Is the Finisher finished?
Of all the ways for Michael Bevan's career to end, you would not have imagined he would be run out ... or rather, drummed out. For this morning, it was announced that Bevan's central contract would not be renewed and, in the words of the chief selector, Trevor Hohns, "the future's not too bright for him". As the Aussies turn their attentions to the 2007 World Cup, another mighty pillar of their decade of dominance comes tumbling down.
In truth, Bevan was never the mightiest of batsmen, which makes his pre-eminence in one-day cricket all the more astonishing. From the moment he recorded his maiden one-day half-century in 1994-95 - a matchwinning 53 (unbeaten, of course) against Pakistan in the final of the Wills Triangular - Bevan's average never again dropped below 50. In any form of cricket, that is an astonishing achievement, but in the fickle swish-and-scamper arena of ODIs, it is little short of stunning.
Bevan's method certainly involved plenty scampering - of his contemporaries, only South Africa's Jonty Rhodes was as adept at turning ones into twos and twos into threes. Swishing, however, was far removed from his cold, calculating mindset. Bevan quite simply pioneered a whole new approach to one-day batting, in which survival was paramount. If Bevan was still there at the end of an innings - chivvying the singles and clipping the boundaries - an Australian victory was all but guaranteed.
His critics would often carp about the selfish streak to his game, and there is no doubt that Bevan's average of 53.58 was boosted by his remarkable tally of 66 not outs. But, therein lay the genius to his game. Of those innings, a mere six were single-figure affairs, whereas more than half (34) were scores of 40-plus. All told they accounted for 40% of his career runs (2776 out of 6912), but more importantly, in those matches Australia suffered just 14 defeats.
Bevan was the ultimate finisher - that ineffable breed of cricketer that Australia's rivals have been seeking to emulate ever since. Rhodes performed the role for South Africa, Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother did a job for England, but none could be relied on to quite the same extent. Of course, Bevan owed much of his success to the genius of his team-mates, and yet his greatest innings came when hope had all but evaporated.
Against New Zealand at Melbourne in 2001-02, for instance, Australia had slumped to 82 for 6 in pursuit of 246, and not even the most optimistic Ocker in Bay 13 gave his side any chance whatsoever. But Bevan refused to be flustered, and with the best part of 30 overs to inch Australia back into contention, he set about repairing the innings, first with Shane Warne, and then with Brett Lee, both of whom drew confidence from his unflappability at the crease.
And 13 months later, it was crunch time at the World Cup when, on a dog of a pitch at Port Elizabeth, Bevan produced two innings of the highest class - 74 not out against England and 56 against New Zealand - to haul Australia back from the brink at 135 for 8 and 84 for 7 respectively, after withering spells from two inspired pacemen, Andrew Caddick and Shane Bond. On each occasion, Bevan was aided and abetted by Andy Bichel, another stalwart for whom time appears to have been called this morning.
Bevan's success in one-day cricket makes his failures at Test level all the more glaring. He was the solitary weak link in Australia's batting line-up in consecutive Ashes series in 1994-95 and 1997, when he was twice bounced back to the Sheffield Shield by Darren Gough, and just to complete the confusion, his stand-out contribution in Tests was his match haul of 10 for 113 at Sydney in 1996-97. It was no fluke either - at that stage of his career, he was genuinely being talked of as Shane Warne's long-term spin twin, but ultimately he lacked the consistency to build on his promising beginnings with the ball.
Next month, Bevan celebrates his 34th birthday. He will be pushing 37 when the next World Cup gets underway in the Caribbean in 2007. Although nothing can be taken for granted, it might be time to admit that, after 232 one-day internationals and a stealthy middle-order revolution, the Finisher is finally finished.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.