December 26, 2013

A year of goodbyes

Plenty of players bid farewell to the game in 2013 - an unusual number of great ones among them

High-profile players' decision to play franchise cricket after finishing their Test careers takes some of the sheen off their retirements © BCCI

Has there ever been another year like this one? So many all-time greats hanging up their boots, in one form or another.

Rahul Dravid began the exodus 18 months ago. His stamp on the game should never be underestimated, as much for his grace and dignity as for his stylishly crafted runs and brilliant slip-catching. In commentary too, his authentic personal brand is proof that he is a gentleman in word and deed.

Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne were two Australian giants of the game who exited the stage incrementally during the last 12 months. Ponting was still scoring hundreds in first-class cricket to remind us that he had something left in the tank, whilst Warne perhaps lingered on for a season or two too many, his clash with Marlon Samuels being the perfect endorsement for the aptly named Big Bash. As unseemly as that was, it would be churlish to let that memory tarnish his undoubted genius, enhanced by his insightful and uncomplicated commentary delivery, much like his bowling - just walk up and let 'em rip.

I felt Mike Hussey's departure more keenly than that of any other Australian cricketer of recent times. Hussey is a genuinely decent chap and the game will be poorer for his absence, softened by the fact that his is a slow fading from the limelight with his various T20 cameos around the world. It is increasingly the way these days - players retiring from the Test match scene but not quite prepared to walk away outright. Anyone doubting Test cricket's primacy need look no further - most of these all-time great cricketers profess that the long-form game is still the ultimate test, but they prefer to fade away on the T20 stage, perhaps risking tarnishing their reputations ever so slightly, but comforted, no doubt, by that feeling of fullness in the back-pocket region.

Not so for the Little Master - when he walked the plank, it was a one-way journey. As befitting his status as a demigod of sport, evidenced by the tributes that flowed for him from other great athletes and world leaders, Sachin Tendulkar ironically paid due homage to a format of the game that is being seen as increasingly less important by the BCCI and, by necessary extension, Indian fans. In every way possible, Tendulkar's legacy is all about respect - for the game, for opponents, for umpires, for the media and for his many, many fans around the world. His impact on India and the pride of its people ranks alongside the memory of one of its true political greats, Mahatma Gandhi. They both share a gentle greatness that is humbling and inspiring.

You don't get much more humble and inspiring than Nelson Mandela, so it is only fitting that the retirement of one of South Africa's true sporting icons, Jacques Kallis, has come a few days after Madiba's passing. I have long argued that Kallis, like Mandela, will be remembered with even more awe as time passes. It is difficult to imagine any modern cricketer playing for as long as he did, batting at No. 3, bowling fast and fielding in the slips with such phenomenal success. For his sake, I hope his ODI form is good enough to warrant him automatic selection for the 2015 World Cup. Should he struggle to make the XI without question, he may look back and wonder if his timing finally deserted him at the last hurdle, a cruel pill indeed for arguably the greatest all-round cricketer we will ever see.

The also-rans (in a conversation about all-time greats) have also featured recently in the retirement stakes. Chris Martin of New Zealand springs to mind, one of his country's stellar performers. Perhaps we'll never see Jonathan Trott again on the international stage. VVS Laxman bowed out with typical grace not so long ago - like with his silken batting, it's hard to remember exactly when his career ended. Thilan Samaraweera had a wonderful record for Sri Lanka, sadly tailing off slightly in his last series in Australia, but a terrific (and brave) man nonetheless, returning to the top level after being shot in a terrorist incident in Pakistan.

And finally Graeme Swann, his farewell marked by an ode from his grandmother no less! I'm yet undecided about the legacy he leaves behind him, excellent numbers notwithstanding. The timing of his retirement leaves me pondering whether he will look back and wish he had done it slightly differently, but that is something only the man himself will truly know.

The other possible retirement that is being talked about is of Kevin Pietersen. Knowing the size of his ego and his prodigious talent, I wouldn't bet against him peeling off a defiant hundred in Melbourne or Sydney and then announcing a shock retirement, almost as if to underscore that England need him more than he needs England. KP strikes me as the sort of guy who needs nothing except a big mirror!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane