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On retirement: If not now, when?

Wisden India logo Wisden India 04-10-2016

The retirement of Virender Sehwag in October was nothing if not postmodern. On parade in Dubai at the launch of the golden oldies Twenty20 Masters Champions League, whose rules precluded any current internationals, Sehwag was forced to announce the end of his career summarily, on Twitter – though not before journalists attending the launch had beaten him to it. His words, like his batting, were to the point: “I hereby retire from all forms of international cricket and from the Indian Premier League. A statement will follow.”

What actually followed was an outpouring which betrayed Sehwag’s sense of frustration at the underwhelming manner of his departure – unlike that of Sachin Tendulkar, his team-mate of many years, who had been feted gloriously in Mumbai two years earlier. Like the actor dragged off-stage with the spotlight still aglow and the audience in full-throated roar, Sehwag – whose last game for India had been back in March 2013 – felt he had not received the encore he was due. Later he asked, plaintively: “Should not a player who has played 12 to 13 years for his country deserve a farewell match?”

It is a good question – and the modern cricketer has answered it in the affirmative. The grand goodbye is a relatively recent phenomenon: Don Bradman received three cheers from the opposition (and even that was considered boisterous). There was no extended au revoir across the grounds of England, no guard of honour, and certainly not one off the mark.

Contrast that with the series-long homage paid to Steve Waugh, who – perhaps more than any other cricketer – gave rise to the right of farewell. Keen to dampen speculation, he had confirmed that the Australia v India series of 2003-04 would be his last Test, inadvertently turning the Border–Gavaskar Trophy into a circus, the focus on one man and his going, rather than on the contest and the result. A Sydney newspaper even offered readers a replica of Waugh’s famous red rag, to be waved whenever he walked to and from the crease, thus commercialising an event that, not many years before, would hardly have qualified as an event in the first place. Not that his greatness could mould the cricket completely to his will: in his first innings of the series, at Brisbane, he trod on his stumps before he had scored. At times, wrote one Australian writer, it was like watching the final performance of a great singer who had suddenly caught a frog in his throat.

A leaked letter from coach John Buchanan to his team gave voice to a wider concern. “In the lead-up to this game,” he wrote before the Second Test, “the issues that have dominated conversations, priorities and by definition your attention have been deal-making, sponsors and Tug’s [Waugh’s] farewell to Adelaide.” Such is the danger of trying to pre-empt the moment or shape it to your desires. The game, after all, is about the many, as well as the individual.

Photos: 30 'Greatest' fast bowlers of all time

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But, as with much of what Waugh brought to cricket, the episode set a template, so that the manner of a player’s departure now reflects his stature: the more emotional and fervent it is, the more power and lustre are added to the brand.

In 2015, a cynic might have concluded that Waugh’s most recently retired successor, Michael Clarke, awarded himself not one farewell, but two. The first was at the World Cup final, which he announced would be his last one- day international and so guaranteed an emotional send-off; the second came after the Fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, when he ensured something grand at The Oval. England duly fell in line, granting Clarke a guard of honour before his final innings. His team-mate Chris Rogers, on the other hand, left the stage quietly. When Clarke announced in January 2016 that he was planning to play franchise Twenty20 cricket, he seemed to capture the spirit of the age: careers rarely come to an abrupt halt these days.

Like Clarke and Sehwag, Shivnarine Chanderpaul – another modern batting giant – felt he merited proper acknowledgment after a long and decorated career. Leaked email conversations before West Indies’ home series against Australia in June – first between Chanderpaul and chief selector Clive Lloyd, then between Chanderpaul and head coach Phil Simmons – revealed the possibilities for friction. A player’s feelings of entitlement do not always dovetail with the selectors’ responsibility of choosing the best team. After being informed by Lloyd that he would be omitted for reasons of form, Chanderpaul reportedly wrote: “My request to finish up with the Australian series is not asking too much. It gives me a chance to acknowledge my supporters at home and the possibility of the WICB properly honouring me for my contribution to West Indies cricket. I should not be pushed into retirement.” It was a plea for the kind of send-off granted to Waugh – or at least for the kind belatedly craved by Sehwag.

Simmons’s response was sympathetic, if firm, and emphasised not so much Chanderpaul’s needs as his own duty as a selector. Simmons paid tribute to his long service and indicated he would be properly recognised by the West Indian board, but reiterated that neither longevity nor public opinion was a basis for being picked. Were it so, he said, Chanderpaul could hope to play until he was 50. Simmons said the selectors were trying to “dignify” the situation by giving him the chance to go gracefully, rather than be dropped. The Guyana Cricket Board backed their man, accusing WICB of “gross disrespect”.

