The end of an innings
Sachin Tendulkar Photo: AP

In barbershops, office cafeterias and smoking rooms across the country, the debate will now have simmered down. At least for the next two months, His future will cease to be the small-talk of choice. Things had reached fever pitch in the immediate aftermath of India’s painful Test series loss to England; there was, it seemed, one question that wanted immediate answering over the others: When will He retire? As if that was the one solution to our problems.

With a formal good-bye to one-day internationals, Sachin Tendulkar has sedated — if perhaps not put down — the tireless speculation over the end of his career in cricket. Though there was some fond, misty-eyed recollection nationwide upon his announcement this past week, it was hard to ignore a significant feeling of relief.

How did it come to this? In the summer of 2011, India were world champions in one format, top of the rankings in another, and we couldn’t marvel enough — although the first murmurs had begun — at the extraordinary second wind he had found. Today, there is grievance that he has left a year and a half late.

Not that it is wrong to ask when Tendulkar will retire; his form has been poor, the decline perhaps irreversible to an extent. Only that it must not become a frightful obsession, the single question we can think of asking. For retirement is a difficult decision to make, and a deeply personal one. In professional sport, it is more than just not going to work; it is a loss of identity. “When you’re retired, you’re retired for a very, very long time,” Viv Richards said recently in Tendulkar’s context. “It’s like being dead to some degree; so while you’re alive and still up for it and still enjoying what you’re doing, to me that’s what it’s all about.”

The legendary Nottingham Forest Football Club manager Brian Clough, whose playing career was cut brutally short at 27 by a knee injury, wrote of the shock he felt. “When the end of my playing career was confirmed… I suddenly knew the meaning of the word desolation,” he said in his autobiographical Cloughie: Walking on Water. “Life had seemed so good and so promising; suddenly I had nothing but worries. I was finished; an ex-footballer who knew how to do nothing other than play football… Suddenly that world out there seemed a hell of a lot bigger.”

Clough’s may have been an extreme case, a fine centre-forward’s career left cruelly unfulfilled, but the fears he captures are not exclusive. It is hard to walk away from something you have done — and done well — all your life. For someone as passionate about his sport as Tendulkar — those who have watched him in training will know how much — it is probably harder. It is perhaps why he continues to play at 39, an age when most others are long retired.

Retirements should be considered, planned decisions — not abrupt exits under pressure, for they can be devastating. That is why the NFL, where careers can often be snuffed out in an instant, offers retirement counselling, financial education, and pension schemes. “Irrespective of when you leave, the result is the same,” says former India off-spinner E.A.S. Prasanna. “If you are not mentally prepared, there will be a lot of indirect pressure.”

All sportsmen that leave willingly do so for the same few reasons: decline in physical ability with age, a lack of desire, or injury. The former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, now a strikingly good pundit on British TV, admitted to feeling vulnerable to and embarrassed by his own weaknesses. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” he wrote afterwards of the New Year’s Day fixture last season that convinced him to call time. “I was making Jerome Thomas look like Ronaldo… I just wanted to get home, disappear.” Glenn McGrath spoke of missing the mateship (that most Australian of Australian ideals) and dressing-room camaraderie but was glad to miss the grind of an active career.

But in sport, desire does not necessarily have to vanish with a certain age. The Japanese tennis star Kimiko Date-Krumm retired at 26, only a year after she’d reached a career-high four in the world. “Training was becoming a chore,” she explained. “My coach wanted me to run longer every day but I’d stop at 10 km. I just hated it.” She returned after 12 years, free of the weight of expectation, and, at 42, is active on the circuit today (though not the same higher reaches of the sport). “I like exercise, I like gym, I like running,” she smiled, addressing journalists at the Royal Indian Open in Pune earlier this year. “The first time (on returning) I ran two times a week, then three, and then four. Now it’s fun because I want to do it.”

