For ageing boxers, first your legs go, then your reflexes go, then your friends go,” quipped the great American featherweight Willie Pep in 1974 when reflecting on his career. I dare say some Indian (and others too) cricketers will share this sentiment currently, even if boxing is as removed from the game of flannelled fools as the Antarctic is from the Sahara.
India’s pathetic performance Down Under has angered fans, many of whom are baying for the ouster or retirement of players, mainly the so-called seniors. Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman were prime targets during the Test series though almost every batsman had a poor series. Only a little over a year earlier, these two were the toast of the country. After his poor form prolonged into the One Day International (ODI) series, Virender Sehwag (who is at least five years younger) has not been spared either.
Shown the door: Ricky Ponting. By Tony Ashby/AFP
More astonishingly, even the otherwise unimpeachable Sachin Tendulkar lately has discovered dissenters in his otherwise stellar constellation. Calls for his retirement too are gaining in decibels. The sudden dropping of Ricky Ponting from the Australian ODI team this week has queered the pitch further for India’s stalwarts. If the great Australian batsman can be shown the door, despite a hugely successful Test series, why is the cricket establishment in India pussyfooting, is the question being asked.
Much of this—though not all—is obviously knee-jerk. With the deeper penetration of social media—and with mainstream media making a virtue of hectoring rather than analysing—fans have become overly restive and reactive. For instance, three months back, Ponting’s Test career was as good as over. Now everybody wants him till at least the 2013 Ashes—including the Australian selectors!
Three weeks back, Kevin Pietersen was being thought of as a spent force as he struggled against Pakistan’s spinners in the Tests. But with back-to-back centuries in the ODIs, he is again top of the pops. Elsewhere, Jacques Kallis, Misbah-ul-Haq and Michael Hussey have shown that numerical age is not necessarily a deterrent to performance.
It is true, though, that an exit plan for India’s senior cricketers should have been formulated before the current crisis emerged. Retirement is an issue that ageing sportspersons must square up to at some stage of their careers, but it is equally important for administrators and selectors to be seized of the issue.
But when should a sportsperson hang up his boots? Countless studies over decades have been unable to crack that one. As the history of sports shows, even the best may not get the timing right. Among the more poignant moments in modern cricket have to do with the retirements of Sunil Gavaskar and Javed Miandad: Two outstanding batsmen who signed off in vastly contrasting fashion.
In his last Test innings, Gavaskar made 96 on a dust bowl at Bangalore against Pakistan in 1987. It was knock of such technical certitude that rival captain Imran Khan was to say it was perhaps the best innings he had seen. Gavaskar then was a few months shy of 38. Later that year, he made a century in the MCC bicentenary for a World XI, and then signed off from cricket altogether with the then second-fastest hundred (after Kapil Dev) by an Indian in the World Cup.
Miandad, in contrast, huffed and puffed through the last couple of years of his career, including making an ill-fated comeback for the 1996 World Cup. To see him struggle for singles and twos—leave aside hit fours and sixes—as Pakistan tried to chase down India’s score in the quarter-final at Bangalore was an unedifying sight. This was the same batsman who could hare between wickets—or hit a last ball for six with stunning bravado to win a match. He was just shy of 39.
“Go when people ask why and not why not,” was Vijay Merchant’s sagacious advice to all cricketers, but most find themselves betwixt and between this. Gavaskar, Donald Bradman, the Chappell brothers (Ian and Greg), to name some, got it right; but some all-time greats like Garfield Sobers, even Khan and Dev—in hindsight—stayed on perhaps a tad longer than desirable.
The problem is not restricted to cricket alone. The great Muhammad Ali had to be virtually pushed out of the ring as he tried to fight on way past his best days. Michael Jordan, Björn Borg and Michael Schumacher retired, only to make futile comebacks, diluting their own equity, as it were.
Retirement is a complex and painful process in any walk of life, but even more so for an elite sportsperson. Research shows most athletes are poorly prepared for retiring. They miss the competition, the money and the adulation. They are also scared of adjustments to a new identity and a new way of life.
To see great sportspersons walk into the sunset is an emotionally wrenching moment, not a matter of joy. It requires understanding and sympathy, not insidious gratification. “Retirement is the ugliest word in the language,” said Ernest Hemingway once.
Even in a totally different context, a few of India’s current cricketers might agree.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Ayaz Memon’s earlier articles