November 15, 2010

When cricketers age

Do we have the right to call for their retirements or should we let their dramas play themselves out?

There may be few things as thrilling in sport as the blooming of a new talent, but watching the withering - or not, the big question - is the more absorbing. By this time we've had the benefit of familiarity. Cricket is really a family soap set to physical motion, so familiarity is everything. We know character patterns, the back story, the old follies and glories.

We know, for instance, that Rahul Dravid has been on the other side of the fence he is on now. Four years ago he was captain when Greg Chappell attempted to do away with virtually all of India's older players. Sachin Tendulkar, Chappell tried to convince journalists off the record, would not last till the 2007 World Cup; Virender Sehwag was finished, his back packed up forever; VVS Laxman's knees were too dodgy; while Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Sourav Ganguly were "cancers". So much for all that.

Watching a Dravid innings nowadays has begun to bring the kind of dramatic anticipation as Ganguly's some years ago, though, of course, for drama Sourav was Sourav. Each time Dravid takes guard now we are aroused by the subtext: redemption or fall? In short, he has become an old cricketer.

With age, cricketers turn a little bit more into themselves. No longer discovering their games, they fall back on what they know most. My main memory of Javed Miandad's struggle against India in Bangalore in the 1996 World Cup is how desperately he tried to galvanise his defiance into one last triumph, how hard he relied on it, how inadequate it was. His career was as old as the World Cup. He himself was about as old as cricket. He played slowly and got run out. In his final few years Brian Lara, wounded and challenged, turned to his original twinkle-foot rapacity, once lashing 28 runs in a Test over, 26 another time, and there was the minor matter of 400 in an innings. Tendulkar's life and his cricket have been a quest for balance, and so he has settled upon a judicious blend of his strokeful youth - brought up his century with two sixes the other day! - and the conveyor-belt accumulation of his later years. And Dravid, who faces balls - who has faced more balls in Test cricket than Tendulkar despite a seven-year handicap - faces more balls.

When their position is secure - when they may "go out on their own terms", as the phrase goes - there appears a geniality about the older player. The fires dimmed, their world view expanded, they begin to feel like nasty uncles showing their softer sides. I never thought Matthew Hayden could be endearing, but he did look so on his last tour of India, where, scrunching his eyes at slip he resembled John McCain a great deal. Which is not to say that aged Republican senators are particularly endearing; but a 70-year-old first slipper is. Never could the word "lovable" be attached to Glenn McGrath until the tail-end of his magnificent career, when he chuntered all the same but, creases etched into his face, smiled more than he cussed; and he delivered some of the funnier press conferences in cricket. By the time he was the grand-daddy figure in the IPL, I had begun to think of him as one of the nicest guys in the game.

When their position is secure - when they may "go out on their own terms", as the phrase goes - there appears a geniality about the older player. The fires dimmed, their world view expanded, they begin to feel like nasty uncles showing their softer sides

This is a luxury, however. More often the old player finds himself glancing over his shoulder. Allan Border I think it was who was supposed to have said of the coming men at the fag end of his career that they may be better than him, but the thing he had over them was they didn't know it yet. This is the position Dravid finds himself in now, youngsters nipping at his heels, the public urging him to either fight on or retire "gracefully".

He would know that it's been a scratchy few years. When he resigned the captaincy he looked a far older man than when he'd taken it on, but it was his batting that seemed to have aged. In his last Test as captain, at The Oval, he put up an innings of such awkwardness that he appeared both bemused and embarrassed, a performance repeated in the first 100 balls of his innings against New Zealand in Ahmedabad. On the 2007-08 tour of Australia, he could barely get the ball off the square. Peter Roebuck observed that his bat sounded like tin. You cannot grudge a man his method. In Perth he endured through the rust for 93, the highest score in a great Indian win. And in Ahmedabad his 104 was the second highest score in the innings.

Steve Waugh, who nevertheless orchestrated for himself all but a 21-gun salute, made the point that it didn't matter in the long run how someone goes out, and he is right. Nobody troubles themselves with Viv Richards' mediocre final seasons, nor did they prevent him from making Wisden's Five Cricketers of the last century or, recently, ESPNcricinfo's all-time World XI. Journalism overrates near memory.

Waugh was responding to suggestions that he should go out at a time, to use another of cricket's old-man phrases, "people are asking why rather than when". I'm not sure anymore if it is proper to be telling someone to retire. By all means they are fair game for criticism and omission, but they cannot be denied the right to try. Sportsmen don't play for a place in our individual memories. They play because it is what they do, and think they can still do it well. It is timeless drama. Old giving to new, the generational saga, the cycle of life, the stuff of books and movies. Why ask to end it? The least one can do is enjoy it as it plays out.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the forthcoming novel The Sly Company of People Who Care

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Hema on November 18, 2010, 22:49 GMT

    Dravid used to be the Mr. Dependable. But now he is consistently failing to score. We did not notice Dravid's failures as our focus remained on Tendulkar's & Ganguly's poor run of form. Since Ganguly has announced his retirement and Tendulkar is back to form and Laxman scoring runs, Rahul's performance comes under the scanner. Only Dravid disappointed so far in the series. I agree, there is pressure on him; but that is not a reason, that is just an excuse. He is not a player who played just 10 test match, he is a player with more than 100 test caps. So if he fail once, it is okay. If he fails twice it is okay, but if he fails every time, there is no explanation. But, when he should retire that is upto Dravid. I hope he will put everything behind him with a good performance soon. If not he should be given a last chance in the SA series with an ultimatum by BCCI - 'either you fire, or we fire you'.

