Fitting and flopped farewells

If only they could all bow out in a blaze of glory, instead of occasionally going down in flames.

By now you should be aware if Inzamam-ul-Haq has had the sort of grand farewell that often proves elusive for some of sport's greatest champions.

Almost 16 years after making his senior debut for Pakistan in a one-day international against the visiting West Indies, Inzamam was expected to play his final innings for his country today in Lahore with the home team facing the prospect of a whitewash in the two-Test series against South Africa.

Inevitably, the result at the Gadaffi Stadium is almost secondary to Inzamam's farewell, especially as he needed just seven more runs on the last day of his career to surpass Javed Miandad as Pakistan's most prolific run-scorer in Test cricket. Yet the very best of plans don't always work out for even the very greatest of sporting superstars, as Brian Lara found out in his last match for West Indies at the World Cup earlier this year.

I wonder what would be the reaction in Pakistan, even on the eve of the significant Muslim occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, to Inzamam being left stranded at the non-striker's end in the same manner in which Marlon Samuels contributed to the demise of Lara against England in front of a packed Kensington Oval six months ago? Such experiences should therefore make us even more grateful when great champions depart in circumstances befitting their status.

What could possibly be better than signing off an outstanding career by scoring the winning goal on home soil in the most watched event on the planet? That's what Gerd Muller, the scorer of an astonishing 68 goals in just 62 full internationals for West Germany, did in 1974. His close-range effort clinched a 2-1 victory for the Germans over favourites Holland in the World Cup football final in Munich, after which he promptly announced his retirement from national duty.

Just 28 years old at the time, he resisted the temptation to keep on going, especially in the midst of all that glory and celebration, displaying the same clinical, decisive manner that he showed in front of goal on the way to a record that none of the strikers in the global game have managed to challenge in the 33 years since Muller departed the scene.

A close second in the list of grand farewells would have to be Pete Sampras' final match as a professional tennis player. Having been the dominant force in the sport for more than a decade, Sampras overcame the considerable challenge of fellow-American Andre Agassi in four sets in the final of the 2002 US Open to lift his record tally of men's singles Grand Slam titles to 14.

Though he didn't announce his retirement immediately, the 31-year-old Sampras, whose first Grand Slam triumph had come 12 years earlier at the same event, eventually decided that he had had enough and that the victory over old rival Agassi was the perfect exclamation point to a record-breaking career.

When it comes to more than one sporting hero going out in style simultaneously, it will take something remarkable to match the final Test of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh. This trio, who were the fulcrum of Australian cricket throughout the 1970s, made their swansong, the 1984 New Year's Test against Pakistan in Sydney, something really special.

In his final innings, Chappell compiled 182 to lift his Test run tally past the Australian record of 6,996 by Sir Donald Bradman, Lillee claimed eight wickets in the match, dismissing Sarfraz Nawaz with his final delivery in Test cricket, while Marsh snared six catches behind the stumps as Australia defeated the Pakistanis by ten wickets.

He didn't finish on the winning side, but mention has to be made of Seymour Nurse's performance in his final Test innings. The 35-year-old Barbadian amassed 258 in his only knock of the drawn final Test against New Zealand in Christchurch in 1969, improving his tally to 558 runs (average 111.60) in the three-Test series, and then decided that was that as far as his career as a West Indies player was concerned.

Compare those glittering send-offs with the demise of the incomparable Bradman. Needing just four runs to complete 7,000 runs and lift his Test average to 100, the "Don" was bowled for a second-ball duck by a googly from Eric Hollies in his final innings of the 1948 Ashes series against England at The Oval in London. It is said that there were tears in his eyes from the rousing ovation by fans and opponents alike as he strode to the middle in a Test for the last time.

There were also tears in the eyes of boxing fans as they watched 41-year-old Muhammad Ali, a mere shadow of his incomparable best, finally leave the sport he had so invigorated and redefined in being pummeled for 12 rounds by Trevor Berbick in the Bahamian capital, Nassau, in 1981. For the man who had floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee and challenged the status quo on the way to becoming the most recognisable face on earth, it just did not seem right that the three-time former heavyweight champion should go out that way.

But sport is not a scripted spectacle, even with so many corrupt individuals around, and no-one is guaranteed the farewell that we mere mortals may deem worthy of such greatness.