December 21, 2012

It's not just Tendulkar's decision

Champions, even when their faculties fade, are spurred on by their self belief, which is why they often get the timing of their exit wrong

I can think of few more thrilling things than to see an artist at the peak of his or her powers, where every situation is but a stage to perform on, every obstacle an opportunity to vanquish. Roger Federer has seen it and Lionel Messi is experiencing it now.

Sport dramatises skill but you see the impact of peak performance everywhere. Lata Mangeshkar hit every note that music composers could conceive of, some surgeons find ways of reaching tumours others may not know of, architects see beauty in a barren landscape.

With time, you can take skill for granted, maybe even ignore the factors that allowed your skill to dazzle. Inevitably you will know what to do when the next challenge surfaces, but that confluence of factors may have disappeared. The mind may be willing but the lungs might be weaker, the fingers shaky, the eyes not quite what they were. But the mind of a champion refuses to see those as indicators of weakness and fights on because that is what it's best at.

Players become champions because their response to adversity is always to fight, to seek to vanquish, to look it in the eye and say, "You think I can't?" You and I may not always understand that, because at some point we might have accepted limitations, might have bowed to the situation. But champions don't. They are not only gifted but are aware of their gifts - there's a fundamental difference - and use them as weapons to win battles. To overcome, to defeat, these are intoxicants that champions live on. There is an apparent limitlessness to their ability, an audacity to their thinking.

That is what allowed Sachin Tendulkar to even contemplate not driving a single ball through the off side in Sydney in 2004. It was the audacity of the thought and his belief in his ability that allowed him to carve out a double-century. It is the limitlessness of ability that sees a gap over a fielder where others would have hoped to hit between two men. It was Tendulkar's faith in himself that helped him rebound from 2007-08 to have the two best years of his career, in his late thirties. Why, in the final of the IPL in 2010, when he shouldn't have been holding a bat, he conjured up a fifty.

And so my thesis is that the very mindset that drives champions to heights that others feel are unattainable prevents them from accepting that the time has come. The peerless Mangeshkar continued to sing when her voice had begun to disobey her. She had the belief but not the tools to convert that belief into another great melody. So too with Ricky Ponting, with Ian Botham, with Kapil Dev.

And that is where Tendulkar is today. Possessed of an extraordinary mind, sublime skill and a very rare humility towards his sport, he has inhabited planets that we hadn't imagined, let alone seen from a distance. Thirty-four Test hundreds we thought would not be attained again; he has crossed that by 50%. He has almost twice the number of international centuries as the next best, and the 34,000 runs he has made in international cricket is the equivalent of scientists in the fifties thinking you could land on Mars. This audacity, this refusal to accept what everyone else thought were limits to accomplishment, is what made him the player of his generation.

My thesis is that the very mindset that drives champions to heights that others feel are unattainable prevents them from accepting that the time has come

He is still possessed of this audacity. It defines him. To say "I cannot anymore" would be an acceptance of defeat almost. In him there will be a voice and a spirit that says: "I've done it before, I can do it again". That is why people who say the decision to retire must be his and his alone, and that he will know when the time comes, are wrong. If Monty Panesar spins one past him, that cannot be the last moment of the contest. It must end with a cracking cover drive.

There is one other reason why so many sportspersons get the timing of their exit wrong. The faculties that make them unique start waning at 35 - in some sports much earlier. All their lives they have worked on that one skill; very few are good at anything else. But their peers, who were struggling with rejection and uncertainty at a time when the sportspersons were at the height of their powers, are just entering the best phase of their life. A lawyer, a corporate executive, a surgeon, an architect, they are all looking ahead at 35 or 40. That is our peak, our brightest phase. Can we even understand giving up what we have at 35? Accepting that everything else in life will now be second-best, maybe not even good at all?

The phase that Tendulkar is in is a difficult phase, and often one of denial. That is why someone else has to take that decision for him; not an autocratic one but one borne out of consultation. And Tendulkar needs the people closest to him to not be intimidated by him, to not keep quiet out of respect or fear but to use the strength of that friendship to talk to him. Now more than ever, Tendulkar cannot be lonely.

The moment when the selectors should talk to him is here. There may be another peak but it cannot be as large or as significant as those he has tamed. He cannot stumble on the path that lesser people are sprinting along on. His place in the cricket world, till such time as there is a world, is unchallenged.

But can a champion let go?

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Subhash on December 24, 2012, 12:54 GMT

    @Sachin : Please reconsider the decision becoz cricket doesnt exists without you. You cant leave cricket like this. You are the person who made our nation as mad cricket loving nation. If you truly love cricket you should be there in that blue jersey back to the ground playing series not sitting at home watching it. Watching it you will be the painful person and we knw how much does that hurt. Becoz for me even after a day i am not able to digest what i heard yesterday. I hope that it was a worst dream which i had over night. We know you cant stay without cricket. We dont want you to quit like this and go out, we want you to play as much ever you can, no one has the ability or authority to question on your form. Becoz you are the GOD of cricket and GOD knows what to do and how to play. Please return back to ODI, otherwise ODI will RIP.

