Allow Tendulkar his struggle
Old Father Time has consumed another one, after Rahul Dravid, Mark Boucher, VVS Laxman and Andrew Strauss earlier this year. Thursday has had the feel of one long twilight. You would have thought that whoever took Ricky Ponting out would have to drag a kicking and screaming man with his pads on, wanting to play one more hook. However, even he has left in what is seemingly a tame manner. Father Time works quietly. You know he's always there, but in the end he always gives the impression he just crept up. Removing the bails off Ponting's stumps is but a distraction for him, keeping him from moving on to others.
Moving on to other remnants of his era. A stocky allrounder who has defied laws of average by not getting injured, and then coming back within a week when injury finally caught up with him. And others who made their Test debut even before Ponting's, about 17 years ago. A man with a protective gear one size too big and a stance that shouldn't have lasted 18 days but has endured for 18 years.
Only last week, Jacques Kallis had Ponting on the floor with an outswinger. Around the same time, Shivnarine Chanderpaul finished Man of the Series in Bangladesh. So the focus of mortality has been deflected to the only other survivor among those who were playing Test cricket in 1995. Seamlessly, ruthlessly, and out of pure human nature. At least in India, almost everybody has reacted to the news of Ponting's retirement with "what about Sachin Tendulkar?"
By the time he goes out to bat at Eden Gardens, Tendulkar will have gone 23 months without a Test century, the longest such period in his career. When Monty Panesar trapped him lbw at his home ground, he had gone 10 innings without reaching 30, again the longest ever. Without a doubt this has been his leanest phase.
People are struggling to come to terms with his mortality. They want him to retire because they want to live with happier memories. That's selfish. Allow the man his struggle. He works hard to be an India player, and is not going to give it away just because we don't find it pretty.
This is fascinating to follow too. It is not easy for someone like Tendulkar to be playing below the level he is used to, to swallow his ego, to struggle against bowlers he could have dominated without breaking sweat, in order to keep doing something he can't imagine life without. This phase might end up telling us more about Tendulkar than all those years of prosperity.
It is understandable for people to find it painful to watch him misjudge the length of spinners, to get rattled by a Brett Lee bouncer in an ODI in Brisbane and start playing ugly premeditated strokes, to have his place in the side questioned. However, question the form all you want, not his utility to the team. Dravid and Laxman have just retired, you need some experience in that middle order, someone who has played in South Africa before - provided he feels he is fit enough to last until that tour.
As for Tendulkar's place in the side, let's also apply the same yardstick for some others. Gautam Gambhir has struggled for longer, Yuvraj Singh has looked more out of sorts, Zaheer Khan is less fit, and R Ashwin is less athletic than Tendulkar. The elephant that nobody used to speak about is now hiding other people's failures just because he is so big. During a Test that was the biggest failure of Indian spinners - on a designer track, after winning the toss, and with runs on board - all we saw was people telling Tendulkar it's time to go.
It's not that Tendulkar is getting any preferential treatment from the Indian selectors, it's just that Indian cricket is going through a phase weak enough to justify his continued selection. If the cupboard was brimming with such exceptional talent, why would we keep going back to Suresh Raina and Yuvraj?
There is something we can safely agree on, although it is not fair. Tendulkar will not be dropped; he will have to save the selectors that pressure, and take it all upon himself. In a country where it is big news that he has reportedly told selectors it is their call, Tendulkar's retirement is not a standalone decision.
In a perfect world, he would just be dropped when he merited it, and asked to go and score runs in Ranji Trophy if he wanted to come back. That's not going to happen. That's not how Indian cricket works. Even in this non-utopian world, had he seen a fixed No. 6, a proper replacement for Laxman, he would have felt the need to make way for another youngster. There is no one putting that kind of pressure on Tendulkar right now.
On relative performance alone - yes, it has come down to that and why shouldn't it? - we can't ask Tendulkar to retire. It's the age that is not on his side, and it will be wrong if he plays all the home Tests and retires before the South Africa tour, sending a virtual debutant to the vultures. If he feels that barring unforeseen injuries he can make it to South Africa - and he is the best judge of his fitness - he should continue. It is not the ideal situation, but India are hardly the ideal team.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo