The right time to leave

What is the right time for a cricketer to retire? Should the decision be left up to them or do even legends like Ponting and Tendulkar need a nudge?

Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar

Ricky Ponting’s axe from the Australian ODI squad on Monday - just a day after he led the team to a thumping win against the Indian side, surprised more people in India than it did Down Under. Ponting has been a true legend in both forms of the game. He is the second highest run scorer in ODIs and a close third in Tests. He’s been part of a World Cup winning squad thrice (twice as skipper) and Indians will most definitely remember the way he single-handedly took the trophy away from our grasp in the 2003 final. His form over the past couple of seasons however has been patchy and he has hung on to his Test career by virtue of a terrific comeback vs India this year.

Punter, as he is nicknamed, spoke to the media a day after his sacking from the ODI squad. He hasn’t always been acknowledged for good behavior but on Tuesday he was humble when he declined to use the word ‘retire’ after being dropped.

Ponting at the press conference -  “Look, it's hard to say I am retiring the day after I've already been left out of the side, so I don't expect to play one-day cricket for Australia anymore and I am pretty sure the selectors don't have to be pick me either.”

Why were we shocked at his limited overs exit then? Maybe it’s because we imagined Australia would set the same standards for Ponting that we have for our own legend - Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar has been sailing in a similar boat for a while now. Post the high of winning the World Cup, Sachin has played 30 innings without reaching the three-figure mark. That it will bring with it a previously unheard record of a 100 international centuries is besides the point. 

Tendulkar’s devotees are quick to point out that while it is understandable for Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman's names to crop up on the departure board, Tendulkar was in fact the highest scorer for India in the Australia whitewash. Truth be told, an average of 35 across 4 Tests doesn’t really distinguish him. This after an average of 34 during the tour to England.  To judge his ODI form is more tough - the only ones he has played since the World Cup have been in the ongoing CB series as he chose to opt out of all the 50 over games in between. Each time he walks out onto the field to take guard the unfortunate focus turns to his much-awaited hundred. India’s fortunes come a distant second. The bigger problem seems to be that it's deemed blasphemous to hold Sachin accountable to the very standards he has set for himself.

Tendulkar passed up the opportunity of calling it a day in ODIs after the World Cup and when my colleague questioned his place in the Indian team for the CB Series (A Backward Step), we were afraid we’d have to hire a bodyguard for him thanks to all the threats he received.

Now that Australia has shown the courage of letting go of Ponting from one format, some people are waking up to the fact that our biggest hero might be close to the end too.

Former India captain Kapil Dev has been the first cricketer to call for Sachin’s retirement. That he has now become a flag bearer for retiring gracefully is a little ironical. Kapil himself held on to his Test career up until he could inch his way across Hadlee’s record of highest wicket taker. Yet the argument that Sachin’s place in the Indian team deserves to be up for debate cannot be without merit.

Kapil Dev to a news channel -  "From what we have seen in the last three months, he (Sachin) should have announced his retirement after the World Cup or even earlier. It's important to know that every cricketer has his time."

The deification of a man who plays cricket better than most means we’re afraid to bring in a dose of reality. We’re scared to judge him against the standards we associate with mere mortals. Sachin may yet have some glorious innings ahead of him and it also of course makes sense for new stars to be initiated into the Test side under his guidance. But we as country need to decide whether it’s time to help our most beloved son make a tough decision. Legends sometimes need a nudge too.