The year-end essay 2 January 4, 2013

The thorny question of retirement

What gives us the right to expect a player to know exactly when to give it all up?

Giving up has never been easy. Ask yourself. We struggle to even give up the small pleasures that are harmful for us: cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate. But yet we expect sportsmen to walk away from the thing they love most, the thing that defines them, and a pursuit that has consumed their lives since they were teenagers, or even earlier, because we think it is time.

Sportsmen need to make this call at an age when the rest of us are ready to begin the best phase of our careers. And they need to do so without a clear sense of what the future holds, and in the knowledge that nothing in the rest of their lives will probably provide the highs and thrills, let alone the fame and the adulation, that sport can, and that life from here on will most likely be mundane and ordinary.

And we expect them make this call with dignity and grace.

Of course, Sachin Tendulkar should have given up one-day cricket after India won the World Cup in 2011. That's the fairytale we wanted for him. We want to frame in our minds picture-perfect images of our heroes. We want to remember them as winners, at the height of their glory, at the peak of their game. There was nothing left for Tendulkar to achieve in the one-day game, and for his fans, there could never be a grander farewell than a World Cup win.

But what if Tendulkar didn't see it that way? What if he didn't want our fairytale? What if he just wanted to play? Why is Roger Federer still playing? Why was Mohammed Ali fighting Trevor Berbick at the age 39? Why did Diego Maradona bother to even turn up at the 1994 World Cup?

But then, why do we expect sportsmen to time their departures so that our image of them isn't sullied by their struggle?

In a team sport such as cricket, players don't need to know when to go. In fact, it is an unfair expectation. Cricketers may be granted the dignity of announcing their retirement, but selectors are paid to make choices. We don't yet know if Tendulkar received a tap on the shoulder about his presence in India's one-day team, but if he didn't, the selectors failed him, and they failed Indian cricket.

The last year was one of big departures, and not one of those players went the way their fans would have wished them to have done. Rahul Dravid went with quiet dignity, but in hindsight, his fans would have wanted him to go out on the back of his three hundreds in England in 2011 and not after his stumps had been shattered in all possible manners. By all accounts, VVS Laxman retired hurt, the most handsome and lissome of batsmen reduced to prodding and groping for the ball, and with calls for his removal growing louder. Brett Lee, having gone from Test cricket already, merely faded away. Tatenda Taibu went in obscurity. Andrew Strauss' final dismissal was symbolic: he surrendered his wicket, offering no stroke to a ball that nailed him in front of the stumps, just as England surrendered the Test crown he had played such a vital role in securing. And Ricky Ponting, the cricketer involved in the most wins in the history of the game, went after a crushing defeat and series of feeble dismissals one of which had him on all fours while the stumps rattled behind him. Only Mike Hussey is leaving while people are still asking: why not a series or two more?

History will, of course, judge them not for the manner of their going but for the sum of their contributions and by the impact they had on the fortunes of their teams. And eventually fans will remember them for the flames they lit in their hearts.

Sportsmen should not carry on merely on the weight of reputation in a team sport, but neither should they be grudged the desire to hold on to the most special thing in their lives for a bit longer. After all, as Viv Richards reminded Tendulkar a while ago, sportsmen stay retired for a long time.

Sportsmen should not carry on merely on the weight of reputation in a team sport, but neither should they be grudged the desire to hold on to the most special thing in their lives for a bit longer

Remembering Tony
By most standards, 66 is too young to die. For someone with so much life in him, Tony Greig went awfully soon. I couldn't possibly add too much in terms of evaluating his contribution to the game than what has already been written on this site, but allow me to share a few memories.

I don't remember when I met him in person for the first time, but I knew him since 2000, when I edited, a start-up website owned by the late Mark Mascarenhas. Mark lined up a galaxy of stars from broadcasting as contributors, but only two gave the impression that they were there to do a job: Ian Chappell and Tony Greig. Their work was thorough and diligent, and once the schedule was set, they never needed a reminder.

When we expanded our roster of contributors at ESPNcricinfo, they were among the people I signed up. Tony surprised me by volunteering to use Skype to record his audio show. That was 2003; internet telephony was still a new concept, but Tony was up with the latest. Each time we spoke on the phone or met, he would ask questions about operational details and trends in digital media and offer suggestions. What he did for us was a very small part of his overall work, but he always let you know that he was part of the team.

I remember recording our first audio discussion show, hosted by Sanjay Manjrekar, in a hotel room in Ahmedabad, with Tony and Ian as guests. They sat around a small table with a newly acquired recorder that took some effort to get going. While the recording was on Tony gave one of us the key to his room to fetch a bottle of wine he had brought. "We ought to celebrate the first show," he said, and since there were no bars in Ahmedabad, he had made provisions. He never finished a day without a glass of red.

He came enthusiastically with us to Lalit Modi's office to record another episode, and he brought his own questions. This was before he was blacklisted by Modi for his involvement with the Indian Cricket League, and they chatted animatedly for a few minutes after the recording was over. "This man will go far,'' Tony said when we were on our own.

