are forgotten, there are the Pontings and Tendulkars and Kallises, who despite their almost unmatchable achievements make that final attempt to place themselves beyond all comparison. This is as much professional pride as sheer habit. And that is why the story of Kallis is unique.

Statistically he is the greatest all-rounder to have played the game, and at his peak was a unique cricketer, a batsman who scored centuries at number three and was capable of bowling at 90 mph besides taking blinders at slip.

In many ways, Kallis was, and continues to be, the cricketer's cricketer, respected and feared within the fraternity but without the glamour and the awe-inspiring capabilities of an Ian Botham or a Garry Sobers.

South Africa have been among the best teams in one-day cricket ever since they returned to the fold. Yet they have shot themselves in the foot more than any other team in the history of the World Cup. The rain rule has stymied them twice, the first time on their debut in 1992, when their target kept shifting, ending with the need to score 22 runs off the last ball. In 2003 they miscalculated the score they needed to make in a rain-shortened match against Sri Lanka.

These were merely milestones on the road that gave South Africa the tag of ‘chokers' in international cricket, especially at the World Cup.

Kallis has a double duty, therefore — to erase that tag with a personal performance that leaves no doubt in anyone's mind as to the quality of South Africa's cricket or the ability of their greatest all-rounder.

Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis. Three men who arrive at the World Cup through different routes, but hope to leave in the only way that makes everything worthwhile, a victory that will put the final stamp of approval on their greatness.

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