Politeness dictates that when a long-serving player retires, it is said by all and sundry that he will leave a big hole and be missed greatly. For Shane Warne, it has obviously been true or we wouldn’t have had people wishfully hoping that he might come out of retirement for the 2009 Ashes, but for plenty of others it’s merely a gracious fib.
Nobody will miss the Matt Hayden who played in 2008, for instance. Were the 2007 version still available, it would be a different story, but Hayden’s retirement was that of a man who in earlier times would have been provided with a bottle of whisky and a pearl-handled revolver. After his horrible performances against South Africa, there’s little doubt the selectors would prefer to see Phil Jaques playing instead. Since Jaques had almost established himself before his injury and Katich has since done so, Hayden’s departure simply completes the handover from a great opening partnership to at least a pretty good one.
It is only partly a reflection of the merit of the retiree, though, whether he is missed. Losing the greatest batsman of the age in Viv Richards caused the Windies only a year or so’s worry before Brian Lara exploded on to the scene. Assuming Ajantha Mendis is not this generation’s Narendra Hirwani, Muttiah Muralitharan will be able to make his farewells without inflicting on Sri Lankans the deep feelings of bereavement which Warne’s departure has caused Australians, and Amit Mishra is already easing the pain of Anil Kumble’s passing.
Fred Flintoff was the end of a search for the new Ian Botham which had lasted 20 years – for the first seven or eight of which England made do with the old but very unreliable one. But when Fred rides off, England may well be able to take it in their stride: at least one of Adil Rashid, Stuart Broad and Matt Prior should then be a convincing No. 6 and worthwhile out-cricketer while the other two will make for a very strong lower middle-order.
I will not be surprised if Sachin Tendulkar is replaced fairly quickly. It’s pretty unlikely his successor will be as near to being a replica as Lara was of Viv, but finding a forceful middle-order batsman who can dominate attacks should not be too hard. Despite my long-held doubts about him, it could even be Yuvraj Singh. What will be much more difficult is replacing Rahul Dravid; what’s the betting that five years from now, as India have their third embarrassing collapse in five innings, people will be shaking their heads wondering when a new Wall is going to be erected?
Sometimes, what people miss most is not a player’s primary skill but his back-up. Sanath Jayasuriya was usually unrecognised as the allrounder he was, but his left-arm spin was very much of Test class. From his final really-and-truly retirement until Mendis turned up, Sri Lanka got themselves involved in various experiments involving Farveez Maharoof in an effort to balance the side, with little convincing success. Underwhelmed by his bowling though I remain, it’s not Jacques Kallis’s batting that South Africa will miss. Prince can easily do what Kallis has been producing recently with the bat, and quite probably more, but he is no more a bowler than any of the others in the SA top six (since the spin of Graeme Smith or JP Duminy are little more than mildly amusing jokes), which will leave them rather unbalanced.
But problems like that pale before the humdinger soon to confront West Indies. Where in a group of countries whose batsmen have always accentuated the positive do you find someone to replace Shivnarine Chanderpaul?