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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shanmugam on December 22, 2012, 16:46 GMT

    harmony, desperation? I am not desperate mate. Why should i be? Would i get any gain changing my prev. stance? Or am I scared of Sachin fans? Sachin debutec in Pak in 1989 the only time he faced Paks great bowlers in Pak. So it could be considered the same time. He scored his first ton at 17 and his avg. was just less than 40 in SA in the 90s.

    Someone here brought in all those great souls into this. Batting is not a comparable art to music. I didnt say it was a science. The majority may not have heard Mozartbut they still must have heard some music. Music has properties that it is more than jusrt fun. Batting is not comparable. If it is for u, good 4 u.

    Oh u can dispute the fact that Kallis is the better cricketer than Sachin for all I care. Stats can be used anyway. Both Sachin and Kallis have played for a long time and Kallis has the better average despite playing in tougher conditions for batting more often. If 2000s were golden age for bating, Sachin could have cashed in more

  • Jay on December 22, 2012, 12:17 GMT

    TIME Magazine did a special story on Tendulkar a few months back. It compared Sachin's performance in cricket vs other superstars in American sports - football, ice-hockey, basketball & baseball. By comparing Tendulkar vs his nearest cricket rival Ponting, it concluded he led by a "margin wider than the gap between the 2 top scorers in other (four) major sports"! TIME proclaimed: "his ability to carry it for more than 22 years while utterly dominating his sport makes a good case that Tendulkar is the world's greatest athlete"! The other superstars who dominated their sports include names like Brett Favre, Wayne Gretzky, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Barry Bonds. Incidentally, Tendulkar is currently a full Bradman (almost) ahead of Ponting! Sachin's 34,071 international runs & 100 centuries outstrip Ricky's by 6,989 runs & 29 tons. Remember the great Don's 6,996 runs & 29 tons? But Sachin is more than just stats & records: An ageless wonder! No wonder he was bestowed the Order of Australia!

  • NIKHIL on December 22, 2012, 11:06 GMT

    whatever his decision is, all we can hope is that it comes after a lot of thought and consideration not only about Sachin but also a team which is going through a very bad phase.check out what i think about sachins retirement on check it out and comment on it

  • Harmon on December 22, 2012, 10:04 GMT

    @Shan156: You had said "statistics would show" and not "statistics could show". You are now desperately trying to find some extra leg room by modifying your prev comment. 2ndly, I've never claimed Sachin is God or is the greatest etc. You can think anything for anyone IDC. But if you use wrong stats then I will challenge it. Were u to say Kallis is a better bowler then I wont contest it. But Kallis the batsman is by no means even close to Sachin. 90s was not a "so-called" difficult time. Check it yourself ... 90s was the time when aggregate of batsmen avgd the least in the last 6 decades while 2000s and 10s are among the best years for batting. These are hard facts and not my spin on them.

    I did not mention Mozart and Einstein first up, you did. In any case, BATTING is an art, not merely SRT's batting. If batting was science it would be replicable. The analogy of exposure was apt.

    Sachin never played tests in Pak in 90s, played 4 tests in SA in 92 when he was 19, avg nicely in 96.

  • Shanmugam on December 22, 2012, 8:18 GMT

    @Harmony111, am I blind? no, you are the blind one. Blind in your support for Sachin. Readmy prev. posts. I clearly said Sachin is better than anyone i have seen. What i meant was statistics could show that he was a better batsman bcos of a higher avg. and the fact that he played most of his cricket in more difficult conditions for batting. That is why I said it is a fact that Kallis is a better cricketer. I didnt use the word "fact" while comparing batting skills. For some of us, cricket is not just about batting and, yeah, Sachin is not a God or even the greatest sportsman that walked this earth. He is merely a great batsman.

    Re: exposure, extremely inane comparing a sports reach to things u mentioned. What r u trying to say anyway? That, Sachins batting is some great art form? Or science? Lets agree to disagree here as we will be digressing too much.

    Btw, What was Sachin's avg in SA and Pak in the so-called difficult times for batting - 1990s? In the low 40s.

