We will really miss them

IT was not until I saw Aravinda de Silva run out so dramatically in the game against West Indies at Cape Town that I realised just how many iconic figures were showing us their skills for the last time in this World Cup.


Aravinda de Silva has given me more enjoyment than any modern batsman, says the author.-Pic. REUTERS

IT was not until I saw Aravinda de Silva run out so dramatically in the game against West Indies at Cape Town that I realised just how many iconic figures were showing us their skills for the last time in this World Cup.

Of course they will all be replaced, other characters just as large and just as forceful will step into their shoes and there will be other centuries, other great catches and other breathtaking hat-tricks.

All the same it is sad to see the passing of such great men. If we are honest, we will admit we don't like change and that the old ways are those that make us glow with pleasure.

Once, many years ago, I covered a snooker tournament in Leeds where Joe E. Brown was using the same hotel as a base for a series of concerts in the area. I made friends in my leisure moments with his handyman, part driver, part gofer. He told me that Brown had asked him to obtain tickets for a concert by Billy Fury. "I really enjoy his stuff," Brown had said. "I hope he does all his old numbers and none of that modern rubbish he has started using."

The aide laughed. "You know," he said, "he hates singing his own old numbers yet he wants to hear Billy Fury do all his old stuff. At heart, he is a fan, always wanting to hear the traditional tunes. Yet when he gets on stage he gets annoyed if the fans call for his old songs." We bystanders see life differently. We want to cling to the old stars, to watch their familiar tricks and when the time comes for them to retire, we resent their departure and the new antics of their successors.

That is why the passing of de Silva, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam-ul-Haq is so sad.

De Silva has given me more enjoyment than any modern batsman. I cannot remember when I first saw him steer his cover drive and his shots past point and mid-off but I cannot forget his innings for Kent in the Benson and Hedges final against Lancashire in 1995 or those astonishing innings in the 1996 World Cup.

At Calcutta, in the semi-final that still shames those crazy Indian fans who could not face up to defeat by the eventual winners of the trophy, he arrived at the crease after both Sanath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Kaluwitharana had been caught at third man in the first over.

Yet he was so calm that he might have been batting with 150 on the board and, as my memory tells me now, he simply rolled one off drive after another to the boundary until the Indian team became demoralised and their supporters furious.

De Silva was Man of the Final with another superlative batting display. "He was at the height of his career, able to play against any bowling with authority," Sanjay Manjrekar, who saw that semi-final innings at close quarters, once told me.

He will retire at the end of the World Cup, leaving a huge gap in class and control and, no doubt, a worrying space in the Sri Lankan brains trust. But it is good that he goes since his presence may be preventing another talent from developing and generation next flourishing as it should.

The Sri Lankan selectors have only one man to push forward — although this must be the last World Cup for Hashan Tillekaratne too — but Pakistan have bigger headaches as they seek to replace two bowlers who have been such a destructive force in the last 15 years.

Wasim needs no-one to sing his praises. That fast, loose left-arm plays its own melody and his 500 one-day wickets will prove a target too far for great bowlers in the future.

It is time to ask where he lies in the order of merit among such men as Alan Davidson of Australia and Trevor Goddard of South Africa, the only similar left-arm fast bowlers of the modern age. I would put him at the top, not just because of his huge collection of victims in one-day and Test cricket but because he is always ready to run in, always thinking and even because he is always arguing.

Wasim was still shouting at Waqar at the end of the Indian innings, still sure the game could be won and that he was the bowler to perform the miracles. He must be a difficult man to captain but as George III said when his General Wolfe was described as mad; "Mad, is he? I wish he would bite some of my other generals."

I have watched him play for Lancashire as often as I have seen him in Pakistan and there is no difference in his enthusiasm, his determination or his effort. Now he is likely to join Hampshire and think out another bunch of bewildered batsmen.

He is still unorthodox; a modern beat poet when he gets into motion as he runs to the wicket, whistling the ball towards the batsmen at a pace hot enough to be called fast whatever the speed guns says and defying anyone to pick which way it will move off the pitch.

His yorker still sets problems that both inhibit free scoring and breed uncertainty in the batsman's mind. His bouncer — a rare sight in this World Cup — rises like a frightened bird and his slower ball is a thing of subtle beauty.

The highlight of his World Cup career came in Melbourne as he won the trophy for Pakistan by bowling out Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis to defeat the strongest England one-day side of the last 25 years. Imran Khan's strategies guided that young team but the hand that won the Cup belonged to Wasim.

He acknowledges his luck in having Waqar at the other end and, late in his career, as his captain.

Who would have thought it? A captain who was also a fast bowler, a leader of Pakistan who gained the respect of his opponents and who both thought and spoke good sense. Yet Waqar has achieved all these credits at the end of a career that began when he bowled fast and true and, with Wasim, fashioned the skills of reverse swing from the criminality of ball tampering.

At Headingley one afternoon in 1992 he produced the finest spell of fast bowling I can remember. Not just by bowling out England batsmen with his toe-crushing yorkers but by the grace of his 20-yard sprint from the sponsor's logo to the wicket. His rhythm, his pace, his accuracy that day have rarely been equalled. The future of the ageing England players has been discussed too often in this column; I will leave events to dictate the cricket life of Hussain and Stewart. England have never looked World Cup winners in the preliminary matches and, not for the first time, I have been forced to conclude that a heavy defeat is the answer to their attempts to move forward.

Pakistan were in a similar predicament. It's no use the critics raving about the talent in the team, the pace of Shoaib Aktar, the skills of Inzamam-ul-Haq and the attacking shots from Shahid Afridi. The team as a whole keeps losing and that was no way to play your international cricket.

Saeed Anwar showed flashes of his old self and for three balls against India it looked as if Inzamam might have found his form all in one innings. But then his old bogy returned and he was run out by two lengths of his bat.

I have spent half a lifetime telling fans that David Gower could hardly have been a finer Test batsman even though he was frequently caught flashing at balls outside the off stump or pulling catches to long leg. He averaged 45 in more than 100 Tests and scored more than 70 runs on average whenever he was chosen by England. Few batsmen have better averages against Australia.

The same applies to Inzamam. He has become more famous for being run out than for scoring 8900 one-day runs yet he averages close to 40 after 11 years at the top. Who could ask for anything more? Still, I understand the frustration of the Pakistani fans as they watch the downfall of a team of all the talents.

I have spent the last 22 years watching England teams of varying standards and I still cannot dream that one day they will emerge as World Cup winners.