Are we in for a superstar drought after being spoilt for choice in recent times?
A number of special cricketers have transcended their sport in the last decade. Shane Warne, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Glenn McGrath, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid have all captured the public imagination for varying reasons, with the underlying cause for celebration being their undoubted skill.
Judging by the furore his ill-fated “pedalo” incident caused at the World Cup, Andrew Flintoff would already have joined that illustrious group if it wasn’t for his dodgy ankle.
Many players who reach this status seem to attract headlines that aren’t always related to their cricketing feats and whilst Flintoff is a long way from reaching Warne’s legendary status, he is a magnet for the English tabloids. However, it could be that Flintoff’s troublesome ankle will turn into his “Achilles’ heel” and cause him to fall short of exalted status.
Tendulkar has shown it isn’t compulsory to attract headlines for “after hours” activities to attain rock star celebrity status. And anyway, now that Warne is retired from the international scene and the media seems content to let him lead a peaceful existence, it’s become obvious his celebrity was mostly related to his genius as a cricketer.
Warne’s Hampshire team-mate Kevin Pietersen is another whose aggressive style and extrovert nature lend themselves to controversy, conjecture and a large pay packet. He’s the current player bordering on super stardom, although his move away from a rock ‘n roll lifestyle to a more settled existence has perhaps slowed his progress. However, a monster Ashes series in 2009 would seal his pedigree.
Of the burgeoning bowlers, Monty Panesar and Mohammad Asif are the two most likely to make a big splash. Panesar is a top-class attacking spinner who already has a 10-wicket match performance to his name and a raucous international following gained through an infectious enthusiasm for the game. Nicknamed Monty “Panadol” by Rod Marsh when he first attended the academy, Panesar is turning out to be a headache for opposing batsmen.
Asif is a very talented bowler; when I first saw him in Sri Lanka, he made the ball talk. He’s averaging almost five wickets a Test at this early stage and he’s also been tainted by a drugs scandal. He’s a young man with an engaging smile and an abundance of character and it’s to be hoped the drugs charge was a case of either being unfairly maligned or poorly advised.
Asif attracted widespread controversy in the company of team-mate Shoaib Ahktar, who would’ve made the list for the last decade if it weren’t for his spasmodic appearances on the field, so let’s hope the younger fast bowler doesn’t follow suit.
There are other players who had a fleeting glimpse of stardom but for varying reasons have disappeared from the limelight. Virender Sehwag’s audacious batting had him earmarked but he’s been sidelined by a horrible form slump.
And Irfan Pathan had the film star looks; the deadly late swing and cavalier approach to batting that had most Indians ready to consign their Kapil Dev posters to the bottom drawer. But the left-hander has since lost his way.
There are a number of players who have been around just long enough to hint at bigger things to come but there are two who intrigue with their starkly contrasting personalities — Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Bangladesh’s Mohammad Ashraful. Dhoni is an outgoing character whose thunderous stroke-play lends itself to a large legion of fans and lavish endorsements. If he can maintain his batting exploits and improve his keeping, he could rise to the ranks of superstar.
Ashraful is an interesting case; he has loads of talent and the ability to thrill crowds with his daring stroke-play. He's only just approaching his 23rd birthday despite debuting in 2001 and he’s also been burdened with the captaincy of an over-matched team.
Nevertheless, judging by his latest Test century, the captaincy may provide the inspiration to bring much-needed maturity to his batting, making him a standout performer in a beleaguered Bangladesh outfit.
This may seem like lean pickings after the star-laden period we’ve just experienced but never underestimate cricket’s ability to spring a surprise. The game has a habit of suddenly spawning rising stars, and the media, with its insatiable appetite, does the rest.