The cricketing world is passing from twilight to the evening of one of its periods of greatness. Over the past two decades, a few players of extraordinary talent, who bore comparison to the legendary greats of the game, have fascinated viewers and tormented their opponents. Sachin Tendulkar debuted in 1989; Brian Lara in 1990. Mr Lara is long gone, but Mr Tendulkar remains. The comparisons and contrasts between those two epoch-defining batsmen, which sparked a decade of heated conversations, ended with Mr Lara’s retirement; but by that time this brilliant batting generation had been reinforced by many others. Rahul Dravid, a few months older than Mr Tendulkar, debuted in 1996; Ricky Ponting, a year younger, played his first Test in 1995; and Jacques Kallis, a year younger still, started the same year. Meanwhile, the controversies surrounding the long spin duel between Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralidharan served as a dark mirror of the Lara-Tendulkar debate; and Glenn McGrath’s clinical precision terrified a generation of batsmen.
Almost all those names have now passed from the scoreboards into history; and Mr Ponting’s announcement that the ongoing Test at Perth, against South Africa, will be his last wearing the baggy green cap of Australia takes one more away. It is sometimes difficult to remember, now that Mr Ponting’s place in memory is secure, that, because of his temperament, he was once considered the weak link in Steve Waugh’s steely Australian side. Great cricketers work on their minds as well as their technique, and Mr Ponting is among the greatest. Embers of the fire that drove the bad boy of the 1990s are still visible, of course — one opposing captain, Anil Kumble, famously snapped after a bitterly contested Test that “only one team out there was playing in the spirit of the game”. But that doesn’t take away from his solidity as a batsman. Mr Kumble agreed this week, saying that Mr Ponting was to Australia what Mr Dravid was, for years, for India: rock solid at number three in the lineup. Mr Ponting, Mr Tendulkar, Mr Kallis and Mr Dravid all have more than 12,000 Test runs, the only batsmen in history to break that barrier. But one record that Mr Ponting has — the most appearances in one-day World Cup matches — is never likely to be beaten; after all, surely no team will again dominate so completely, advance to the final as often, as Mr Ponting’s Australia.
What now for those two remaining names: Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis? Mr Tendulkar, after 23 years, is an institution. He has nothing left to play for — except perhaps his team. He is not the all-powerful batsman that once he was; but India’s bench strength, unlike Australia’s, is not so strong that his exit will improve his team, as Mr Ponting’s feels his will. His average has slacked off somewhat; his eye is no longer in the moment he walks out to bat. One day soon, perhaps, his internal voice will tell his uncompromising will that the time has come to walk away. But for Jacques Kallis, it is difficult to see his voice saying anything of that sort. His aching, often-injured frame still allows him to bowl perhaps better than ever. His hamstring was hurt in the last Test at Adelaide — but he still delivered two match-saving innings. Over the past two years, as Mr Tendulkar averaged 39 in Tests and Mr Ponting 34, Mr Kallis averaged 71. Perhaps, in 1995, it would have been difficult to predict the last man standing of cricket’s golden generation. But, as Mr Ponting plays his last Test innings in Perth, Mr Kallis will be on the field — aged 37, and at the height of his career.