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By Suresh Menon
Now that Ricky Ponting has been dropped from the one-day squad, it will surprise no one if he announces his retirement from the game. Along with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara he has been the great batsman of this generation, and his struggle in recent years – although he had a fabulous Test series against India – has been difficult to watch. Yet it is simpler for Ponting to arrive at that decision than it will be for Tendulkar.
Tendulkar’s case is unique. He has been playing for longer than anyone else; this is his 23rd year at the highest level. Sport is full of examples of those who outstayed their welcome, and inspired pity rather than awe. The great Kapil Dev went on for that bit longer than he should have, chasing Richard Hadlee’s then world record 431 Test wickets.
Towards the end, the captain and the rest of the players made no secret of their displeasure at carrying this passenger for this is what Kapil had become. He went without a five-wicket haul in his last 17 Tests, but finished as the highest wicket-taker in the game.
There is something sad about a player hanging on for a record. When Bradman was dismissed for zero in his last innings, there was no public demand for him to play another Test or series to ensure that he would retire with a Test average of a round 100.
That is not how competitive sport is played. But Tendulkar’s going will involve more than cricket. It will ultimately be a commercial decision, and the comparison here would be with the boxer Muhammad Ali, who was made to go on fighting even as he had slowed down and looked to be well past it. The reason? His handlers needed the money, and they saw Ali only as a means to making more of it. Tendulkar may be in a similar spot, with his handlers pushing him into playing longer than he needs to, or ought to.
Tendulkar is not just a great batsman, he is a great industry with whole families whose fortunes rise and fall with his batting average. It would be a pity if he were to go the Kapil Dev way – being merely tolerated when he ought to be venerated.At the end of the World Cup victory might have been a good time for Tendulkar to quit one-day cricket. His one unfulfilled ambition – to win the Cup – had been realised, he was the greatest batsman in that format of the game with more runs and more centuries than anybody else, and in a real sense, he had nothing left to prove. When I mentioned this to someone, he responded saying that Tendulkar needed two more centuries to make 50 in both forms of the game.
Ah well! There’s always one more record, one more statistic around the corner.For once, the master batsman got his timing wrong. If – as it has turned out – the 100th century was such a big deal for him, he ought to have got it out of the way by touring the West Indies or playing the one-day home series against them.
By pulling out of the West Indies tour (he did not miss the IPL, however), he lost a chance to do so, and by pulling out of the home series, he indicated a preference for getting to the 100th century in either England or Australia.Had Tendulkar arrived in either of these countries with the irritating matter of the centuries out of the way, it is possible that India’s batting might have been different. Of course, this is pure guesswork, perhaps even fantasy, but we might have seen a Tendulkar less burdened by the need to create a meaningless record.There is no call for Tendulkar to quit Test cricket just now, and sentiment has nothing to do with it.
He continues to bat well – that has to be the only consideration. He has not been making big scores, but he has been playing with authority. He could be playing into his 40s. Vijay Merchant and Lala Amarnath were 41 when they played their last Tests while C K Nayudu and Vijay Merchant finished when they were 40.
That’s not bad company at all. Hopefully, that record will not become a national, and by extension, an individual obsession.