2007 World Cup contenders bank on 30-plus warhorses

Updated: Jan 21 2007, 05:30am hrs
Modern sport, it is an established fact, is a fiefdom of the young. Agility, athletic ability, physical fitness and physical conditioning, essential in resisting injuries are attributes which sportsmen and women below thirty possess. Hence the 30 threshold is often designated as the markeronce an athlete is over thirty his sporting days are numbered.

Interestingly, however, World Cup 2007 is an atypical international sporting event. All the leading stars of the tournament are not only over thirty, but also almost of them are nearing retirement. While the 2006 soccer World Cup was also one that showcased old boys like Zidane and Figo, they were more than challenged by the young and up coming. In cricket, however, the old boys remain the biggest brands of the game, expected to dominate at the big stage.

A team wise analysis demonstrates the pointwhile Australia will rely on the bowling skills of Glenn McGrath for one final time in his career, others like Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, mainstays of the Australian batting, are also over thirty. Across the border, the New Zealanders are banking on experience as well.

Stephen Fleming, one of the best leaders in the contemporary game, is playing his last World Cup, as is Nathan Astle, one of the unsung heroes of the modern game. Among the other major contenders, while South Africa is banking on the ageless Shaun Pollock and the veteran Jacques Kallis, Sri Lanka still hopes that Jayasuriya will be able to recreate the magic of the 1996 World Cup.

Pakistan too is the team of the old warhorses with Inzamam-ul Haq and Mohammed Yousuf, the two main batting stars. And for the hosts it is imperative that Chanderpaul and Lara (both over 33, in fact Lara is nearing 38) fire to make an impact on the tournament. Finally, coming to India, it is perhaps apt to suggest that the Indians are, unlike what the Chappell mantra was/is, a team of the past.

Having seen the list of thirty probable players, which will be pruned to fourteen in February, it is evident that India plans to retain almost the same batting line-up that did the job in World Cup 2003. Given the nature of tracks in the West Indies, slow with low bounce, the first three batting slots will inevitably go to the three proven match-winners Sachin, Sourav and Sehwag.

On tracks where the ball will not jump awkwardly, they are, Indian fans continue to think, true masters of the willow. At numbers four and five theres little debate over Dravid and Yuvraj. At six, a slot Mohammed Kaif had made his own for a while, we can even see the veteran VVS Laxman. In fact, Laxman can, as some past greats have suggested, bat at number three while the skipper goes down the order. The average age of the Indian batting order thus is 32, touching 33. While some say that this is an ominous sign for the future of Indian cricket, no juniors are coming up the ranks to challenge established stars, the argument in favour is that the World Cup is too big a stage for experimentation. Big match experience and temperament are key ingredients for success in the West Indies and all of these Indian batters have had experience of playing in West Indian conditions.

In bowling, Kumble, despite his fielding blues, remains India s best bet. With Kumble and Harbhajan bowling in tandem in West Indian conditions, India will have a more than potent bowling line up. Chris Gayles success as a bowler, and more so at the death, is an indication that World Cup 2007 might be one for the slow bowlers.

What this rather bizarre list draws attention to is that skill based physical agility, and not simple physical agility, is the utmost requirement for the modern international cricketer. Modern cricket is perhaps the only sporting realm that allows men over thirty to continue to dominate.

For a team like India a Mohammed Kaif who saves 15-20 runs in the field will always have to play second fiddle to a Sehwag who is capable of scoring 50 while not saving any extra. The difference of 35 is what makes cricket the sport it is, different and distinctive. Cricket, which will still make a star out of Dhoni, paunch or not, is well and truly an atypical international sport.

This unique flavour of cricket allows Laxman to declare proudly that it doesnt really matterwhether he is the fastest Indian cricketer on view. Implicit in this declaration is crickets cardinal truththe fastest dont always perform; the skilful does, the young dont always win the show, experience and grit more often does. Now we know why the return of Kumble, Ganguly and Laxman had a tone of the inevitable attached to it.