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Amongst all the cricket-related questions that fire themselves into my brain during quiet moments, of which there are disturbingly many for a supposedly grown-up father of two and alleged political satirist, the one that has put its hand up and asked itself most frequently of late has been: How can you tell when a cricketer is in terminal career decline? (I will share some of the other questions in another blog later in the week.)
There is no formula for judging when a blip in form becomes the harbinger of inevitable retirement, or when those proposing the adage “form is temporary, class is permanent”, start to add the words “but Father Time can be a cantankerous old bastard when he wants to be”.
It will not have escaped the notice of the more eagle-eyed cricket followers that Sachin Tendulkar, the cricketing icon of his age and one of the greatest players in the history of the game, is still awaiting his 100th international hundred. All seven billion people currently at large in the world have not scored 100 international hundreds, and for the moment Tendulkar is still one of the them. All their forebears also failed to reach that milestone, and given the changing schedule and nature of modern cricket, it seems likely that all their descendants will fail to reach it as well.
So it is perhaps understandable that, in a game obsessed with milestones, this megamilestone is causing rather more fretting than, objectively, it should. Reaching it is not going to make Tendulkar a greater player, and failing to reach it would not make him a lesser one - though it would be quite annoying for him, and for cricket. If Neil Armstrong had landed his magic rocket on the moon, taken one look outside, decided it looked a bit chilly for a walk, and blasted himself and his buddies straight back to Earth, it would still have been a hugely impressive voyage. Having journeyed so far, obviously the symbolic moment of placing the flag on the moon was important – but the overall achievements of the space programme, and the broader technological miracle of being able to fire people 250,000 miles in a souped-up tin can and get them home again afterwards were, ultimately, of more significance.
It is now 29 innings since Tendulkar scored his 99th international hundred. It is his second longest sequence of innings without a century in his unfathomably massive international career (there was a 34-innings hiatus between hundred No. 78 and hundred No. 79, in 2007).
It is worth thinking back to that 99th hundred, his second century of a triumphant World Cup, both of them innings of peerless brilliance, in which his technique, judgement and boldness were close to flawless; a master in total control of his craft. At that point he had scored 11 hundreds for India in 14 months, at a rate of one every three innings, including eight in 15 Tests, and the first-ever ODI double-century. Statistically he had never been as good.
Since then, there have been 11 months and 29 innings of finely crafted near-misses, sawn-off cameos and failures, a cocktail of uncompleted brilliance and uncharacteristic uncertainty.
Has the pressure of reaching a milestone, to which no other player has ever, or is ever likely to, come close, affected the mind of the master? Have his 38 years and ten months on the planet, and more particularly his 22 years and three months of international cricket, finally caught up with him? Has his luck simply changed? Is he tired? Is he bored of watching a small, hard, red round thing fly towards him whilst hundreds of millions of people watch to see if he can hit it with a plank of wood? When you have done so 50,000 times, the novelty must wear off. Is he simply sated of milestones, after snaring his 200th international wicket in the Cape Town Test just over a year ago (for which, incidentally, there had been a 34-match, 15-month wait after wicket No. 199)? Or has the ghost of Donald Bradman been interfering, trying to ensure that his closest modern equivalent ends up like him, stranded on 99?
Answers by carrier pigeon to PO Box 100, Cricketville, please. Even the most ardent of Tendulkar fans would admit that the Mumbai Methuselah is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but recent cricket history is laden with wild fluctuations of form – as dumped-from-the-ODI-side-shortly-after-two-massive-Test-hundreds Ricky Ponting will testify. As will the whole of the England and Pakistan teams. And most other cricketers. Except perhaps Glenn McGrath, who posted a Test average between 15 and 23 in ten out of 11 years from 1995 to 2005 (and only played four Tests in 2003, his one rogue year, when he averaged 35).
Tendulkar has had to face cricketing mortality before, when his elbow injury significantly reduced him as a player and the statistics suggested that he would never touch his previous heights again. From December 2002 to November 2007, he averaged 46 in Tests; 38 if you exclude four Tests and plenty of runs against Bangladesh; 29 if you also remove a two-game spike in Sydney and Multan early in 2004, in which he harvested 495 unbeaten runs in three innings (and which interrupted a sequence of 15 single-figure scores in 21 Test innings). Obviously, if you remove massive unbeaten centuries from anyone’s career, their average will drop, but it nevertheless shows how Tendulkar’s base level of performance sank during his Elbow Years, and the extraordinary powers of recovery he showed to recapture his greatness.
Others have done likewise. Jacques Kallis appeared to be in decline in 2008. From February to November of that year, he batted 17 times in 11 Tests, passed 25 only three times, and averaged 24, despite having played four of those Tests against Bangladesh, and also struggled in the ODI series in England. He then had an adequate but unspectacular series in Australia.
At that point, with 13 years of multi-format all-round exertions on his cricketing milometer, it was not unreasonable to assume that he was on an irretrievable slide towards his cricketing dotage. He promptly embarked on a run of 17 Tests over two years in which he scored ten centuries, averaged 78, and played with a majestic freedom he had largely kept hidden from public view. He also averaged 52 in 20 ODIs, with a strike rate of 86. The pipe and slippers could wait.
What of Ponting’s recent resurgence and/or collapse in form? From early 2002 to late 2006, he averaged 75 in 53 Tests, with 24 centuries, perhaps the closest anyone has come to matching Bradman over an elongated period. In 25 matches from the third Ashes Test of 2006 until the first of 2009, he averaged 44. In 26 Tests from then until the defeat to New Zealand in Hobart in December, he averaged 33, with one century (and that facilitated a sub-schoolboy drop when he was on 0). Ponting’s decline was prolonged and provable. He then clouted India for 544 runs in five completed innings. And was then dismissed in single figures in five successive ODI innings. Was Ponting’s literal and metaphorical Indian summer, in economic parlance, a “dead-cat bounce” (when a plummeting share price briefly recovers before thudding back down to earth), against bowling and fielding that often seemed to have been inspired by a dead cat? Or is he now set for his late-career revival, as proved to be the case for Kallis and Tendulkar (and Lara)?
Few players depart the international stage quite as gloriously as their careers deserve. Gilchrist, who in his first 68 Tests had averaged 55 and established himself as without question the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman ever to pick up a bat and some gloves, finished by averaging 30 in his last 28 Tests, during which time he was statistically only the sixth-best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, a little behind Prasanna Jayawardene, and a long way behind Kamran Akmal. Herbert Sutcliffe scored 16 centuries in his first 40 Tests, but none in his final 14. Graham Gooch was a decent Test batsman for many years, then a great one for four years in his late 30s, then, when he could have retired, played on. He scored a double-hundred at Lord’s. Then passed 50 just once in his final ten Tests. Ian Botham, who had begun his career as one of the most spectacular and high-impact cricketers of all time, was almost completely ineffective for his last 23 Tests over more than six years, as if Beethoven had wound down his hall-of-fame musical writing career penning advertising ditties for kids’ toothpaste. Viv Richards averaged mid-70s in his dazzling pomp from 1976 to 1981, mid-40s from 1981 to 1989, and mid-30s in his final couple of years in Tests. Jason Gillespie scored a double-century in his final Test innings. If there is a god, he is no respecter of batting legends.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNcricinfo.