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When the tempo of the innings slows down, when waking up early for practice becomes a chore, then it's a signal that the end is near.
This seems to be the year of retirements in the world of cricket. Rahul Dravid retired soon after the Australia tour and VVS Laxman followed his great friend's footsteps just before the Indian team was to play in the Test series against New Zealand in August. Down Under, we saw another great cricketer call it quits. Ricky Ponting hung his boots after the series against South Africa. While he couldn't go out on a high that he had hoped for, his career has been one that should be celebrated.
Back home, Sachin Tendulkar's poor form and India's 1-2 series reversal against England has given the Doubting Thomases reason to taunt the Master and suggest that he too should end his career.
In 1988, a year before he was picked for India, it was me who introduced Sachin to the Indian dressing room during the Test series against New Zealand in India, but I still won't advise him. I'm simply not qualified. I don't think anyone is. He is someone who knows his mind very well.
For every cricketer who has represented the country with distinction for a decade or more, retirement is a tricky decision. After all, he has given the sport everything right from the time he has been hand-picked as a special talent. Secondly, he has played the game at the highest level for that long only because he is that good. In Sachin's case, he has been outstanding for the better part of 23 years and that's a staggering time frame.
As players approach the autumn of their careers and grow older, the first thing to drop is the level of their game. If I have to speak on behalf of top-order batsmen, who are often required to face bowlers bowling at speeds over 140 kmph or even high class spinners, the reaction time gets lesser and lesser. At your peak, you spot the ball from the bowler's hand very early and pick up length quickly. But with age, your eyesight and reflexes wane. You may react only a fraction of a second later, but over 22 yards, at the highest level, it's enough to induce an error be it in judgment or stroke production.
When you are young and are playing well, you often just react to the ball and even hit the good ones for four. However, when age starts catching up, the same batsman pats half volleys straight to the fielder. At your peak, scoring runs isn't an issue at all as you tend to dominate bowling attacks. But with advancing age, the runs start drying up and the tempo of the innings slows down. That's a signal that the end is near.
Often people ask me what keeps a sportsman going even when the whole world is baying for his blood and asking him to retire. I would say physical fitness and motivation. When a person is physically fit, he is also mentally fit to take the right decisions and not make emotional calls. By motivation, I mean, the need to love the routine that is part and parcel of playing competitive sport. You must really love every second that you are on the park, every game that you play and every ball that you face, field or bowl. If the motivation levels drop, you start telling yourself, 'Gosh I have to endure another day of Test cricket or have to play another ODI tomorrow!' or 'Oh, I have to wake up early and train again!' You keep looking at the clock. That's the trigger to call time on your career because the routine that you loved when you were younger, starts to appear mundane. At the peak of your career, your thoughts are only to score runs or win matches - everything else is incidental.
For me, the trigger to retire was the axing from the ODI team during India's tour of Australia in 1992. I was dropped despite being the highest scorer in Oneday cricket and despite us losing many matches. I just could not sit in the dressing room and watch average cricketers take my place and struggle. I did play in the Test series though and scored a couple of fities, but I wasn't too happy with the way I was hitting the ball. I knew that the time had come for me to retire. But I didn't want to take an emotional decision and hence didn't announce retirement immediately. I came back and told myself, 'Let me play for Mumbai' as the knock out matches were around and I was the skipper. We played against Madhya Pradesh, who were being led by Sandeep Patil. Narendra Hirwani also played for them. I scored 284, but it didn't feel as special as playing for India and scoring runs. I said to myself, I don't want to play anymore even at the First Class level.
Retirement is a decision based on feeling. One cannot time it and plan for it or say, 'I'll retire after scoring so many hundreds, ' or that 'I'll retire against a particular team or on a certain ground. ' Some players get the timing right and the others don't. Hence I feel bad when people criticize Sachin for playing on.
He has achieved everything there is to achieve in cricket. Just because he has endured a couple of bad series, his greatness will not diminish. To be the best batsman in the world for over two decades is not a joke. He is the greatest player India has ever seen. He is still physically very fit and is fitter than some players who are younger than him in the Indian squad. His fitness and motivation levels and sheer love for the game will keep him going.
I have heard a lot of people say that Sachin and the selectors should communicate with each other and discuss the way forward. But as far as Sachin is concerned, no one can ask him about his plans. He will go on his own terms. As a former chief selector, I will always see the team combination. Every team needs to have a blend of youth and experience. You can't have a team that has 80 per cent youth and 20 per cent experience. As someone who knows him well, I would just motivate him. India are struggling not because of Tendulkar, but because the earlier selectors didn't build a good bench strength.
What has hurt me is suggestions that Sachin is playing only because of the numerous endorsement deals that he has signed and only because he is such a big brand. That's being unfair. The Sachin that I know is beyond all this because he never thinks about anything apart from cricket. He knows that cricket comes first and it's only because he has excelled so much in the sport that he's become such a huge brand.
A great player like him will have his plans chalked out. He knows what to do with his cricket and what to do after he quits playing cricket. He is very driven. There is a big series against Australia coming up and I'm sure he'd want to play in that and sign off with a bang.
(Former India Test captain Dilip Vengsarkar was Sachin Tendulkar's first skipper in First Class cricket. He spoke to Nitin Naik)
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