December 2, 2012

Tendulkar must time his retirement right, like Ponting

The Indian legend's decline has gathered speed since he began to concern himself with stats

At first there were three and now there's only one. For around a decade Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting were the dominant batsmen in world cricket, but following Ponting's retirement announcement, the Indian maestro will now stand alone. While Tendulkar might still be upright, he's no longer dominating attacks. It'll be interesting to see if Ponting's announcement has any affect on Tendulkar's future.

Ponting's decision to retire was like one of his punched on-drives - well timed. He gets the opportunity to have a final fond farewell and the selectors can then introduce a younger player into the batting order to face Sri Lanka's moderate attack.

For much of his career Ponting has been a top-class player and the lynchpin of Australia's batting. If he took charge of the opposition bowlers Australia generally won, because he scored heavily and at a quick rate. If the opposition took Ponting's wicket early, they were buoyant and felt like they had a chance to win.

In recent times Ponting has remained a danger player for the opposition but the two Michaels, Clarke and Hussey, have surpassed him in the pecking order. Ponting's decline was partly age-related but it was also hastened because he allowed himself to be talked out of batting at No. 3.

Some players are born to bat in a prime position and Ponting, from his sprigs to the airhole in his helmet, was a No. 3. The moment he acquiesced to a move down the order, he was admitting there were some doubts creeping into his mind. Though he came into the South Africa series with plenty of runs under his belt, those doubts arose again after a couple of failures.

Ponting will be remembered as one of Australia's finest batsmen. He'll also be admired for the way he played the game. He was fiercely combative, and everything he did on the field, whether it was batting or captaining, was done with the purest of aims: to help win the match for his team.

Ponting declared before the start of this international season that he would know when the right time to go came. He was true to his word and left before it got to the stage where each new innings had his team-mates on tenterhooks hoping this would be the one where he broke out of a lean trot.

On the other hand Tendulkar, almost two years older, has the Indian population waiting with bated breath for him to brush aside a slump. Tendulkar's decline has gathered speed since he began to concern himself more with the statistical side of batting rather than constantly seeking to make match-winning contributions. The accumulation of centuries became his search for the Holy Grail, but it hasn't resulted in anything like the joy provided by Monty Python and the gang.

No player is indispensable and the Indian selectors should know better than most. That wonderful servant Rahul Dravid has been adequately replaced at No. 3 by Cheteshwar Pujara.

The Indian selectors have no excuse for not hastening the succession process. They have had the choice of a number of ready-made young replacements. Australia would willingly trade one of their prominent young fast bowlers for a choice from the skilful group of batsmen that includes the likes of Rohit Sharma and Unmukt Chand.

Part of being a good selector is about giving a young player the best chance to succeed. Promoting him when he's in prime form is an obvious move but other, more subtle, decisions can also lead to a successful conclusion - like selecting the player to debut at a favoured ground or against lesser opposition.

When it comes to ageing star players, the selectors can maintain the status quo and know that sooner or later their indecision will be vindicated when the champion finally posts a score. However, in the meantime young players will be denied an opportunity and eventually their "right moment" will pass.

India is fortunate to have skilful young replacements but there's more chance the Dalai Lama will be replaced than Tendulkar moved aside. It's up to Tendulkar to replicate Ponting's decision and make sure the timing of his retirement is as exquisite as one of his flowing cover drives.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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