Despite my admiration for Chanderpaul as a player, and my disappointment that he did not get the finale his career deserved, my sympathies lie with the selectors. Whether they were right or wrong in their judgment that Chanderpaul, then 40, no longer merited his place was immaterial. But, once they had made it, they were duty-bound not to pick him, because sport is nothing if not a meritocracy, one of the few areas in life where status, breeding or ability to schmooze should not matter. The next-generation Chanderpaul, who might have worked tirelessly to become the best he can be, deserves the same opportunity to play as Chanderpaul himself was given at the old Bourda ground in Georgetown, as a whip-thin teenager, back in March 1994. 

Is this a touch unsympathetic? Possibly. And what about the supporters? It would have been wonderful if they had seen off Chanderpaul in style: only the hardest of hearts does not warm to these occasions. But only if he warranted his place. Supporters deserve to know that any team is picked on merit, not reputation. In January 2016, he bowed to the inevitable – and signed up for the Masters Champions League.

In any case, players are not necessarily the best judges of the right time to go. Sportsmen, they say, die not once but twice, the first death bringing an end to a career, the second to life itself. And, because of the uncertainties of a post-sporting existence, the first death can be more difficult to handle. Now, with financial temptations greater than ever, it has become even harder. Asked why he was retiring, England’s great pre-war batsman Patsy Hendren replied that it was precisely because he was being asked “why now?” rather than “why not now?” These days, the well-remunerated cricketer may invert the question: why not play on just a little longer?

Last summer, I sat with a fellow journalist at Clarke’s pre-Ashes press conference in Cardiff. After it, we looked at each other and articulated the same thought: the light seemed to have gone from his eyes. Normally such a sparky communicator, and despite being on the verge of the most-hyped series in cricket, he looked and sounded distracted, bored even. Given that this was the third Ashes series in two years, who could blame him? But, later, when he cited a loss of love for the game, the sentiment rang truer than anything he had uttered to the contrary during the series.

As it unfolded, and Clarke’s batting and leadership difficulties became obvious, the thought persisted that this was a tour too far. The desire to finish on a high was stronger than the mind or, in his case, the body would allow. There were echoes of the struggles of his predecessor, Ricky Ponting, who in his autobiography wrote rather well about the nagging voice on a sportsman’s shoulder during the dying days of his first life: “It’s a negative voice, one that says you’re no good, that you can’t win, that it’s not worth it, that you should give up… I couldn’t get rid of the little bastard at the end.”

Ponting might not have been able to get rid of it but, like all sportsmen, he did his best to convince himself he could. Bluff is one of a batsman’s most potent weapons against poor form, low confidence, a stronger opponent or Father Time. Not for nothing does a Test batsman puff out his chest and stride to the wicket trying to look invincible, even while, deep down, he is feeling as vulnerable as a Sunday-league hacker. Not for nothing did Clarke, only one match before he announced his retirement, write in an Australian newspaper: “People are talking about how I am going to retire after this series. Well, they don’t know me. I’m 34, not 37, and I want to keep playing.”

If sportsmen are masters of self-deception, then this is strengthened by the dressing-room, often a place of glib reinforcement rather than honest assessment. It is a place where confidence, false or not, is fostered; a place of positive messages and massaged egos. Come on, skipper, you can do it! It is not a place for self-doubt or negativity. And off the field? For wives, partners, children and hangers-on, the modern tour is a very nice place to be, thank you. Not much chance of honest evaluation there. Keep the gravy train rolling.

Timing a retirement, then, is problematic: the desire to keep going and finish fittingly is often at odds with the realities of professional sport, which creep up quickly and unexpectedly. It is why, perhaps, there has been a rise of mid- match retirements: Shoaib Malik in Sharjah, Mitchell Johnson in Perth. The realisation hits home that it is time to go, but the player would still like a decent send-off. Johnson was given a guard of honour, and carried off on his team- mates’ shoulders.

Even those who do not demand an ego-soothing exit can get it wrong. Graeme Swann retired abruptly in the middle of the 2013-14 Ashes when, given England’s implosion, it might have been better for him and the team had he sat quietly and supportively until the end – as Australia’s wicketkeeper Brad Haddin did during the return leg in 2015. Unavailable (for family reasons) at Lord’s, and ignored controversially thereafter, he later admitted he had “lost the hunger”. But he kept his counsel, waited until the series was over, then retired in dignified, low-key fashion.

Possibly, the manner of retirement reflects a cricketer’s character above all. My own favourite of recent times was studded with a little mystery. As a complete surprise to his team-mates, and despite the next match being on his home ground at the WACA, Damien Martyn retired abruptly after the Adelaide Test of the 2006-07 Ashes. Puff, gone, with a simple two-line acknowledgment. It spoke of humility and an awareness that the game moves on, that every player, no matter how good, is just a speck in an ever-growing cloud of dust.

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