There are similar examples closer home. In the Ranji Trophy, the Vidarbha and former India player Hemang Badani continues to bat with undiminished relish at 36. “I just enjoy the feeling of hitting the ball every morning,” he says. The body does slow down with age, Badani admits, but there is no thought of retiring when he still feels he can compete. “You do tend to react slower than you used to, especially when it comes to fielding. You have to accept that wear and tear and age are things none of us can reverse. It’s not like you can buy a new car and start over. But then I’ve worked hard on my fitness. Twice this season we’ve had to field for 180 overs (two full days) and I’ve been okay. The minute I realise that my body isn’t taking the heat, if batting or fielding for 90 overs is getting tough, it’s time to think about retiring.”

Tendulkar will be around for some more time, carrying on devotedly in Test cricket. If his fitness and desire to play are not in question — which aren’t — his value to the side should be the only consideration. He hasn’t scored a hundred in his last 17 Tests, a stretch of games going back to June 2011 (a time over which he averages near 32). But others haven’t covered themselves in glory either. Over the same period, Gautam Gambhir averages 28 (with a century drought extending back to 26 Tests), and Virender Sehwag 32. Besides, the queue of opportunity-starved champion batsmen waiting to take Tendulkar’s place doesn’t stretch very long.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that the peace will be broken swiftly. True he can’t flog bowlers like he used to, but has he outlived his usefulness when the team is in need of a steady hand at the tiller? Would he hang around if he was continually embarrassed on the pitch to ruin his — and it matters a lot these days, we’re told — legacy? Athletes are proud people too.

Or could it be that it is just that his fans can’t bear the sight of him labouring to a 40 or a 70, not being the boss of old? Could it be that the hullabaloo is born out of his failure to be the immortal they have cast him as, in their own heads?

What, then, is the right time to retire? The Olympian Viren Rasquinha quit international hockey at 28 to go to business school; he believes there can be no general rule. “Retirement is a very personal thing,” he says. “For me, it was difficult but I always wanted to retire at the peak of my game. People ask me till today why I retired early and remember me fondly, with respect. That is all I can ask for.”

Rasquinha hadn’t picked up a book for seven years when he retired in 2008, but his decision was for his future, he says. “I was clear in my mind. For 10 years I had given it everything and all the travel and training was taking a heavy toll. Also, I was getting into a comfort zone. I wanted an equally challenging career ahead and thought that was the right time. Nothing can replicate the emotion of representing your country, of winning and losing with team-mates, but to retire then was the best decision I ever took.”

Does a player retire at his peak, then, or serve his country till he is ‘maxed out’ (as the Americans say)? Sunil Gavaskar is a fine example here; he averaged 58 over his last 15 months (16 Tests) and finished with a brilliant (albeit futile) 96 on a Bunsen burner in Bangalore. Shane Warne retired to surprise in 2006, after a fine Ashes series.

“I think it’s perfect timing for a champion player,” Ian Chappell said at the time. “If you make a mistake it’s best to get out a little early than a little late.” S. Shanthkumar, a mechanical engineer from Bangalore, recalls: “Gavaskar left in style but the same thing didn’t happen to others. G.R. Viswanath and Javed Miandad had disappointing endings. It is unfortunate that in Tendulkar’s case the one bad year can leave a bitter taste even after 19 glorious ones, but that’s how it can be. We all expect it from our heroes although the scenario of going out in a blaze of glory doesn’t really unfold all the time.”

Asked why he didn’t retire after the 2011 World Cup, a definite peak, Tendulkar felt it would be selfish of him. Rahul Dravid had spoken on similar lines about going out after personal success during a difficult tour for India in England. It is a fresh perspective and not an entirely incredible one. It is widely believed that the selectors give Tendulkar a longer rope than the others, but because he is so good, in popular thought he is measured against a higher standard, judged more harshly than others, and made a totem of the team, seen as emblematic of everything that’s wrong. Maybe he will retire for good in another year, maybe he won’t. But that question should not be ours to badger him with.

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