  • Jay on December 24, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    Great champions push the limits of human endeavour. They thrive in certain sports like NFL football, ice-hockey & baseball. Here's a sample of 2 stars from each with retirement ages: George Blanda (47), Brett Favre (41); Gordie Howe (52), Steve Yzerman (41); Nolan Ryan (46), Randy Johnson (45). A few of their heroics: Favre made a record 297 continuous starts over 19 years as NFL quarterback, football's most difficult position. Howe survived a skull fracture in the 1950 playoffs & played in all 80 games in his final NHL season to make the 1980 playoffs! Cricket too has its "ageless wonders": Grace, Hobbs, Hammond & Bradman. Modern medicine is prolonging longevity. British scientist Stephen Hawkings turned 70, beating a deadly ALs disease he got at 21! The Rolling Stones at 50 keep playing on! And India's legend Pandit Ravi Shankar, the "godfather of world music", played on till the end at 92! I saw him perform in 2009, passing the mantle on to Anoushka to a standing ovation! Encore!!!

  • Jay on December 24, 2012, 3:12 GMT

    Anand, the world chess champion, proved his nemesis Garry Kasparov wrong! The Russian retired at 41 in 2005 after 21 years as No.1 rated chess player & proclaimed world champions should retire after 40. He promptly cursed the quiet Anand: "I'm out, now you're the oldest!You're the dinosaur now!" What audacity! Anand debunked Garry's myth totally. He defended his world title this year at 42 by prevailing over an even older rival, Boris Gelfand (43) of Israel. Upon which he retorted that maybe Kasparov was frustrated & "regretted his decision to retire (prematurely)"! Anand treats chess as a "very strenuous sport" & follows a daily gym workout regimen to stay physically & mentally fit. Sachin & Vishy have many parallels. Yes, they've had lean patches, but it's their phenomenal Staying Power that's pushed them way ahead of the pack. Plus they've done it with integrity & humility. Like true legends, they've defied the odds & the gods! There are several such extraordinary cases, Harsha!

  • Jay on December 24, 2012, 2:49 GMT

    Harsha - The Little Master retires from ODIs on his own terms! It's the right decision. Because it was just his decision. He did it his way! As Ganguly puts it: "I don't think there was any pressure of selectors on him. It is his own decision. No one can drop him"! That's why Harsha's thesis that "It's not just Tendulkar's decision" is misplaced. The notion that "someone else has to take that decision for him" is so misguided. Especially selectors? Really? When every columnist has been bashing them for their poor decision-making! Re: Age vs Performance, maybe Harsha is influenced by his mate Chappelli's half-baked "use-by-dates" theory. As if a champion is a perishable grocery item - like meat or banana - that must be consumed by its expiry date! Of course Sachin has debunked Ian's myth totally - ever since Ian made that silly "mirror, mirror on the wall" dictum in 2007! Do sportsmen really start losing their faculties at 35? Especially champions? Really? Just ask Vishy Anand, Harsha!

  • charlie on December 23, 2012, 20:27 GMT

    I'm afraid there's too much pressure on the great man . Wh en you're that great , eventually you're judged by your own standards .What is good for others is not good enough for you . Every time you go out to bat ,it's like facing a juge and jury ; keep the faith and believe in yourself Mr Tendulkar , I truly believe that good things are coming your way very soon .

  • Brett on December 23, 2012, 17:43 GMT

    @a7abhay - the point is every player needs to command their spot both based on what they have achieved (within say the last 18 mths) and what they can provide in the future. Sachin is a champion of the game but on these criteria he is done and should go gracefully

  • Dummy4 on December 23, 2012, 7:11 GMT

    Sachin has retired to concentrate on test cricket, the last phase of a batsman's career. The form depletion he has is internal. Comparing his current to his best. This often is looked upon as failure by people who have not reached his heights. Rather than just counting numbers... Let's look at it as a hardened battle warrior running out of things to prove, momentum to conquer and desire to dominate... You had one of the greatest careers in the ODI format. Wish u the best for the rest of the tests...a great send off would have been better... Too much to ask was it?

  • Chandru on December 23, 2012, 2:00 GMT

    An article from an Indian cricket commentator..what to expect? same boring stuff.. It is time to rebuild indian cricket team but the selectors/bcci do not have the courage and wisdom to do so.

  • Jessee on December 23, 2012, 1:39 GMT

    I'm confused as to why he'd mention that their skills start to "wane" after 35 then also says that two of Tendulkar's best years were after that age. Another example is none other than Mr Cricket, Mike Hussey is in a real purple patch as well. Ponting had an outstanding 2012 if you take out the series v SA, two big centuries against India, decent scores in the West Indies where the track was far less than friendly and he was the highest run-scorer in Shield cricket before the start of the international summer. Looking to other sports such as Rugby League (which I assume most people reading this may never have heard of but it is really popular in Australia), one of the games greatest players retired last year in a real purple patch and he was well past 35.

  • Michaelis on December 23, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    The players who refuse to believe they are beaten, like Sachin, like Steve Waugh, like Allan Border, are the ones who never think their time has passed. None of them looks at things the way we disinterested (but not uninterested) types do. It is that drive to be the one who can fix things, to be the one who can save things, or turn around the fortunes, which led them to greatness and which means a strong hand has to take them aside and explain that although they think they can still do it... they better not. Waugh and Border both railed against time's inevitable ticking. (As we see Warne publicly doing in very recent times.) Tendulkar was a brilliant batsman, stunningly good... like watching a Formula One car going through its paces but his time, sadly, is past. It is sad for all of us, for it marks the passing of our time too.