Has age finally caught up with the phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar? One has to be careful in making such pronouncements as Tendulkar has proved his critics wrong time and again. For some time now there have been calls for him to retire. Perhaps it first started after he completed 20 years in international cricket.
The voices became more vociferous after he achieved one of his main objectives – being a member of a World Cup winning squad last year. The critics became more outspoken in demanding that he retire once he had scored his 100th international hundred in Dhaka earlier this year particularly after it became clear that in spending so much time in reaching his personal goal he had probably cost India the match against Bangladesh.
Now after his stumps have been disturbed three times by bowlers who do not boast of any big deeds in international cricket, the retirement crescendo has reached a new decibel level. For an icon who has only been praised and worshipped for more than two decades, it must be an experience Tendulkar can do without.
But the fact remains that age and consequently the slower reflexes do catch up with every sportsman. If he is fitter than most, retains the enthusiasm for the game and is still able to produce results then the end may be delayed. Not many have lasted more than 20 years in international cricket particularly in contemporary times what with the non-stop cricket being played in every format.
It is a tribute to Tendulkar’s skill, fitness and keenness for the game that he has outlasted so many other giants who made their debut after him. For starters among Indians Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman all played their maiden international match after November 1989 – when Tendulkar made his debut – and all of them have bowed out.
The list of outstanding cricketers from other countries whom Tendulkar has outlasted makes for incredible reading. Those who have made their debut after Tendulkar and have retired include the likes of Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Glenn McGrath, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Justin Langer, Alec Stewart, Mohammed Yousuf, Sanath Jayasuriya, Graham Thorpe, Andrew Strauss, Gary Kirsten, Stephen Fleming, Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, Muthiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Chaminda Vaas and Brett Lee.
All this puts Tendulkar’s longevity into proper perspective but after almost 23 years of international cricket and in his 40th year, it finally appears that Father Time has caught up with Tendulkar. If it is any comfort, he is in good company. Every player has fallen prey to the passing years, falling fitness levels, deteriorating enthusiasm, slow reflexes and lack of incentive all combining to take a toll.
Every one of the great batsmen listed above had to endure this. Just to cite a few famous examples, Hayden at his peak was averaging 58; he ended his Test career averaging marginally over 50. Gilchrist was flying high averaging almost 56; when his career ended it was under 50. Vaughan and Martyn at their peak were touching 50; when it all ended it was 41 and 46 respectively.
Among Indians the prime example would be Dravid who at his peak in 2006 was averaging over 58. When he announced his retirement the career average was just over 52. I have cited just the examples of Tendulkar’s contemporaries but this is true of most other greats in the game over the years.
There has been a lot of debate over his most recent dismissals with some of the view that he should be playing straight instead of towards the on side. Actually we have seen Tendulkar playing similar deliveries to mid wicket provided the bat comes down in time. If the bat comes down even a split second late it can be curtains for the batsman as Tendulkar discovered.
Dravid, whose technique was impeccable, was bowled proportionately only a few times considering his lengthy career but towards the end he too was bringing down his bat a trifle late but that was enough for the ball to go through. This is what happened to Dravid in Australia and when he was bowled seven times in the Test series (including once off a no ball) he had little hesitation in calling it a day.
The doomsday prophets in fact have had to swallow bitter pills in the past after predicting that Tendulkar’s career is virtually over, that he should at least retire from ODIs and concentrate on Test cricket, that he is over the hill and playing only for personal records.
No less a personality than Ian Chappell had this to say in his column more than two years ago. "At the moment Tendulkar looks like a player trying to eke out a career; build on a glittering array of statistics. If he really is playing for that reason and not to help win as many matches as he can for India then he is wasting his time and should retire immediately."
The former Australian captain had been known to be a fervent Tendulkar admirer and is respected for his no-nonsense views so this sort of criticism coming from someone as knowledgeable as him was quite something.
Critics have made dire predictions about Tendulkar at their own peril. In fact at this time I am reminded of the now infamous headline carried by a national newspaper at the start of 2006. "Endulkar?" it screamed on page one after a few failures in the Test series in Pakistan.
It was summarily dismissed as sensationalism or a vulgarly irresponsible job by a deskman who tried to be too clever but was made to eat humble and distasteful pie. Since then Tendulkar has gone on to make many more hundreds and a few thousand runs more in Tests alone while being an integral part of the ODI squad.
But then of course that headline made an appearance when Tendulkar was a couple of months short of his 33rd birthday. Now the situation is very different. Age is one process no one can overcome. The ageing process is a ruthless and unfeeling phenomenon.
It spares no one not even the most gifted of artists or the fittest of sportsmen. Sooner or later the superstar who has held centre-stage for years has to accept the fact that his career is at its end and perhaps the time has come for him to ride off into the sunset. Has that time finally come for Tendulkar?