To retire, or not to retire, that is the question

Learn to live well, or fairly make your will;
You’ve played, and loved, and ate, and drunk your fill:
Walk sober off; before a sprightlier age
Comes tittering on, and shoves you from the stage:
Leave such to trifle with more grace and ease,
Whom Folly pleases, and whose Follies please.
Alexander Pope

From the time when the India – New Zealand test series concluded and over the past week, there have been numerous articles and stories on Sachin Tendulkar and what has gone wrong with him. Sanjay Manjrekar and Martin Crowe gave interesting insights and here I want to pen my thoughts as well. Readers will apologize if I’m blunt but these are my genuine thoughts on a player I deeply respect and like watching play.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s cricketers were simple minded individuals who wanted to represent their country at the highest level – Test cricket. One-day internationals were crowd pullers but Test cricket was considered the highest test of a players’ competence. It was during this time that I too began to watch and study the game seriously. Being an Indian, Sachin Tendulkar was something of an exciting character because he started playing for India at a very tender age. He used to play in the lower middle order then but as I watched him play his shots my love and admiration for the guy only increased. He was playing Test cricket facing ferocious pace bowlers and I could barely put bat to ball!

The 1992 World Cup made me adore Tendulkar even more because among a team of elderly men, there was this bubbly young lad whose ambition and zeal was supreme. A substandard performance saw India bow out before the semi-finals but a crucial wicket he took in the match against Pakistan remains forever imprinted in my memory. Pakistan went on to win the World Cup despite losing to India that day. As I watched Imran Khan proudly receive the trophy, I had no clue he would announce his retirement. Who would retire after such a big achievement was how my thoughts went. Of course I was only 13 at the time and realized the importance of the decision only at a later stage in my life.

Time passed on and Sachin Tendulkar became a personification of batting perfection and was on his way to become a colossus. As I saw through his statistics sometime in 1998 – a glorious year for him – I couldn’t help wondering how many he would score and that depended on how long he played. I didn’t want him to stop because those numbers and projections were mind-boggling. It would be proud for me as an Indian to see him making 20,000 Test runs, for that was what my calculations had yielded.

As he reached mid-career there were some slumps but like a great sportsman he overcame those and became stronger. The loss of his father was a big blow to him but perhaps his hunger for scoring increased more as his eyes searched the sky after each milestone – was he proving something to his father? The early 2000s was a period where the team started to find its groove under a stubborn captain – Sourav Ganguly. By 2003, Sachin knew that the Ganguly era was there to stay and that he could bat unreservedly without being saddled with the burden of captaincy. The World Cup of 2003 provided ample testimony of his burning desire to win a world title but he chose the wrong time to peak – the semi-final against Kenya rather than in the final against Australia.

By the late 2000s, India had drawn a better picture of themselves as tourists and Sachin was eating away at records galore. Age was catching up with him and the rate of scoring evidently decelerated – a sign that he was maturing as a player and was willing to grind for the runs. Greg Chappell came and went, he played under Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and as we approached the second decade of the 21st century, he seemed to have no parallels. Of course, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis were breathing down his neck but the gap was too far to bridge.

The 2011 World Cup was held in the Indian Subcontinent. Sachin would be 38 at the end of the tournament and I thought – what a perfect occasion for him to hang his boots. The team won the World Cup and on the night of April 2, 2011, as he was chaired by Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would do an Imran Khan on the night. When he didn’t, there was a tinge of disappointment in me. By the age of 32, I could understand what Imran Khan’s gesture in 1992 meant and what an opportunity Sachin had frittered away. It was the opportunity that God gave him on a platter to go out with his head held high in his proudest moment.

Today, he is past 39 and says he is not finished yet. But watching him miss full length deliveries and the dismay on his face, I feel very sorry for him.  He is unable to control his body even if he is fully conscious in his mind when he faces bowlers. What is he trying to prove today? That cricketers can play past 40? That his records are not safe? I really do not know but I do know that 15,500 runs in test cricket and 18,400 runs in One-Day Internationals is a staggering achievement. He really does not have anything else to play for. Those records are unparalleled and unlikely to be broken anytime. He should humbly realize that his body has reached a level where it is unlikely to respond like it did 10 years back.

When I look at his statistics today, I’m impressed and not the least bit disappointed that he has not scored 20,000 Test runs yet. But unlike in 1998, I want him to stop because his time is up. It is still not late to call a press conference and make the announcement. The nation adores him and will continue to do so even after he calls it a day. Of course, he has gone on record that nobody needs to advise him on retirement. People including me talk about his retirement because we love him and cannot watch him playing like a zombie. If he chooses to play against the wishes of his ageing body, then his eventual exit will be embarrassing.  Before a sprightly young cricketer comes and knocks him off the stage, it is better to walk off.
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