Knowing when to call it a day
Last week, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer all bowed out at the top, but not every player knows how to pack in while at the top. Some go on far too long, while others can't resist trying to make a comeback to recapture past glories. We look at XI instances where retirement - or staying retired - would have been the best option
Botham is rightly remembered as one of the greatest allrounders, but the last five or six years of his career were distinctly mediocre. While the fighting spirit was undiminished, the body was falling apart. After the triumph in Australia in 1986-87, Botham plodded on for five more years even though the tank was empty. In 13 Tests in that time he averaged 22.05 with the bat (with a best of 51) and took just 17 wickets at 54.05, and his call-ups were a combination of past glories and selectorial desperation. His last Test was at Lord's in 1992 when, clearly unfit, he scored 2 and 6 and bowled only five overs after slipping in the showers. "He was little more than a passenger," wrote Alan Lee in The Times, "conspicuous only by size, sunglasses and the fickle desertion of those gifts of resilience and reflex, athleticism and audacity, which once he was able to take for granted."
Lillee quit the game in 1983-84 as Australia's leading Test wicket-taker and having led Western Australia to the Sheffield Shield. In 1987-88 he made a lucrative comeback for Tasmania, grabbing a wicket with his first ball back and finishing with 16 wickets at 37.50, and from there he signed for Northamptonshire as cover for Winston Davis. In his second match he tore all the ligaments in his ankle, and although he returned his figures were modest (by his standards) with 21 wickets at 37.04. But off the field, Lillee's signing proved shrewd as the county's hospitality sales soared by 50% and subscriptions by 25%.
Trueman retired in style, bowing out on the back of Yorkshire's Championship victory in 1968 and as Test cricket's leading wicket-taker. In 1972, aged 41, he made a comeback after signing to play one-day matches for Derbyshire, a move that shocked many as he was seen as the kind of man for whom representing any county other than Yorkshire was unthinkable. "His comeback has more than a tinge of optimism about it," noted The Cricketer, and they were right. Injury limited a distinctly portly Trueman to six matches and seven wickets, and few shed tears when he quietly slipped back into retirement before the summer was out.
The Second World War robbed Hammond of what should have been his Indian summer, and his Test career finished with him captaining England in the personally and professionally disastrous Ashes series of 1946-47 by which time he was a shadow of the brilliant pre-war strokemaker he had been. In 1951 he was persuaded to make a one-off appearance in a Bank Holiday match against Somerset at Bristol to help Gloucestershire's membership drive. David Foot, in his excellent biography of Hammond, wrote of the "expectant, almost worshipful, crowd who packed the ground and stood to clap him all the way to the crease. Somerset's Horace Hazel, who had idolised Hammond as a boy, wept as he recounted the match. 'I was trying to give him half volleys outside off stump but he couldn't connect ...he'd lost it completely.'" The mood was the same in the Gloucestershire dressing-room where Tom Graveney couldn't bear to watch. "Why, Wally, why?" they kept asking as he dabbed and missed. It was said that a run-out chance was deliberately missed, but he made only 7. "What did they expect," Hammond rued. " A hundred from me as well?"
Gooch was a throwback to a different era, a batsman who went on and on, and had it not been for the demands of one-day cricket, he might have continued even longer than he did. After two glorious summers in 1995 and 1996 (when he was the country's leading runmaker) he struggled for form in 1997 and quit in July, admitting: "I've run out of gas ... the red light is on." But in July 2000, a large crowd, swelled by a sizable media presence, gathered in The Parks to see his first-class comeback for MCC against New Zealand A. It lasted two balls as he was trapped lbw for 0, and second time round he managed just 5.
In his prime, Ranji was a brilliant innovator and arguably the best batsman in the world, but the demands of Indian politics limited his appearances after 1904, and on his return to England in 1908 and 1912 he was heavier and slower. A serious eye injury sustained in a shooting accident in 1915 should have ended his career, but in 1920, aged 47, he was in England and could not resist the temptation to play again. The press flocked to Leyton to see him captain Sussex. He made 16 but looked sluggish, and, clearly unfit, laboured in the field even though he stayed in the slips. In three matches his 39 runs came at 9.75. "It must have been pathetic," wrote Hammond presciently, "to find young and unknown bowlers contemptuously taking his measure, forcing him onto the back foot that had strolled victoriously down the pitch to smell at balls from a thousand greater than they."
The 1948 Ashes series was described by some as virtually being a farewell tour for Bradman, and he finally bowed out at Adelaide in March 1949 in something of an anticlimax as he injured himself on the second day. But in 1963, aged 55, he was persuaded to appear for a Prime Minister's XI against the MCC tourists at Canberra. The Times reported he looked "slim and purposeful", he received a huge ovation from a capacity crowd of 10,000, cracked a full-toss for four, but was then bowled off his pads by Brian Statham.
An unlikely hero, Milburn's cavalier approach to the game, and to life, made him the darling of crowds, both at home and abroad, but a car accident in May 1969 in which he lost his left - and master - eye seemingly ended his career at the age of 27. In 1973 he made a brief comeback with Northants which, Wisden noted, "found him sadly diminished". John Woodcock suggested readers cover their left eye, "and imagine that you weigh 20 stones and have swollen ankles" to gauge how hard a task Milburn faced. Despite massive public and media goodwill, it was not to be, and in two seasons he made 670 runs at 17.17 with only the briefest of glimpses of the magnificent player he had been.
Grace was still a brilliant allrounder at an age when few people are playing anything more strenuous than the occasional round of golf. In 1899, aged 50, he made his final appearance for England. He was still good enough with the bat, but by his own admission he could not bend to field or run between the wickets. As late as 1902, when he was 54, he scored 1000 runs in the season, but his powers diminished and between 1904 and his retirement in 1908 he only managed 550 runs at 21.15. Given that his final first-class innings came three months before his 60th birthday, that is hardly surprising. Even then, he carried on playing club cricket until 1914, the year before his death.
Even at his peak, Pakistani seamer Ehteshamuddin was what could be politely described as portly. In 1982 he was whiling away his time in the Birmingham League when he received an SOS from the injury-ravaged Pakistan side on the eve of the final Test of the summer at Edgbaston. He answered the call, but it has to be assumed that either the selectors had not seen him for some time, or they were utterly desperate. Even the politest observer reacted with surprise when they saw quite how large he was, and few were surprised when, "palpably unfit when they recruited him, he pulled a hamstring" and hobbled out of the match (The Times) with one wicket to show for his efforts.
Lawrence's career was effectively ended when his kneecap shattered on the last day of a dead Test in Wellington - his screams echoed round a near-empty Basin Reserve. At 28, the injury would have led to almost anyone else retiring, but Lawrence refused to give up. He worked relentlessly in the gym, and five years later he made a brief comeback for Gloucestershire but, almost inevitably, as an out-and-out quick bowler there was no fairytale ending. In four matches he took eight wickets at 44.67 . Wisden noted the return was more sentimental and a qualified success, but so popular a figure was he that "each wicket was greeted with the encouragement and acclaim of a goal-scorer at Wembley".
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo