December 12, 2012

Being undroppable

A legend agonises over his life's quandaries

Ex-captain's Log, December 12, 10.35pm
God, I feel awful. Not as awful, of course, as the tens of millions of Indians who don't have enough food to eat or clothes to wear, but a darned sight more awful than Duncan felt after that finger-wagging.

KP thinks it's hard being him. He should jolly well try being me. Just for one day. Try not being able to walk down the street to the newsagent without an armed guard. Try being the subject of hundreds of millions of daily prayers. Try being seen as perfect in every possible way. Try being undroppable.

Normally I don't do self-pity but today I felt as bad as I've ever felt. Here I am, deep in the worst trough of my career, playing for a team that appears to regard defeat as an unfortunate inconvenience in the headlong pursuit of money. Here I am, going out to bat, fearful - of embarrassment, of failure, of fear itself. Here I am, 39 years of age, standing in a field for hours on end, wondering whether a grown man should stop playing games and do something with his life. Not that I've got many ideas about what that something might be. Or even one. I'd drop me, but I'm undroppable.

I've been down this road before. The only thing keeping me going now, reducing my fear of tomorrow, is that the common link is Nagpur. It was there, in November 2008, on the eve of the fourth Test against Australia, that I found myself at a similar crossroads.

Although I'd been in the runs and I'd passed Lara's record Test aggregate and the series had been won, I'd made some errors and didn't feel on top of my game. Actually, having made only five hundreds in my last 33 Tests and 57 innings, I hadn't felt on top of it for quite a long time. Besides, it was Sourav's final Test and that made me wonder all the more. He'd started more than half a decade after me and he'd had enough. He should have tried being me. So I found myself wondering whether it was all worth it. In the nets, in the shower, in bed. Wondering and agonising and not sleeping.

So, on the night before that Nagpur Test, I sent an email to my managers. I've still got it somewhere. Let me see… ah, there it is…

Enough guys. Can't do this anymore. Tell them this is my final Test. I won't be good enough for the 2011 World Cup, so let's make it a complete retirement. Time to leave the nest.

They tried to dissuade me, naturally. That was their job. Still got the reply… right here…

Please calm down. Think clearly. Sure, you're not his biggest fan, but don't steal Sourav's thunder. Think how it will look if you suddenly quit at the same time. Let's just take it one match at a time.

The rest, of course, is history. They won me round, I made 109, a couple of weeks later came the Mumbai bombings and then retirement simply wasn't an option. I wanted to, had to, pull something out of the hat against England in Chennai, something that cheered people up a bit, and I did. Farewell doubt. Farewell hesitation. Hello duty.

This time it's different. Back then I played for a good team, a winning team, a driven team. We had mountains to climb, and beating Australia in that series was a massive one conquered. Back then I still had mountains to climb. I wanted to be the first to 40 Test hundreds. I wanted to be the first to make 17 Test hundreds in India, beating ol' Sunny (hah!). I wanted to beat Allan Border's record of 90 Test scores of 50 or more. And I accomplished all that in that single innings: talk about the power of the bat! But even after all that I had more mountains to climb. I wanted to set records no one would ever beat.

Whether I like it or not, I'm the face of Indian cricket. I'm the reason all those deals are done... I'm almost certainly the single biggest crowd-puller the world has ever known, in any sport, in any arena

It couldn't be more different now. We've been the No. 1 Test side, we've won the World Cup, we've shown the world that Indian cricket can compete consistently with the very best, and often dominate, but now we're sliding. Rahul, Anil and VVS have gone. MS, Harbhajan and Viru are going. Good-but-far-from-great teams are making us look exceedingly silly. And I've set records that no one will ever beat. Something's missing. Call it hunger. I guess that's what happens when you've conquered all those mountains, though how can you not blame the IPL? How can you learn how to want to bat for a day, let alone actually do it, if it pays more to bat for 20 overs?

There's a part of me that wants to prove everyone wrong, prove I still have what it takes, prove I can still put a smile on hundreds of millions of faces with a cover drive, prove that a happy Sachin is a happy India. There's another part of me that wants to tell the world, right now, that this will be my final match for India, come what may. There's another part of me that wants to walk away this instant, leave this room, walk down the hall, jump in the lift, hail a taxi, pick my family up, take them to the airport and fly out to a remote island where they don't have the internet or Twitter and they've never heard of cricket. Forever. And there's another part of me that knows that none of this is up to me.

Last year, a couple of hours after the World Cup final, just as I was wondering whether this would be the time to go, the perfect time to go, I received a text from Delhi. Now let's see… ah, here it is…

Please, please, PLEASE don't think of retiring. Wait a couple more years. We need you. Cricket needs you. India needs you. Hang around and we'll do another massive TV deal which should ease us through when you do go. Without you, Indian cricket could be sunk.

I knew he was right. Not because I'm so full of myself I think the world can't live without me. And not because I think I'm the reason Indian cricket conquered the world. But whether I like it or not, I'm the face of Indian cricket. I'm the reason all those deals are done and all those crores flood in. This is only just this second occurring to me, but I'm almost certainly the single biggest crowd-puller the world has ever known, in any sport, in any arena. I'm also the reason the BCCI controls the game, and I don't like that at all, but that's not enough reason to leave hundreds of millions in the lurch. I must help secure the future. Even Viv couldn't manage that, and I know how bad he feels about it.

I've been thinking a lot about fame lately. Everyone wants it, craves it, lusts for it, but very few know how to cope when it barges in. And it never knocks, never waits to be invited in, never gives you an option. It brings responsibilities, obligations and duties, sometimes on an unimaginable scale. And when you feel yourself hanging on, clinging on by the very tips of your fingernails, living solely on past glories, being indulged and tolerated, fame is even more of a curse.

I want it to be easy come, easy go - but will they let me? I don't want to disappoint them and end like this. I don't want to disappoint anyone. I don't want to embarrass those who keep faith in me when the bad times bite. I don't want to make my family's life any more public or any more impossible than it already is. If nothing else, I owe them all - and, yes, dammit, I owe myself - one final, glorious performance. One final hurrah.

But then you find yourself so out of sorts you get to a point when you're scratching your way to 76 and it feels like a triumph. When bowlers are deciding where you hit the ball. When you can't remember the last time batting felt natural or when timing was within your grasp. And all that's complicated a million-fold in my case because:

a) Pakistan are coming over for the first time in forever,
b) Because I'm me. The idol. The untouchable. The undroppable.

Duty can be a savage mistress.

Right now, if you gave me a choice between staying and going, I'd run. As far as I could, as fast as I could. To the hills, to the sea, to the desert. It wouldn't matter. But I know I've got to stay. It's my duty. It's my cross. I have no option but to bear it, but not for much longer. I've had enough. Ricky going has made it all the clearer: I don't want to limp out.

Think positive. A hundred in Nagpur, square the series, then rest up and man up for Pakistan. Finish on a high and I can end this agony and go in peace. No one could make me feel guilty about that, no one. Not even Ravi.

I can see it now, feel it now. One final city-hop: Chennai, Kolkata then Delhi, walking in to bat buoyed by Roy Harper's reassuring words:

"When the moment comes and the gathering stands and the clock turns back to reflect
On the years of grace as those footsteps trace for the last time out of the act
Well this way of life's recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze
The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days."

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton