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By Suresh Menon
Wishing him on his 40th birthday, Sunil Gavaskar had a word of advice for Rahul Dravid on television. “Remember,” he said, “Forty is the youth of old age.” That's one way to look at it. Another is to acknowledge that it is – certainly in international sport – the old age of youth.
When he steps on to the field at Feroze Shah Kotla next month against Australia, Sachin Tendulkar will move into the top five among players with the longest international careers. The final Test of the series ends about a month before his fortieth birthday. Will he be still playing at forty?
It is an intriguing question.
The last 40-year-old to play for India was the great all rounder Vinoo Mankad, who finished in 1959. The oldest was Amir Elahi who played for both India and Pakistan, and was 44 when he played the last of his six Tests. C K Nayudu was nearly 37 when he – and India – made his Test debut. Still, he wasn't the first 40-year-old to play for India. That honour, if indeed it was an honour, belonged to Rustomji Jamshedji, a left arm spinner whose only Test was the first on Indian soil; he had blown out 41 candles on his birthday cake a month earlier. Cota Ramaswami was 40 when he made his debut with innings of 40 and 60 against England in 1936. Two other players in the list are among the biggest names in Indian cricket – Lala Amarnath and Vijay Merchant.
To be playing at forty is, like significant last-wicket partnerships or some unusual marriages, the triumph of hope over probability. So many elements have to be just right – fitness, form, motivation, state of mind. Facing the pressure of not just the opposing bowlers, but of the media and youngsters awaiting a break has to be somehow more attractive than chucking it all in, and either fishing or golfing, or the sportsman's version of it in today's world, which is reminiscing in the commentary box. To be the critic rather than the criticised, to hand out advice rather than receive it at every corner, to shed the weight of a quarter century of responsibility – the temptation is to quit rather than to carry on.
For the modern player, retirement can come in stages. No more one-day internationals, followed by a gentle cutting back – Tests, T20, first-class cricket. Few quit cold turkey. The avenues for remaining involved with the game are many and varied. It is not difficult to imagine Tendulkar playing for Mumbai Indians in the IPL after he has quit international cricket. Nor is it mere fantasy to see him play Ranji Trophy even. Cricket is the one thing he knows.
In the philosopher Isaiah Berlin's much-quoted essay, he speaks of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. In cricket, Tendulkar's mates Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are foxes, with a range of interests and skills. Tendulkar is the hedgehog, focussed on the one big thing.
It is this temperament that is likely to see him play on and on. India's first captain, C K Nayudu played his last first-class match at 69; in his 60s he was still turning out in the Ranji Trophy, and scoring runs too.
If Tendulkar's immediate objective is (his ambitions ceased to be his long ago, and are national obsessions now) to play 200 Tests, there are some more landmarks to be achieved before he gives up the game altogether. One hundred first class hundreds (he has 80, one behind Sunil Gavaskar's Indian record), for one. Then there is the even more intriguing possibility of playing first class cricket alongside his son Arjun who has just been selected for the Mumbai under-15 side. How's that for pressure on both father and son? If the son progresses well and the father plays on for another three or four years, it might well happen.
And then of course there is the temptation to hang on till father and son both score hundreds in the same match. That has been achieved only once in first class cricket when George Gunn and his son Geoprge Vernon Gunn did it in 1931. The father was 52 and made 183 opening the batting for Nottinghamshire. The son remained unbeaten on 100 in that match against Warwickshire.
And so it goes on...