Sentiment is secondary

2011-02-19 00:00

RICKY Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Murali and Sachin Tendulkar bring a ton of experience and a pile of yearning to this World Cup campaign. Each champion is driven by a particular desire, an ambition that ranges from bowing out in style, filling the only remaining gap on the record, reviving a faltering career and overcoming a curse that has paralysed a team.

Between them these veterans have known many great days and all of them can look back with satisfaction. But they are not inclined to rest upon their deeds. In these twilight years they still step out with purpose. Ponting looks eager, Kallis has been girding his loins, Murali has been polishing his technique and Tendulkar has been preparing mind and body. Don’t bet against them.

All of them know they will not pass this way again. Next time it will be someone else’s turn. Sport is transitory. That is its beauty and cruelty. None of them, though, not even Murali, whose withdrawal is imminent, is thinking about the aftermath. Farewell performances are permitted in singers. Sportsmen must maintain their rage. Victory urges them along.

Of course only one of them will taste that final glory, or none at all, for England or West Indies or Pakistan might disturb the day. In that case the defeated will leave the field and the game disappointed. That is the nature of sport. Sentiment is secondary. Always something is left on the table. Did Bradman average 100? Did Steve Waugh prevail in India?

If the quartet can be parted then Tendulkar may be deemed the most desperate to succeed. Although his cricketing immortality was long ago established, and though his feet continue to twinkle and his bat to sound like a sirloin, his race has almost been run. Certainly it is his last chance to lift the trophy. That the tournament is played on his home land and the final is to be staged in the city of his birth adds piquancy to the prospect.

Over the years Tendulkar’s inability to complete a victory has been held against him. Of late, though, the charge has not as often been laid. He has become more measured in the crisis. In any case those seeking perfection in any man face a long search.

Can Tendulkar win a World Cup at last? It is the final question. All others have been answered. Another might be raised. Can India? No nation has taken the trophy on its own patch. An entire team will be under the pressure. Tendulkar has known from his teenage years. The master batsman may relish the shift. Constancy has been his strongest point. Celebration has been missing.

Kallis’ motivation is predominantly collective. South Africa need to win this cup. Time and again the Proteas have fallen short at the last gasp; a silly dropped catch, a chaotic run out, a misread piece of paper have denied them. Perhaps ambition has been too keenly felt. Those years of waiting and wondering took a toll, the compromises and confusions left a mark. In those critical moments the turmoil was revealed.

Now South Africa have settled, a new generation has been born, World Cups have been staged in three sports and the cricket team is a melting pot. Kallis, too, has appeared more relaxed. Certainly his cricket has become more commanding. No longer does it seem as absurd to compare him with Sir Garfield Sobers.

And yet the deed has not been done. The Proteas have not won a World Cup. Bad memories plague them. Kallis has nothing to prove, but the same cannot quite be said about his team and that needs to be rectified. Precisely because expectations are lower and the team less scarred, I am tipping the Proteas to prevail. If they can survive that they can survive anything.

Murali is not so much thinking about his swansong as seeking to help his country to a second triumph. Sri Lanka’s first success in 1996 came by way of audacious tactics and unrecognised excellence.

Now Murali’s tricks are known and his team is highly regarded. Sri Lankan cricket has come a long way.

With his dark eyes, bemusing wrists and smiling face, Murali will be missed. He remains a feared and fit opponent. Moreover spin is expected to play a vital part in the tournament. Will he go out with a bang or a whimper? Whatever unfolds he will take it in his stride.

Of the quartet Ponting is in the shakiest position. Alone among them he is captain, alone among them his career is at a crossroads. He has an impressive World Cup record, dominating the 2003 final with a brilliant hundred and leading his team to a second victory in 2007. But Ponting has also become the first Australian captain to lose three Ashes series and seems to be in decline as a batsman.

Although his batting greatness is acknowledged, Ponting’s captaincy has been criticised. If he can recapture his batting form and lead his team to a third victory then he can leave on his own terms. If not then he will hear a noise so beloved of Madame Defarge, the sound of sharpening steel.

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