Back in the dim, dark days of a few weeks ago, when England supporters could still convince themselves that Ian Bell was a decent Test batsman, we wrote an article previewing some of the things of the things we could look forward to over the next few months. Some of those things have manifestly failed to come to pass: we’ve so given up on Kingfisher sending any more free beer that we’ve taken to making cocktails out of what we happen to find under the sink. Happily nobody has yet died. The work experience boy did spend a week in hospital, but that hardly counts. But the main intrigue we highlighted in that article, that of player retirements, is still very much in play. And so we take this chance now to look back on those players and see who is the most likely to first make that switch from part time golfer to full time golfer.
There really is nowhere else to start. Ponting has long claimed that he will never let his career get to the stage where a selector has to tap him on the shoulder and tell him that his time is up. Despite everything else, Ponting is still one of the finest batsmen Australia has ever produced, and probably their best of the last 15 years or so. So he at least deserves the right to choose the time of his retirement. Unfortunately for him, the moment that he decided that the best way to play an inswinging Kallis yorker was to throw himself onto all fours on the pitch, he abdicated that right.
As of now Ponting is on borrowed time. He has two Test innings remaining to convince the selectors not to immediately dispense of his services permanently. The fact that those two innings will come at the WACA, against a pace attack against which he’s averaged 18.3 in his last ten innings, suggests that they will simply be his last two Test innings full stop.
It will be a sad end to an otherwise fine career, but it really is his own fault for trying to play on for far too long. Ponting could have easily have walked away at any point in the past five years or so with his reputation intact. He is now suffering owing to the fact that his form has plummeted below a level at which many of his predecessors, such as Greg Chappell, were cut adrift, which suggests favoritism and a level of influence, as a former captain, off the pitch. For the good of the man himself and Australian cricket generally, he really has to go.
To be honest we really could have just cut and pasted much of what we said about Ponting and stuck it here, and it would be pretty much accurate. Sachin is another fading giant of the game who has been allowed to linger too long to the detriment of his reputation. Admittedly Sachin has far further to fall than Ponting, and could hang around for a few seasons yet without really hurting his standing in the game, particularly in India, but for anyone else it is sad to see him as such a shadow of his former self.
Sachin will claim, much like Ponting we imagine, that his recent spate of low scores hides the fact that he is in otherwise good touch. That might be true, and he could be belting all-comers in the nets, but nothing counts like runs in Test cricket. To make matters worse, it’s not just the scores that Sachin has been falling for, but it’s also the bowlers who have been taking his wicket. Monty Panesar, Doug Bracewell, and Peter Siddle have all knocked the little master over of late, and these are bowlers who in his prime he would have effortlessly dominated. Not Tim Southee though. Even in his pomp we reckon Southee would have had his measure.
It’s impossible to predict when Sachin will step down, as the suspicion is that he will be allowed to play for as long as he likes. The rise of players like Cheteshwar Pujara suggests there are other batsmen out there capable of taking his place, if only they could be given the opportunity. With Australia set to follow the touring English, and a series away in South Africa to take place next year, it’s not going to get any easier for Sachin. After the ineviatable home series win against the Aussies would be as good a time as any to call it a day.
By reckoning of form alone Kallis should not be on this list. He’s been in probably the best form of his career with the bat of late, and has been no worse with the ball. He was the only South African bowler to show any ability to extract pace and bounce on the first day of the recent Adelaide Test, and looked set to run through the Australian batting until he was forced to withdraw through injury. But that’s the point really; while Kallis is fit he is still the game’s premier all-rounder. The issue is how much the South Africans can rely on him being fit any more.
The pressing question is how do you manage the workload of a 37 year old all-rounder? The answer is that nobody has a bloody clue. The current South African approach is to let Kallis do essentially what he wants, with the idea being that he knows his body best. So between the first and second Tests of the Australian tour Kallis did very little other than play golf. After he promptly broke down only a few overs into his first spell of the morning, the question was inevitably raised that perhaps he would have been better served putting some time in at the nets. Would that have helped things? Nobody has a clue.
Whilst Kallis is fit he is understandably undroppable. It’s when he has injury concerns that there are serious problems, as all of a sudden South Africa are effectively robbed of one of their best batsmen and bowlers, and currently they are ill-equipped to cover for him. Granted no side in the world would have effective cover for a player like Kallis, but South Africa seem particularly at a loss, as his absence robs them of an effective change bowler and lengthens the tail considerably. Without Kallis in the team, their experiment of playing De Villiers as a keeper/batsman seems particularly flawed.
At some point in the near future this issue will need to be addressed. South Africa are clearly a stronger team when Kallis plays, but without him they look far less than the sum of their parts. When he finally takes his bow, and with his recent injury record that could be sooner rather than later, they will be required to completely rebalance their side to accommodate the absence of Test crickets greatest all-rounder. After Steve Smith, obviously.