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World arena sees legends in line for fitting last hurrah

A World Cup offers the stage for the greatest sportsmen on the planet to show off their skills. Over the next six weeks -- yes, six -- we have the chance to glimpse the most brilliant cricketers of this era in pursuit of that rarity: a one-day trophy that matters. For some of them a World Cup winner's medal is the only item missing from the trophy cabinet.

Sachin Tendulkar, about to embark on his sixth, and surely last World Cup campaign, has graced only one final, in 2003, in which he scored four runs in India's defeat by Australia. Jacques Kallis, the sublime South African all-rounder who is about to play in his fifth World Cup, has never made a final. There are several others for whom this tournament provides one last chance to rectify that omission on their cricket CV.

It should be a treat -- once we approach the climax. The two previous tournaments to be held in Asia had spellbinding finals and a fair amount of drama. In 1987, England, led by Mike Gatting, met Australia, captained by Allan Border, in the final in Calcutta. Neither side were supposed to be good enough to be there yet they produced one of the tightest finals in World Cup history.

In 1996, in Lahore, Australia were the strong favourites in the final, but Sri Lanka, led by Arjuna Ranatunga, Napoleonic in gait and outlook, declined to be cowed. Aravinda de Silva produced the innings of his life and the celebrations in Colombo carried on for weeks. The Sri Lankans had arrived.

The subcontinent can always contrive melodrama: it can also deliver drudgery. The folly of the current format has been mentioned many times. This World Cup, like so many of its recent predecessors, is far too long and features far too many meaningless games. It gives the 50-over format an undeserved bad name, and it reflects the self-destructive avarice of modern cricket.

Nevertheless, everybody will try to travel in a spirit of celebration and optimism. Some new names will surface as the tournament proceeds but this is a time to consider the old giants who will be aiming for one last hurrah.

Tendulkar will be feted all around India as he has been for most of the past two decades. It is just possible that he will become the first man to score 100 international centuries during this World Cup. He needs three more. We have long since run out of superlatives for Tendulkar but here is a relatively rare one: he must be the hungriest cricketer of his generation. His appetite for the game appears to be relentless. After 20 years, during which he has been unable to step out of his front door without being swamped by adorers, he still seems excited by the prospect of his next innings.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the West Indian Tendulkar, is also a slight, soft-spoken, self-contained cricketer, who has tried the captaincy and did not like it much, but who still relishes batting even if he does not possess the classical technique of the 'little master'. Chanderpaul, at 36 a year younger than Tendulkar, will be playing in his fifth World Cup. It would be quite something if he signed off in a final.

Other fifth-timers include Ricky Ponting now that his little finger has just about recovered. Ponting has appeared in the past four finals, during which he has scored 246 runs: his unbeaten 140 from 121 balls in 2003 ruined the game as a contest. No one has hit more sixes in World Cups than Ponting, who has struck 30. His reputation may not have been enhanced by the recent Ashes series but it is not so difficult to understand why the Australians are keen to keep him in their one-day side. With Ponting at or near the helm, Australia have not lost a World Cup match since May 23, 1999.

Muttiah Muralitharan, who tasted victory in 1996, is on his fifth campaign and we know he is retiring from internationals after this World Cup. The body is creaking now but on grassless pitches there are still enough batsmen around who will be mesmerised by the smiling assassin and who will fail to recognise his doosra. Murali just needs his captain, Kumar Sangakkara, to find him somewhere comfortable to field.

For Pakistan, Shoaib Akhtar would also appreciate some quiet pastures in between spells. The maverick is 35 now. Shoaib bowled like the wind in the 1999 tournament but was left out in 2007 when we assumed that his career was at an end. Somehow he is back, hurtling in, hair flopping, profusely sweating, interspersing fierce pace with outrageous slower balls and anticipating wickets at every turn. Amazing.

Even more amazing is Kallis, perhaps the most anonymous and underappreciated cricketer of his generation, who has been batting as well in his 36th year as he ever has over the past two decades. Sometimes he has seemed a tad conservative at the crease; he appeared to bat in a vacuum, oblivious to what was going on around him. But his team-mates have never been too bothered about that. They know he will not let them down. They know that Kallis is an astonishing cricketer, but sometimes we forget. He has 270 Test wickets and 259 in ODIs yet we hardly ever mention his bowling now. That is because he has been batting so sublimely in both forms of the game.

No matter how young he looks, Kallis, whose statistics bear very good comparison with the ultimate all-rounder, Garfield Sobers, will surely be adorning the World Cup for the last time. One last chance to play in a final and garner recognition he deserves.


Sunday Indo Sport