  • Hema on November 18, 2010, 22:46 GMT

    by the way Ramanuja, you sound more and more like that teenage boy on you tube who cries 'leave Brittany alone" :) funny.

  • Hema on November 18, 2010, 22:44 GMT

    An excellent post by Martin Hooks. @RamanujanKrishna, it is not about this player or that player; it is about team India. No one deserves a place in the team because in the past they have been great players. Please read this post carefully and don't sharpen your typing skill because you like the Dravid so much. "Dravid has somehow been the holy cow of Indian cricket; any comment on his form or performance is taken as an insult to him. One hopes that Dravid will show his form of old in SA, failing which, the selection committee should award his place to a deserving batsman. His list of momentum killing innings are building up. Mere per innings average is not indicative of pressures he creates on many batsman who come after him. There are many innings such as 12 from 118 balls at oval 5 from 66 and 16 from 114 balls at Melbourne, 11 from 64 balls at Adelaide, 29 from 106 ball against South Africa in Kanpur and two three innings in this series that helped NZ more than it helped India"

  • Dummy4 on November 18, 2010, 20:54 GMT

    Gulshan and Hema. Let Dravid alone. Srikanth and he are better judges on when he should go. And there! He did not go away yet even after you closed your eyes and wished he did. He has averaged 50 so far in this series. What about Tendulkar, Dhoni and Raina? Add their averages and they just might come close to him. So his innings have all been momentum sapping? What of Tendulkar and his slow 40 followed by his jejune attempt to go faster to the hut? Each time Bhajji had to bail out India after Tendlya decided to play hookey. OK,right now Lax is the best. But that is now. And Gulshan, your prejudice against Dravid shows You mention he should be fired for hobnobbing with Greg. Grow up guys. The captain and coach are supposed to work together. Strategies can fail. Dravid stayed on as captain as long as he wanted to and resigned after that. He is still playing better than Raina, Dhoni and Tendlya. He will go away when he is unable to match the three together. Don't hold your breath guys!

  • Sadashiv on November 18, 2010, 14:01 GMT

    No one is demanding anything, but this is a free society and we do have the rights to comment and discuss as we are the ultimate stakeholders. There are no holy cows in cricket and interest of the team is supreme not of an individual hence decision can not be left for the player. If all players started making correct decisions what was the need for selection committee at all?

  • kannan on November 18, 2010, 13:15 GMT

    Dravid, have you watched recent videos of your batting? well, you are supposedly a keen student of the game. you should know, more than anyone else, that your time is up. whats keeping you from doing the right thing? ie calling time on your career? is it the money? is it the power that comes with the territory? you are undoing the goodwill you have gained over time. This is going from bad to worse. India will be walloped in SA if Dravid is in the team. worse, if he bats at humber 3.

  • kannan on November 18, 2010, 13:01 GMT

    Martin Hooks.. mate, you took the words out of my mouth. You are spot on! I have been Dravid's greatest fan for so many moons, but the team comes first. Over the past few yrs, it has become such a painful eyesore just watching him bat and to my anguish i am hoping that he fails, so that someone will finally show him the door. You would have thought that the articulate Dravid would know when his time is up. But sadly, he too will not go until pushed. In India, it is almost sacrilege to question Dravid's place in the team. Even Tendulkar dint get such a long rope ( remember in 2007, people were calling him Endulkar?". Mark my words.. utter disaster awaits us in SA if Dravid is going to bat at number 3. He will be the "momentum killer". Please RD, have the grace to call it a day. you deserve better than to be dropped.

  • Musti on November 18, 2010, 11:24 GMT

    I fully agree with Gazza038. It is finally the selectors job (who are paid for it) to judge what is the best team that can play for the country. If the national selectors cannot take a call on dropping someone, why should we blame that someone for doing something that he has been doing for 15-20 years and believes can do for a couple of more years?

  • Pratyush on November 18, 2010, 10:57 GMT

    Have been such a big fan of RD.. And I keep asking this question to myself again and again ! What I would not want is the axing of RD. He has been such a great player for India. I just hope he knows what he is doing and lets just trust him to do the right thing.

    We need to believe that players of his caliber know what is right and what is wrong and trust whatever their decision is.

  • Gary on November 18, 2010, 10:33 GMT

    Having read the first page of comments, I would say that most people seem to be missing the point. That is that none of us have the right to demand a players retirement - a point I agree with wholeheartedly. The author says "They play because it is what they do, and think they can still do it well." I would add that they play because they love the game. Who are we to tell someone to stop doing something they love. Selectors are paid well to make the tough calls. If a player is hanging on too long, don't blame the player - blame the selectors. Some players will keep playing long after their international (and sometimes even provincial) career ends - and that should be encouraged. The experience they pass on is invaluable.

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