  • Harmon on December 22, 2012, 7:03 GMT

    @ Shan156: Statstics would say Kallis was the better batsman? How? Just cos he has a higher average? Are you blind? What about the various other batting parameters? Let me tell you one thing. Statistically 1990s was the worst year for batsmen in the last 6 decades. Only two batsmen averaged more than 50 in that decade. One was Steve Waugh who averaged around 51-51. The other one was Sachin. Sachin's average in that time was 58+. what is Kallis's batting average ? 56+? This when it is universally known that 2000s and 2010s have bee the best years for batsmen to score runs. Kallis and the likes have filled their pockets in the decade of plunder while Sachin averaged more than Kallis ever did in the worst decade of batting. Kallis's SR is ~45 & 73 and you call him a better batsman? Ha Ha Ha. Kallis is at best a steady batsman like Dravid and by no means in the class of Sachin.

    If exposure is the parameter then FEWER have heard Mozart's compositions and understood Relativity, GO FIGURE.

  • Shanmugam on December 21, 2012, 23:37 GMT

    What a joke! Tendulkar is a great cricketer, no doubt but he is just that - a cricketer. And, to think that cricket itself is a sport played merely by 8 countries with due respect to Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands, and the likes. Tendulkar may be God to Indian fans but to the rest of the world, he is merely an excellent cricketer. Statistics would say that Kallis was the better batsman and the fact is he is a better cricketer. So is Sobers. Statistics also says that Bradman is the best. So, how come Tendulkar comes in the God category? And to be clubbed alongside Gandhi, Einstein, Mozart. Really? Silly, I say. These great people will be turning in their graves.

    @Un_Citoyen_Indien, Tendulkar, in his pomp, was dismissed cheaply by bowlers ordinary than Swann and Panesar. Gloat about your idolas much as you want but why demean the efforts of these bowlers?

  • N on December 21, 2012, 14:00 GMT

    Drop him. For his own good. let's do it before his test average inevitable falls below 50 and he falls below the benchmark of truly great batsman (all of whom average at least 50).

    Seriously, with all the times he has been getting out bowled or LBW or caught behind, all he is doing is embarassing himself.

    I'm sorry to say this but this is NOT the same man that scored those two 100s against the Aussies in Sharjah (remember the desert storm?). This isn't the man who scored 673 runs in a single World Cup in 2003 nor the man who scored the first ODI double century.

    Even mediocre bowlers are finding ways to dismiss Tendulkar these days. Time was when he was untroubled by the likes of Warne and Murali. But these days, everyone from Swann to Monty to Shakib have got his number.

    Do India a favour and DROP Tendulkar. Make no bones about it. The message should be loud and clear. Performance Matters.

  • Vaibhav on December 21, 2012, 12:49 GMT

    @Lillian...Sachin did it....When Australia visited India under Mark Taylor, he dominated the entire series...IN taylor's own words," We were not beated by India but by Sachin." He also played some wonderful knocks but then neither did he have any batsmen to support him nor any bowlers to win the matches for him. I think you can check it for yourself, he won man of the series for lots of series where India performed badly and he was the only saving grace for the entire team.

    No comparisons with Viv Richards as Sachin himself considers him as his hero and I do not think any one could match his belligerance and his total dominance on bowlers. But Viv always had a good bastsmen and good bowlers to support him. This is true even when he was the captain in the fag end of his career.

  • Jay on December 21, 2012, 11:26 GMT

    Gary Kirsten once observed: "Look, if Rahul, Sachin or VVS decides to retire it is a major blow". He wisely suggested their retirements be staggered to allow the team to "integrate & groom the younger players"! Now with Rahul & VVS gone, India can ill afford to lose Sachin - a triple whammy - at this juncture of its transition. As Dravid - whose advice Ed credits for changing his own career - emphasises: "India need Tendulkar now more than ever"! They're right. Compare with Ponting: Ricky was summarily dismissed from ODIs early this year over a phone call from national selector John Inverarity! "Tough call" indeed. But "kindest"? For an elite batsman considered Australia's best since Bradman? Let's be clear: India is not Australia. Selectors are very pragmatic. They know "Tendular is, well, Tendulkar"! Yes he's still "one of the best 11"! So-called cricket experts have been predicting his demise since 2007. They've been dead wrong. Just like the false prophets of the Mayan calendar!

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