Sachin Tendulkar has an assured place in the cricketing pantheon. He may be the greatest batsman of all time; unquestionably, he is among the very best. His career is unmatched in many ways — and certainly, in recent times, for longevity. When he first played for India, there was a Soviet Union, and Manmohan Singh had never delivered a Budget speech. It is possible, though, that he has not chosen his timing when it comes to retirement with the same perfection that he did for his cover drives.
In his letter to the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, he said he was stepping down from One-Day Internationals (ODIs) to pave the way for the team to prepare for the 2015 World Cup. “I feel blessed to have fulfilled the dream of being part of a World Cup-winning Indian team,” he wrote. He could, of course, have added that he also owns practically every ODI record there is to hold, having amassed 18,426 runs, higher than any other batsman; in 463 matches, more than any other cricketer; in a 23-odd-year career that included 49 centuries, the most by any batsman. Still, it is Virat Kohli (2), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (6) and Gautam Gambhir (9) who rank among the top 10 ODI batsmen in the latest ICC rankings. Incredibly, the 38-year-old Tendulkar weighs in at 28. But his world Test ranking (22) is only slightly better; his performance against England – 13, 8, 8, 5, 2, barring a 76 in vain in Kolkata – provided an average of just 18 and about 25 for 2012. True, his performance is no worse than the rest of the Indian Test team, and from that point of view his decision to continue playing Tests is understandable. But from the point of view of the greatness that his career has hitherto stood for, it is perhaps not a strong enough reason.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth has argued that, by staying available for Tests, Mr Tendulkar hopes to boost his Test average. This may be true, since his Test average, though a decent 54.93, still lags contemporaries’ like Jacques Kallis (57.30), and is even further from that of other all-time greats. Yes, Mr Tendulkar has, through sheer willpower, turned his form around before. But a dramatic turnaround so late in his career might be too much to expect. The Indian team needs to blood a replacement for the man it has depended on for so long; Mr Tendulkar, as a team player, should have factored that need in.
In some ways, Mr Tendulkar’s partial resignation reflects the parlous state of Indian cricket. The selectors are loath to drop him because of his superstar status, as a result of which younger talent often has a long wait to gain international exposure unavailable in domestic tournaments. The Australians and the South Africans appear to suffer no such qualms. As a result, their stars retire as soon as they start sliding into the kind of decline Mr Tendulkar is suffering. The world’s greatest batsman should consider emulating the example of his long-time teammate Rahul Dravid, who demonstrated through his recent retirement that the art of leaving is not just about bad balls.