November 18, 2013

The perfect end

The best retirements require struggle, one last victory over the forces of entropy, the century made from unpromising beginnings through teary eyes

A retirement, announced in advance and at a time of the player's choosing, becomes a form of suicide © BCCI

Tommy Smith made his 600th appearance for Liverpool in the 1977 European Cup final against Borussia Mönchengladbach. It was, in a sense, the perfect story: the local lad, the image of the toughness and industriousness that characterised the club through the sixties and seventies, drafted back into the side because of injuries, for a farewell that became perfect as, with the score at 1-1 and 20 minutes remaining, he headed in a left-wing corner to set Liverpool on the way to their first European Cup.

Except Smith, who had already agreed to take on a player-manager role at Wigan, decided not to leave, and rather than the grand finale there was a slow drift into obsolescence. I thought of Smith this week as Sachin Tendulkar departed the stage in a farewell that felt a little too stage-managed. Yes, it was his 200th Test, but how much better would it have been if his final innings, rather than being an easy 74 against an attack that was at best mediocre, had been a gutsy game-changer against top-class opponents?

Not that it really matters for a player of his genius. He could have got a pair and it wouldn't have made a scrap of difference to his legacy, but for those lower down the scale, the leaving of a career does make a difference. Steve Waugh's 80 in his final innings earned a draw against India in Sydney. Nasser Hussain hit a match-winning century at Lord's*.

As a Colly-phile, I wished Paul Collingwood's departure had come with a dogged but vital 58 in Sydney, rather than another failure with the bat in an easy victory - although he did at least dismiss Mike Hussey to offer a reminder of his all-round contribution. The problem is, of course, that those who exist on a mortal plane often don't know when the end is coming: retirement is often a tactful way of dealing with being dropped.

Retirement has been on my mind recently. It's only when it approaches that you realise what a terrible thing it is, what a huge step on the road to death it is to say, "That's it: I can't do this anymore." But there does come a time when your body simply isn't capable of continuing. A friend of mine gave up playing hockey a couple of years ago. What, I asked, had made her decide to quit then. "You just know," she said. And the truth is, you do: I've accepted that this, after 22 years, will be my last season playing hockey.

I recognise there's danger of over-exaggeration. After all, I'll still, hopefully, play cricket for several years yet. And hockey for me is only a Saturday pastime. It's not a career or a way of life as it is for professionals, but this still feels like a significant moment, an acceptance that mortality is inevitable, that age is catching up with me.

I've had problems with a bone spur in my left hip for years, but this summer I made a huge effort to get properly fit, not just a couple of runs and gym sessions a week, but proper conditioning work. I spent hours shuttling between lines of trees in Wandsworth Park, trying to improve recovery and anaerobic ability. With no World Cup, Copa America or European Championship - tournaments are great fun to cover, but they entail limited sleep, even more limited exercise and eating on the run - I knew this was probably a last realistic chance to get in shape.

The best retirements require struggle, one last victory over the forces of entropy, the century made from unpromising beginnings through teary eyes

Up to a point it worked. The first three games of the season were fine. But more recently it has become a struggle. By the end of games I've felt dizzy. The hip is playing up. One night last week, the pain in my thigh woke me up. We're actually playing well most of the time and gutsing out results when we're not. We're three points off the top of the table (early days yet - still 15 games to go), but that only makes it worse. I don't want to let anybody down, and the potential of a glorious finale looms. But what's difficult is the mental effort: trying to get myself up to put in the energy and go through the pain that's necessary. I start games thinking, "Please, let this be an easy one", whereas in the old days what I really relished were the epic struggles against teams of a similar standard that would be decided by a fraction.

Do elite sportspeople feel that? Is part of their eliteness that capacity to endure? I remember speaking to one footballer - it was off the record, so I won't name him - who said that people who thought you should give 100% every game didn't know what 100% was: it hurt too much to give 100% more than three or four times a season. Perhaps, I speculated later, that is why sportspeople so often speak of giving 110%, because to put your body through that agony feels beyond what is possible. And little wonder when it costs so much that so many choose to give it up as soon as there is even a slight diminution of ability: why go through all that to be frustrated at how far short you fall of the standards you once set yourself?

When writing my Masters dissertation on Joseph Conrad, I became fascinated by the work of Ernest Becker. Developing Freud, he saw the ego, unable to accept the essential randomness and of its own coming-into-being, trying to generate meaning by the establishment of a "hero-ideal". That could be anything by which a sense of self-worth could be generated - religion, love, the pursuit of money or fame, adherence to the values of a particular code of conduct or honour. A key corollary to that was his discussion of altruism: when facing the dissolution of the ego in death, what better way for the ego to assert mastery and deny its random determinants than to dissolve itself by following to the ultimate the philosophy from which it derived meaning? Take Charles Darnley in A Tale of Two Cities, or Lord Jim in the Conrad novel - their deaths coming as an affirmation of the ideals by which they have lived their lives.

In that sense, retirement, announced in advance and at a time of the player's choosing, becomes a form of suicide: the player asserting his mastery over the situation by choosing the time of his own departure. And yet if it is too smooth, if, like Sachin, you go out with an easy half-century against weak opposition on home turf, there is something lacking. The best retirements require struggle, one last victory over the forces of entropy, the century made from unpromising beginnings through teary eyes.

I would love my last game to clinch the championship. I'd love it to feature my first goal in a decade, preferably as a dramatic last-minute winner. Or perhaps a heroic rearguard, a final ten minutes under siege, making tackles and blocks, holding the shape. But to be honest, I'm not sure I can summon the energy, physical or emotional, for that any longer; that's why I'm retiring. There are five months left, and the clock is ticking. The Surrey Open Hockey League, I imagine, will bear the loss rather better than Test cricket will losing Sachin.

*08:21:11 GMT, 18 November 2013: The article originally said Andrew Strauss took over from Nasser Hussain as England captain. Michael Vaughan took over from Hussain

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here