What do Dennis Lillee, Kumar Sangakkara, Ian Botham and Anil Kumble have in common? It goes without saying that they are all great cricketers who held various records during the course of their brilliant careers. During their heyday people flocked to the grounds to see them in action and even today they are remembered as iconic figures worthy of emulation. However, when it comes to the biggest stage of all, what all they share in common is the disappointment of not being part of a World Cup-winning squad.
Couple of weeks back, an article was published wherein a playing eleven composed of prominent players who were not picked for the upcoming ICC World Cup was listed. This prompted one to think about the all time great cricketers who adorned the game and took part in the tournament, but could not experience the euphoria of winning the title. I shortlisted some of these eminent former cricketers who played in at least two editions of the championships without tasting victory in the final even once. Here is the list that I found myself with at the end of this exercise.
Brian Lara was undoubtedly one of the greatest batsmen of his times. Besides recording the highest individual score in Tests (400 not out against England) as well as first class cricket (501 not out against Durham while turning out for Warwickshire in county cricket), he was a prolific scorer in One-Day Internationals too, with a penchant for big knocks. He played in five World Cups from 1992 till 2007, scoring a total of 1,225 runs, but could not take his team beyond semifinals. His best effort would remain the 111 against South Africa in the quarterfinals of the 1996 edition, which showed the door for the Proteas. But this was the best he could take the West Indies in a World Cup.
Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee were the four top all-rounders in international cricket during the 1980s. Among them, Imran and Kapil have the distinction of leading their sides to World Cup triumphs as well. Though Botham played in three editions of the tournament (1979, 1983 and 1992), and featured in two finals, he could not be part of the winning side. His best opportunity was in 1992, which was the only tournament where he won man of the match awards (against India and Australia in the league stage), but he was completely off colour in the final against Pakistan where even a half-century from his blade would have swung the fortunes in favour of his side.
Hadlee, like Botham, skipped the 1987 World Cup held in the Indian subcontinent and thus ended up playing in three championships (1975, 1979 and 1983). Though New Zealand reached the semifinals in 1975 and 1979 they were never considered as a serius contenders for winning the trophy. Hadlee, on his part, always performed creditably with the ball, conceding little while picking up the odd wicket. He won only one Man of the Match award, against Sri Lanka in 1983.
Lillee would always remain as the epitome of fast bowling in the minds of cricket lovers. He held the record for the highest number of wickets in Test cricket for a long time during the 1980s. But Lillee could never find his groove when it came to the World Cup, despite playing in two editions - 1975 and 1983. He bagged the man of the match award in Australia’s first match, against Pakistan, in 1975, but was taken to cleaners by Alvin Kallicharan in the last pool match against the West Indies. In 1983, he was dropped from the side after the first two matches and played only in three of the six games that his side featured in. Further, he also had to face the ignominy of coming in to bowl second change in the match against Zimbabwe that Australia lost by 13 runs.
Rodney Marsh was Australia’s first choice wicketkeeper throughout the 1970s. He formed a terrific combination with Lillee and “caught Marsh bowled Lillee” used to the most common form of dismissal in matches played by Australia during that period. Like Lillee, Marsh also played in 1975 and 1983 World Cups, but could not be part of a title-winning squad despite playing in the final once.
Graham Gooch is one of the very few players who played in three World Cup finals without finishing on the winning side even once. In 1979 England was outplayed by the West Indies, while in 1992, Pakistan defeated them by 22 runs. England had their best chance in 1987 when they had reached the final on the back of a brilliant innings of 115 by Gooch in the semifinal against India, but fell short of the target set by Australia by seven runs.
Courtney Walsh would be remembered more for the sportsman spirit he displayed during the group match against Pakistan in 1987 when he chose to warn Salim Jaffer, who was backing up too far at the bowler’s end rather than running him out. Pakistan needed two runs to win at that juncture with two balls to spare and their last pair of batsmen were at the crease. Had Walsh run out Jaffer West Indies would have won the match and even advanced to semifinals. His decision not to do so won him the hearts of fans across the globe. Walsh was unfortunate that he became a regular member of the West Indies squad only after their era of overwhelming superiority in forms of cricket had come to an end, and hence he could to be part of a title winning side, despite playing in four World Cups (1987 to 1999). He was the last man dismissed as the Caribbeans went down to Australia by just five runs in a thrilling semifinal of the 1996 World Cup at Mohali with his captain Richie Richardson stranded on 49.
Sangakkara was a permanent fixture in Sri Lankan side from the time he made his debut in 2000 till his retirement 15 years later. At his peak, he was the best left-handed batsman in contemporary cricket, besides being a useful wicketkeeper. He played in four World Cups, scoring a total of 1,532 runs, and featured in two finals - 2007 and 2011, but ended up on the losing side on both occasions. He made his swansong from the tournament memorable by hitting four consecutive hundreds during the 2015 edition of the championship where the Lankans bowed out to South Africa in the quarterfinals.
Kumble formed part of the great spin trinity - Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan being the other two - that dominated world cricket during the decade and half commencing from 1993. However, he was distinctly unfortunate not to be part of the Cup-winning side as he bid adieu to the game before the 2011 championship that India won. He took part in four World Cups, from 1996 to 2007, and was the leading wicket-taker, with 15 victims, in 1996.
Jacques Kallis remains one of the greatest all rounders to grace the game as can be seen from the 25,000 plus runs and 580-odd wickets that came his way in international cricket. He took part in five World Cups, from 1996 to 2011, with South Africa being the favourites to win the championship during the first two editions when he played for them. However, a shock defeat at the hands of the West Indies in quarterfinals put paid to their hopes in 1996 while a nerve wracking tie against Australia in the semifinal led to their exit in 1999. Even worse, these losses also placed the tag of “chokers” on them, which they have not been able to outlive as yet.
Herschelle Gibbs has gone down in history as the person who dropped the simple catch offered by Steve Waugh during the crucial “Super Six” match between South Africa and Australia in the 1999 World Cup. Waugh went on to score a brilliant century which pulled Aussies out of the woods and ensured a place for his side in the last-four stage. The apocryphal words of Waugh “Mate, you just dropped the World Cup”, which the Aussie captain claims not to have said, sums up the entire story of the championship from that juncture onwards. Gibbs plundered runs by the tons in one-dayers, but somehow he could not find his magic on the big stage of World Cup. He did smash Dutch leggie Daan van Bunge for six sixes in an over in a group match of the 2007 edition.
When the 1992 World Cup, that was hosted jointly by Australia and New Zealand commenced, the former, who were also the defending champions, started as the favourite while nothing extraordinary was expected from the Black Caps. However, the Martin Crowe-led New Zealand side pulled off a surprise in the very first match when they defeated their co-hosts by a comfortable margin. New Zealand grew in strength as the championship progressed with Crowe showing his mettle as an imaginative and daring skipper, besides being one of the best batsmen in the world. His strategies that included opening the bowling with off spinner Dipak Patel and promoting Mark Greatbatch to open the innings so confounded the opponents who had no answers to them. An unfortunate injury during the semifinal against Pakistan forced Crowe to leave the field and his absence was capitalised by the opponents who sneaked into the final, thanks to an absolute blinder by Inzamam ul Haq who smashed 60 off 37 balls.
There are many other great players who have outstanding performances to their credit in the championships without ever feeling the high of being part of the winning side. Mahela Jayawardene, Rahul Dravid and Curtly Ambrose are names that come easily to one’s mind, but since I had to limit the total number to the strength of a playing side, some exclusions are but inevitable. Thus, this is my my final eleven:
1. Graham Gooch
2. Herschelle Gibbs
3. Brian Lara
4. Kumar Sangakkara
5. Martin Crowe (capt)
6. Ian Botham
7. Rodney Marsh (wk)
8. Richard Hadlee
9. Anil Kumble
10. Dennis Lillee
11. Courtney Walsh
12th man: Jonty Rhodes
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)