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