That’s how great athletes think. They know there will always be a last dragon, but they never recognize him when they meet. They just say good morning and carry on,” Simon Barnes wrote a couple of months ago for Espncricinfo.com, in an enthralling piece on the great England batsman Colin Cowdrey’s bizarre and futile comeback at the age of 41 on the tour of Australia in 1974.
But Barnes’ observation on the struggles great players go through to quit at the right time, and their subsequent refusal to live in peace with their decision, can be applied to most Indian cricketers, including the greatest of them all, Sachin Tendulkar. Retiring at the right time can always be a debatable issue.
So Abhinav Bindra’s decision to say goodbye to shooting and refusal to think twice about his decision was incredibly graceful. “Now it’s time to move ahead. I am ready for the next phase of my life and the time has come for the younger generation to take over,” says Bindra, who missed the Olympics bronze medal by a whisker in the men’s 10m Air Rifle last week. “I know I can make it into the team for the next 10 years, but I am happy with my show in Rio (de Janeiro, Brazil).”
It was so untypical of an Indian sportsperson—India’s only sportsperson with an Olympics gold medal in an individual event—to be so cool about his swansong, so realistic about his fallibility and, perhaps, also about his obvious and gradual decline.
“He is not that old to retire. In cricket, people keep delaying retirement, like Kapil Dev did when we were growing up,” said skeet shooter Mairaj Ahmed Khan, after finishing ninth in his event in Rio. “It’s a tough and brave decision since you have to be strong to say, ‘Okay, I am leaving the place for others.’”
From a cricketing perspective, Bindra’s illustrious career has the same shades of longevity as Tendulkar’s, a search for perfection in his craft that is similar to Rahul Dravid’s, a fighting spirit like Sourav Ganguly and, more importantly, the natural composure and unflappable temperament of a Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
What sets him apart, however, is the decision to leave the game gracefully. “They are bigger players. I am not as talented as them and I am just a hard-working individual. Comparisons (with them) are unfair because they all have been my heroes and I have admired them all along,” says Bindra.
Tendulkar defied expectations that he would retire after the historic World Cup win in 2011—in order to hunt for that 100th international hundred. Dravid was outstanding in his penultimate Test series in England in 2011, but was severely embarrassed on his last tour of Australia in the same season. Dhoni’s decision to continue with captaincy in limited-overs cricket is being debated hotly as he has nothing significant left to achieve. So why doesn’t Bindra also think of continuing, especially when there doesn’t seem to be any challenge from any youngster in his field?
“Three people were better than me here (in Rio). I lost in a shoot-off. You need a bit of luck, but I humbly accept that winning and losing are two sides of the same coin. In any case, being fourth in the Olympics is no mean feat at the age of 33,” he argues.
It’s not just cricketers: Leander Paes’ selection for his (Indian) record seventh Olympics appearance was also controversial. The Atlanta Games bronze medallist didn’t last 48 hours in Rio after landing, as he and reluctant partner Rohan Bopanna crashed out in the first round of the tennis men’s doubles event. Paes seems to have lost respect in the tennis fraternity owing to his refusal to quit gracefully. There is now even talk of his participation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“We have different challenges in different times, and change is the only constant in life. If you have seen the pattern of my life, you can say that I am at peace with myself for what I have decided,” says Bindra, shrugging off even the remote possibility of reconsidering his decision. His performance, along with that of gymnast Dipa Karmarkar, has so far been the best for India in Rio.
“I have no regrets in my career and I am thankful that I was able to live my dream for the last 20 years. Nothing compares to the Olympics, and this was the greatest force which used to drive me. Three Olympics finals, that’s not too shabby,” he adds with a rare laugh. “But now there is a lot of talent and it needs to be nurtured.”
Bindra blames no one, doesn’t criticize his opponents, laughs at not getting endorsements like cricketers, speaks proudly of his career and rates wrestler Sushil Kumar, winner of two Olympic medals, as a greater athlete than himself.
And he has acknowledged the last dragon even before it could say hello to him. Leaving the game at the right time is getting increasingly harder in modern sports, where the stakes are pretty high for a professional athlete and the decision to continue is often taken at the behest of commercial agents who want to exploit every ounce of a player’s fame.
Refreshingly, the greatest shooter from India hit the bullseye here.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.