Our professional relationship ended when he became a director on the ICL board, but he was always warm and generous when we met. I regret not being able to take up his invitation to his New Year's Eve party in Sydney in 2011, and when I apologised to him about it during the World Twenty20 in Colombo last October, he patted me on the shoulder, smiled and said: "Never mind; next time you're around…"

I also regret not finishing the email I started writing to him a couple of weeks before he died. I wanted to choose my words right. I was one of the many who no doubt thought that he would pull through.

The burdens of captaincy
Here's a question: what do you make of a batsman who averages significantly higher while captaining the team? Does it suggest that responsibility brings out the best in him? Or does it imply an innate selfishness? Perhaps both are simplistic assessments. It could just be that in some cases, captaincy coincides with the most profitable phase of a batsman's career, as it did so spectacularly with Graham Gooch, who averaged 58.72 as captain and 35.93 as one of the boys.

This idle thought came about because of the stunning streak by Michael Clarke, who now stands next only to Don Bradman, with an average of 71.38 as captain (with a cut-off mark of 1500 runs as captain) as against 46.97 while not captaining. This 21-match run includes eight hundreds, three of which were doubles and one a triple. For company, he has Alastair Cook, who averages 90.40 from his six Tests as captain as against 46.36 otherwise.

Of course these are early days yet. The bulk of Clarke's runs have come at home, and Cook's against the relatively weak bowling attacks of Bangladesh and India, and as their captaincies progress these numbers are bound to normalise. But clearly neither has allowed the captaincy to weigh him down. In Clarke's case, he has virtually carried Australia's batting.

A dig into Statsguru revealed no clear patterns, but on the whole, the Australians seemed to have the smallest fluctuations. There are virtually no variations in the averages as captain and as a regular player for Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Greg Chappell and Allan Border. Bradman averaged about three runs more as captain: for him, it was a minor fluctuation. Only Mark Taylor had a significant dip as captain, averaging 39.46, against 46.97 as a just a player.

A look at the recent history of Indian captaincy reveals a trend. Of the last five captains, three were pure batsmen, and they all had clear dips in form while they led the side. Tendulkar averaged 51.35 as captain and 54.80 as player, Sourav Ganguly managed 37.66 against 45.15, and Rahul Dravid had the biggest fall, averaging only 44.51. Ganguly was fond of saying that the biggest inevitability of leading India in cricket was the premature greying of hair. The numbers perhaps prove what is now universally accepted: captaining India is the toughest job in world cricket. MS Dhoni has the grey hair to prove it, but somehow his Test average (41.71 v 33.06) has defied the trend. Now does that tell you anything?

Hail Amla
One day Hashim Amla will win an ICC award and I hope to be there.

I have been at two award functions that Amla had flown across continents to be at and clap politely as other contenders walked away with the trophy.

Last year I found myself sitting at the table next to the South African players at the ICC Awards in Colombo. While everyone was looking at the stage while the batting nominations were being announced, I found myself drawn to watching Amla.

His team-mates looked nervous and expectant, some tapping their fingers, some looking down with their ears cued to the speaker, but Amla, looking professorial and immaculate in his suit, gave nothing away.

The awards were swept by Kumar Sangakkara, who in addition to Player of the Year and Test Batsman of the Year, also won the People's Choice award. While some of his team-mates shook their heads or smiled ironically, Amla clapped for the winner as gently and gracefully as he caresses runs from the crease. The awards were determined by a jury but Amla had reason to feel denied.

True, Sangakkara had scored more Test runs, but he had played more Tests, and awards are meant to be about more than just numbers. Amla's runs came in tougher conditions, and he was consistent against all opponents on three different continents, not failing to average less than 50 in any series. Sangakkara scored the bulk of his runs at home, and averaged 8.75 against England and 30 against South Africa.

But then no one could explain properly why Saeed Ajmal, whose record was excellent in all three forms of the game, wasn't even nominated. And how on earth did Kumar Dharmasena, who perhaps had more decisions overturned by his colleagues in the box than anyone I can remember, end up as Umpire of the Year?

Since these things are meant to be a bit of fun anyway, indulge me while I pick my batsman of calendar year 2012. Clarke scored a monstrous number of runs, Kevin Pietersen made three match-turning stunners, and Sangakkara top-scored in ODIs. But Clarke scored his big runs at home and failed in his only away series, in the West Indies; Pietersen had six failures against Pakistan in the Middle East; and Sangakkara had a patchy Test record away from the subcontinent.

Since judging is a matter of personal discretion, and because Amla scored his runs around the world - his one poor series (if you can call it that, since it involved only one Test) in 2012 came at home in his only innings against Sri Lanka - and because he was sensational in whatever one-day cricket he played, and because he was such a sight while scoring all those runs, he gets my vote.

Read part one here

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo