When do you call it a day? That must surely be haunting India's storied middle order in the run-up to the Test series against Australia. Sourav Ganguly has already been unceremoniously dumped, and his chances of wearing the India cap again look bleak. This despite having performed beyond expectations after being dropped two years ago. He did well in the 2007-08 season scoring at a healthy average of 45 and notching a career-best score of 239. But that amounted to nothing when he came a cropper against Sri Lanka earlier this year. Though the rest of India's Fab Four - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman - performed way below par in Sri Lanka, they have lived to fight another day. But they would be well aware that the clock is ticking. Of course, the dilemma of when to quit - and whether to stay retired - is something that all sportspersons have to face. Many great sportsmen have wrestled with this and have usually failed to come up with the right answers. Cricket writer Peter Roebuck has written, "Tomorrow does not exist in athletic endeavours. Sportsmen must find their truest expression at once. They are exposed and then eliminated before life's taxes have been paid." But most sportsmen haven't been able to resist the temptation to prove that tomorrow does indeed exist. There's nothing as magical as a comeback. Zinedine Zidane literally came back from retirement to lead France to the 2006 World Cup finals, before throwing it all away in one moment of insanity. Perhaps the dilemma of when to retire is best seen in the man who is acknowledged to have been the world's greatest basketball player: Michael Jordan. After having proved whatever he had to in taking the Chicago Bulls to three successive NBA titles, he turned to baseball. Within a year, he was again playing for the Bulls with the prophetic words - I'm back - and leading them to three more NBA titles. He retired for a second time in 1999, only to return to the NBA for an undistinguished stint with the Washington Wizards. Another great, Lance Armstrong, left competitive cycling in 1996 to battle cancer, but stormed back to win seven Tour de France titles. Now he plans to compete again in the Tour de France after a two-year break. In the cricketing world, many of the early legends were still on the cricket pitch when they should've been playing with their grandchildren. W G Grace immediately comes to mind. The last time he opened the innings for England in 1899 he had already turned 50. Closer home, the first real star of Indian cricket, C K Nayudu, scored a double century for Holkar in the 1946 Ranji Trophy final when he had crossed 50 years. That was, of course, a different time and age. Things have been different since. With the exception of Sunil Gavaskar, there is hardly any Indian cricketing great who left the game on his own terms. As Ramachandra Guha points out, Gavaskar was following the advice of a fellow Mumbaikar and India bat, Vijay Merchant, to leave the field when "he would be asked 'why' rather than 'why not'". Even legends such as Kapil Dev long overstayed their welcome and eventually had to be dropped. That says something about both our players as well as administrators. Cricketers don't know when to quit; our selectors don't have the decency to let a long-serving player know that his time is up. That hasn't been so elsewhere. Many of us will remember the stirring ovation given to Adam Gilchrist earlier this year when he played his last round of games for Australia after announcing retirement. Steve Waugh took the call to retire when he realised that the selectors were toying with the idea of dropping him. He decided to call it a day, conjuring up a dream farewell when he played a battling innings against India in Sydney in 2004 to save the Test and series for Australia. All Australian greats haven't been so fortunate. Not even Don Bradman. In June 1948, when Bradman set out to lead Australia to England, he was nearly 40 and had a Test average of 100-plus. But as we know his second-ball duck against leg-spinner Eric Hollies in his final innings cut Bradman's average to 99.94. He wrote of this tour in his 'Farewell To Cricket': "I was more sedate. I relied more on placing than on power and could not maintain for very long a period of solid aggression... I did what I thought was more important at 40 - saw the tour through. It was time to make way for a younger man." What then prompted Bradman to lead Australia in the twilight of his career? He has himself said, "I feel reluctant to accept - but I feel this would be my final opportunity to serve the game which has played such a big part in my life." Even the great Bradman couldn't resist the opportunity to stride on to a cricket ground one last time. For lesser players, this decision is even more difficult. Ganguly's obituary has already been written and many would agree that time has run out for him. But Ganguly himself is unlikely to step down. The lure of another chance to turn out for India and the chance for a perfect exit will spur him to ply his trade for state and zone in empty stadiums. The rest of India's famed middle order as well as Test skipper Anil Kumble need to make up their minds. Do they want to quit in a blaze of glory or slowly slide into obscurity?
6 months ago