January 6, 2014

The battle against attrition

Administrators need to be mindful if players are to prolong their careers and not retire prematurely

Tendulkar and Kallis: two supreme examples of longevity and natural attrition © AFP

The word that sums up the last 12 months of international cricket is attrition. The definitive meaning of attrition is wearing down. The word that naturally follows is retirement; the act of retiring from that wearing down.

The year 2013 will be remembered for two main events: the retirements of all-time greats Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis, and the ten back-to-back Ashes Tests, causing two Englishmen, Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann, to walk away from the game, one for stress-related reasons and the other to what appeared to be a premature retirement.

Tendulkar carried the torch the longest, his monumental performance lasting an astonishing 24 years. He managed the final moment, as always, with calmness and perfect timing. Over the last few years he has slowly and carefully retired from various forms of the game.

That he saved Test cricket until the end was indeed fitting for a player of his standing. He oozed everything great about Test cricket. To finish in Mumbai, to score 74, to make the farewell speech he did, encapsulated the mastery of the man. That day, November 16, 2013, should be known forever as cricket's Remembrance Day.

Kallis, not far behind, with a journey encompassing 18 incredibly productive years, finished as the greatest allrounder of the modern era. There has been much debate about the veracity of the allrounder tag in regard to Kallis. Some argue he was a great batsman who bowled a bit, and in truth this is accurate, given he took only 1.75 wickets per Test. However, that he took 292 wickets over 18 years has significance for he never shirked from the role of third or fourth seamer. He always brought his bowling to the table. That he continued to dominate attacks with the blade, and contribute with the ball, is the reason why he is and will always be regarded as a genuine allrounder, in my opinion.

In the end, he retired both skills because the attrition of doing both roles for such an astonishing amount of time took its toll. Without the bowling, he may have batted on longer, yet that was not the Kallis way. He began as an allrounder and finished as one. His timing was about whether he had the total commitment to continue, and he found his race was run.

The real story perhaps lies not in the decisions by Trott and Swann, but the environment that forced them to walk away

He woke up one day, Christmas Day, knowing it was time to focus on the next World Cup as the last item on his cricket-playing bucket list. When it came to Test cricket, attrition may have won naturally, but Kallis triumphed ultimately in pure longevity, and he had conviction and clarity about when to go. He signed off scoring another hundred.

Tendulkar and Kallis both wore the mantle of supremacy in behaviour and accomplishment. In their respective cases, the question of retirement came characteristically.

The attritional nature of the modern game also played a part in the rash of Ashes matches in six months, with the sudden curtailments of Swann and Trott. The retirement of Swann, after the third Test of the second leg of the Ashes, will go down as the most fascinating.

At the time I thought it strange and couldn't work out the rationale, and I wrote about it a little too presumptuously. He appeared to be bowling okay, technically and physically speaking. Perhaps the elbow attrition was beyond help. I thought he had a few more years left, a chance to take over Derek Underwood's mantle and record, and post 300 wickets as a new mark for slow bowlers in England.

Over the last week I have been reminded of a piece I wrote in February last year regarding Swann, prior to his elbow surgery, assessing his excellent old-school qualities. In the article I suggested he would struggle to maintain his fine form as more batsmen, aided by large bats and small grounds, became more comfortable over time facing an offspinner with no doosra. When Shane Watson smashed him for 22 in his final over in Perth, Swann might have felt the game was indeed up.

For Trott, his decision to go home for stress-related reasons after the Gabba loss came as one of the saddest days for a long time. It is truly hoped that he will recover from the strain of expectation and rediscover his love for the game at the highest level and return to the fold very soon. England need him more than even he might have realised. His was not a retirement, but a retired hurt. Hopefully he will resume batting soon.

The real story perhaps lies not in these two decisions by two very honest gentlemen, but the environment that forced them to walk away.

For Swann and Trott, and probably a few others we don't know of, the ten consecutive Tests were a bridge too far. International sport, and especially cricket with its three formats and vast complexities, is no easy bastion, no stroll in the park. The competition is fierce and uncompromising, as national teams from all sorts of diverse cultures strive to be No. 1, or just to survive. Hence the reason why Tendulkar cleverly removed each format strategically, one by one, slowly and surely.

Administrators and their marketing consultants are at fault here. The players, and the teams, are the most important considerations of cricket boards around the world. It is vital there is due diligence in ensuring players are allowed to recover, rest and rehabilitate when needed, while being provided a playing environment that is positive, refreshing, challenging and nurturing.

And it is necessary to be mindful of the attritional aspects if players are to prolong their careers and retire naturally, not prematurely. In this regard, there is simply too much travel, too many meaningless matches, too much exploitation of the quality on show. Less is more. If we aren't careful, the attrition rate could rise dramatically in the years to come.

Often, as was the case with my retirement, a multitude of things are at play. The body may be on the other side of the hill, or the politics of a new coach and regime could unsettle the enjoyment and commitment factor, or maybe there are troubles at home. Always a part of this will be the travel, the time away, the homesickness, and the longing for respite from the expectations, the media and the daily grind. All some want at some point is to go home and be normal. For the life of an international cricketer is not normal as we know life to be.

If one is lucky, however, you get one chance to live a cricketer's dream; to perform on the highest stage all around the world. The question is, how long will it last? And will you stay true to yourself through the experience?

Following retirement, I experienced a form of depression. I was incredibly sad that it was over, with no real feel for what was to come. My retirement was premature, at the age of 33, yet the body, mind and nerves were almost depleted. Retirement, the act of retiring, from anything, is indeed a symbolic end of one's previous existence.

The attritional rate was faster when I hid from the truth and wore a false mask, of pretending I was happy. When your whole life is wrapped up in the one thing - for me it was batting - then you become dependent on that one thing. The key is to expand that life while playing, somehow, and with it comes longevity and a natural transition.

Tendulkar and Kallis achieved just that; two supreme examples of longevity and good behaviour, commitment, natural attrition and transition. These two enjoyed and lived the dream longer than most would ever dream of. They stayed grounded and real, authentically honest and resilient. Some of us get worn down - definitely I did - by false dawns and a loss of perspective of who we are and what we want.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand