Over the next year or two, the heart of the much vaunted Indian batting line up will be hanging up its gloves and bats. With Ganguly having put up his feet, it’s now the turn of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, not necessarily in that order.
The end of the career of a sportsperson representing his country can be brought about in two ways: at his time of choosing or being unceremoniously shown the door by the selectors. Sadly, in annals of Indian cricket history, the latter has outnumbered the former way too many times. Indian cricketers retiring on their own terms – by announcing themselves – can be counted without even taking off one’s socks.
Gavaskar announced his retirement in 1987 and went out with a bang – a century in his penultimate one day (his first ODI ton), 96 on a rank turner in Bangalore against arch-rivals Pakistan in his last Test, and finally bagging the elusive century at Lords in his last “official” cricket match (MCC and Rest of the World).
Sourav Ganguly, another of the legendary Indian captains, got it right the second time around. Dodgy form, run-ins with Chappel and ‘green-pitch-itis’ led to an exit earlier than anticipated. But the Royal Bengal tiger fought back to come back into the team and staked his position with immense series in South Africa and England. Then his famous last words: “Just one last thing lads, before I leave. I just want to say that this is going to be my last series“. His swansong against the arch-rivals of his generation was melodious at a series total of 324 runs at 54 (despite a Bradmanesque duck in his last innings), far higher than his pre-series average of 32 against Australia.
Apart from these two, most of Indian cricketers have cut a sorry figure in their last playing days. Modern era greats like Vengsarkar, Amarnath & Srikanth were all ingloriously dumped when the tide turned against them.
Some greats are given the opportunity to chose the date and time of their own, but they failed to recognise the march of time. Even the greatest all-rounder Kapil Dev could not time his retirement correctly, dragging his body through the last few series aiming for the bowling world record, even thought his stats were glaringly abysmal. The agony did not end after that as he stretched his ODI career for a few more months.
The Australian cricketers have it down pat to a science – having done it twice now. In 1984, Lillee, the Chappel and Rod ‘Because all my mates have gone’ Marsh retired en masse. Starting 2004, the next generation of Baggy Greens started stepping off. Led by Shane Warne, the core of the all-conquering team retired like falling dominoes during the 5-0 Ashes whitewash in 2006.
The Aussies taught the rest of the cricketing world many things during their reign. Included in that was the handbook of the end game – either announce at the beginning of the series lapping up the accolades as you fade away – or go out at a high.
The Indian trio have this opportunity in the next year or so, with the tour to South Africa, West Indies, England and Australia on the horizon. They must have a frank talk with the selection board and make their wishes made clear on when they will exit. Such a course will assist Indian cricket immensely – as these three can then play with freedom, the selectors have the option to build and plan the way forward and we all are spared the unnecessary media hype.
The other question dogging Indian cricket is whether we can cope with the vacuum created by their eventual exits. We have Vijay, Pujara, Kohli, Badrinath and Raina in our cupboard. It may be too premature to pass judgement. The strength of their mettle can only be substantiated in Test battles outside the subcontinent.