December 19, 2012

Should Tendulkar stay or go? The tough call may be the kindest

Conventional logic cannot be applied to players of his quality, but India will do its hero a disservice if it refuses to make a pragmatic decision

Conventions are always changing to fit the times. Amateur batsmen used (mostly) to walk. Professionals now wait for the umpire to decide. But the old arrangement was a kind of deal, the batsman saying to the umpire: "I'll help you out by walking if I nick it, but in return you've got to trust me if I say didn't." The new arrangement, properly understood, is also a trade-off: "I'm not walking, so you have to make the call, but in return I'll respect the decision you make".

The transition, obviously, is from an amateur world based on personal trust to a professional set-up based on everyone being allowed to do the job they're paid to do. Few people in professional sport challenge that direction of traffic - from subjectivity to objectivity, from trust to professionalism, from winks and nudges to accountability and transparency.

Except when it comes to the retirements of senior players. In this area, modern sport goes all weak and wobbly, prone to fits of extravagant sentimentality. We hear the usual phrases over and over: "He'll know when the time is right… he's got to be able to make the decision himself when he's ready… after so many years of service, it's only fair he gets to choose… his home town would be a fitting finale…"

Really? Since when did the player know better than the selector who is selecting him? Since when is a batsman or bowler the best judge the trajectory of his own ability? It sounds like a highly amateurish set-up for such professional times. And why should a team organise its selection to provide "closure" for one player in the form of a ticker-tape send-off in his home town? By that logic, it is time to send home all the statistical analysts who try to provide coaches with what gamblers call "the edge" in selection. If the modern way is just to ask the star players what suits them best, sports teams could save themselves a fortune by abolishing support staff.

I offer no view on whether Sachin Tendulkar should play on in Test cricket. I'm not in a position to assess his hunger or his private demeanour. But I do challenge what seems to be the general view, that the decision should be his and his alone. If they aren't there to pick the team, why bother having selectors? Delegating selection to the dressing room seems a retrograde step, to say the least. Expecting great players to deselect themselves is as irrational as expecting modern players to give themselves out lbw.

I acknowledge entirely that the Tendulkar question is a very difficult decision for any selection panel. First, players of that quality do not follow conventional logic. The greatest players have a different kind of self-belief. In their own minds there is always a way to win, another chapter to write. Roger Federer has been urged to retire for years. But this season, aged 31, he spent another spell as world No. 1 and added a 17th grand slam title. There is honour in carrying on playing at a high level when you are no longer the dominant force in the sport.

Secondly, Tendulkar is, well, Tendulkar. The numbers - 51 Test hundreds, 49 ODI hundreds, 34,000 international runs - are the least of it. Tendulkar will always add up to more than the sum of his aggregates. They do not capture his style and majesty with the bat, nor his dignity and aura. I've heard many people talk about watching Don Bradman, and spoken to a few who played on the same pitch. With luck, one day I will try to describe to future generations what it is like living in the age of Tendulkar.

As boy and man, Tendulkar has made India feel proud. His achievements far transcend the sports field. Tendulkar has embodied the aspirations and achievements of a resurgent India

There are so many highlights, it's hard to know where to begin. I will mention just two special moments, taken from almost the start and almost the finish of his career - bookends, if you like.

First, think back to Tendulkar's reaction after scoring his maiden Test hundred, at Old Trafford in England in 1990. The 17-year-old prodigy brought up his century with a trademark straight drive for four off Angus Fraser. A normal 17-year-old would have jumped around ecstatically: "Look at me, I've done it, I'm only 17!" Tendulkar did nothing of the kind. He raised his bat quietly to thank the crowd, before looking down bashfully at the ground. There was, in his muted body language, a hint of a man accepting his lot in life. There was acceptance as well as happiness. He knew he was special. But special lives are rarely easy. He knew he was blessed with a rare talent, but that gift came with deep responsibilities. Greatness always exacts a price. For all the intrusions into his private life, for all the pressure heaped on him, Tendulkar has always tried to do justice to his gifts, to honour his responsibilities. It cannot have been easy.

That is why my second Tendulkar memory does not, for once, feature a great innings by the little master. When India won the World Cup final in Mumbai in 2011, Indian players queued up to thank Tendulkar - even though he had failed with the bat. "He's carried the hopes of our nation for more than two decades," Virat Kohli explained as he held Tendulkar aloft, "now it's time we carried him on our shoulders."

It was a perceptive remark, on many levels. As boy and man, Tendulkar has made India feel proud. His achievements far transcend the sports field. Tendulkar's career coincides almost exactly with the Indian economic revolution that began in 1991 with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's liberalisation reforms. Tendulkar has embodied the aspirations and achievements of a resurgent India.

India, the nation as well as the cricket team, certainly owes Tendulkar a great debt of thanks. But it will not serve its hero by refusing to make a pragmatic decision. The moment should never arrive when Tendulkar takes the field for India without being one of the best 11 players. It would be beneath him.

Sometimes the hard decision is actually the kindest.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here