October 3, 2008

Elegy for the long player

Rohit Brijnath
India's big five battle on because that's what they do best. We can't expect them to suddenly stop believing and switch off



Once more into the breach, for old time's sake © AFP

Young men in sport are always rightly granted a leniency that older men are not. So this autumn, at the first uncertain innings by India's cricketing aged, at the first legspin spell with no reward, one word will surreptitiously creep into every conversation. Retirement.

These men, whose names stay in the memory just behind family, are clearly older as athletes, their skills fading gently like the evening light, but the question always is: how much of The Gift remains? The faithful will say, look at thousands of runs, hundreds of wickets, behind them. The critics will say: precisely, greatness is behind them. Should they go, stay, wait, make a deal? There is no perfect end anyway to a sporting life. Maybe only Pete Sampras got close on that evening at the 2002 US Open when he shouted savagely into the noise of victory, "I f***ing did it."

Every day pragmatism and sentimentality collide in India's cricketing universe. Once, I incorrectly thought Sachin Tendulkar should retire, then I changed my mind, now I just watch. Goodbye is awfully hard, for them and us, but it is getting closer.

We met the Great One in 1989, when he introduced himself to us with high notes hit by bat and vocal chord. Tendulkar may have two children, but for my generation he is always favourite son. Then the rest came. In 1990, The Precise One, a scholarly warrior who unveiled his spinning craft with devotion; in 1992, The Defiant One, a steely, stylish man of amusing, aristocratic belligerence; in 1996, The Intense One, cricket's student who batted like a monk upholding a vow of discipline; and finally The Elegant One, who was a Japanese haiku master in a previous life.

They were, and are, our champions, our companions, our obsessions, our sporting best days and our very worst, a part of the calendar of our lives. Remembering the last time I went home to Kolkata requires no thought: it's when VVS Laxman wrote his finest concerto. Whenever life seemed to get away from us, when the water dried in the tap on a hot day, and bosses stank, there was always them. When Tendulkar stood on tiptoe to drive, as if God had him by the collar, or Sourav Ganguly hit an off-side drive with such style he might well have been wearing a tuxedo, life somehow got better.

But if these men once exuded a certainty, now it is less so. Confidence comes, then it dries. Tendulkar has no control over his body's misbehaviour, Rahul Dravid no idea why technique abandoned him for a while without even a farewell note, Ganguly no certain explanation why timing briefly eluded him. Mind and body are in a slow divorce. These men have fought and defeated everything: selectors, derision, pitches, Australians, but age is beyond beating. Of course there are five-wicket hauls left in them, and strong centuries, and even great series, but they will arrive at a slower frequency. So why not go, leave to an applauding nation; why sit, in cricketing middle age, alone at home, as Ganguly must have, waiting for a phone call? He was reprieved, but still it's intriguing how many heroes become tragedies.

 
 
Competition is an addiction that keeps them here, that brings them back, an addiction so deep that even the perfect ending is somehow imperfect. In a way, this makes sense: how can finishing what you love most ever be satisfactory?
 

But in sport the fairytale ending is mostly an illusion. Mostly men just fade from the memory. Or exit a shambles. Or go to a sigh of relief as Kapil Dev did. From our safe distance in jobs where we can work till we're 60, where no public calls for us to go, it is wondered: why do they still play, what for, what's left, aren't there enough runs and rupees? It is, in fact, an ignorant question: they play because they love it, because they ache for competition, because they don't do anything else as well, because they can still play, as Laxman might tell you. They achieved greatness because they believed in themselves, because they didn't give up, because they were problem solvers, it's inscribed in their DNA; so perhaps we can't expect them now to suddenly stop believing, give up, run from the problem.

There is more. Men in their 60s often struggle with retirement, their lives suddenly without adequate purpose, minds still active but not constantly activated. In the morning there is nowhere to go, and it can be debilitating. So what of men in their 30s, so young yet reminded constantly of their use-by dates, men who have known only cricket and are unsure what life holds for them. In trousers not coloured white, Tendulkar is mortal. So, of course, they play on.

When Marilyn Monroe returned from entertaining the troops in Korea, she told her husband, the New York Yankees star, Joe DiMaggio, "Joe, you never heard such cheering." Dryly he replied: "Yes I have." This life athletes lead, this ability to bend a nation in praise of you with a few strokes of the bat, is an intoxication without parallel (which is why sex is constantly used as a comparison in sport). It is a tremendous power, accompanied by the knowledge that nothing will compare to this in their lives, everything else will be second best. To play on is to know that high is still possible.

Competition is an addiction that keeps them here, that brings them back, an addiction so deep that even the perfect ending is somehow imperfect. In a way, this makes sense: how can finishing what you love most ever be satisfactory? Michael Jordan faked an opponent to the floor, elevated, sank a jumper that won the Bulls and him a sixth NBA championship. We swooned, he retired. Then, inexplicably to the rational mind, which saw a neatness to his exit, he returned; which makes you wonder whether this "go-out-on-top" business is more an obsession with us, the unathletic. Indeed, a cricketer says, "If I get dropped, so be it, it's part of sport," and perhaps some part of them wants someone else to make the call, not them.



Tendulkar and Ganguly: men in their 30s; young but reminded constantly of their use-by dates © AFP

Ego drove Jordan, as it does all of them. Athletes arrive at greatness by believing, then proving, they are better than the rest. Muhammad Ali just had the chutzpah to say aloud what his kind think: I am the greatest. At his hearing over the incident at the Belgian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton would haughtily say to his interrogator: "I know pretty much every single manoeuvre in the book and that's why I'm the best at my job." For such men to admit they're not good enough, that other men (in the cricketers' case, younger men) are better, is indigestible. When they go, eventually, they'll gallantly say, "It's time to make way for younger men," but they're not really in the giving-way-to-anyone business. They've built their lives by leaping and scrambling over others.

And so these men play. They still seem to love the field; it is the getting ready for the field that must be exhausting: the travelling, the unpacking, the practice, the hotel-room walls, the family left behind (which is what eventually might make them fold). They were good enough to be the best in India; now they must remain good enough to play for India. They have changed. They might compromise, gently and subconsciously: where once 80 was a minimum, now they might settle for 20 fewer. This deal is somewhat understandable. What is not is the appalling suggestion that they will be "accommodated" in the team as long as they agree to retire soon, so as to be given a fitting send-off. It puts individual before team, and these men surely will not stand for it.

They are exceptional, these five, great players and good men, and this is not easily found in sport. I was, for a long while, just another Indian journalist to their cricketer (now I live elsewhere), and found them articulate, well-mannered, interesting, generous, devoted (to team), mainly devoid of arrogance. Yes, they were imperfect too. There is a reluctance now among sportspeople to play the role model, as if it is some unreasonable, excessive burden, but these men wore that responsibility with a fine dignity at most times. India is lucky to have had them.

I am less enamoured of world cricket these days. It is a noisy game, full of boastful official chatter, where manners on the field have become disposable, and Twenty20 threatens to derail everything else. The best love affairs, anyway, come in our youth, and these men I grew up with. Always I watched them. Now especially, even though occasionally it is painful to see them lurch and stagger, feet mixed up and bat late. But I have to watch. Because they're Great, Precise, Defiant, Intense, Elegant. Because soon enough, a few months, a year, whether they walk away or must be pushed, there will be an Indian team without the names Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble. Imagine that? I'd rather not.

Rohit Brijnath is a sportswriter with the Straits Times in Singapore

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