First, it was the wait for the hundredth international century. That took just over a year and, let’s be honest, it was grim. The event, when it came, was almost morbidly bathetic: a century against Bangladesh in an Asia Cup qualifier in Mirpur which India lost. In the run-up India had been flattened on tours of England and Australia where spectators had turned out in their thousands in the hope, indeed expectation, of seeing history made. The comparisons with Bradman are never far away. This time however, irony is near the surface. It is not just that The Don never had to wait anything like as long for his next hundred (I think we can ignore World War Two for this purpose). It is more that, together with cricket’s other most iconic statistic, Jim Laker’s nineteen wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 is a constant reminder that no player is greater than the game.
Now we are waiting to see when Sachin Tendulkar is going to retire. With his apparent yearning for statistical perfection, it seems plausible to think that he might want to bow out after India’s tour of South Africa in late 2013. The second Test will be his two hundredth if he plays. But then again, would he not prefer to say a proper goodbye at home, which would mean waiting for the West Indies visit in October 2014. It is all very difficult. Tendulkar’s extraordinary cricketing longevity makes it more so. It’s a bit like the Queen, in England. There are millions of Indian cricket fans who simply cannot remember life without Tendulkar. He, too – even he, perhaps especially he – must harbour the natural uncertainties about what will come after cricket.
One cannot help feeling that Tendulkar has got it wrong here. Many commentators thought that the last World Cup was the ideal time to go. Tendulkar has played some of his greatest cricket in South Africa, including during the series in 2010-11 when he made two centuries and had a breathtaking duel with Dale Steyn in Cape Town. But with the best will in the world it is difficult to believe it will work out so well this time around.
Choosing the best time to retire is not the hardest part of being an international cricketer but it can be tricky. Of course you can only do it once – cricket has yet to have a Frank Sinatra – but same players have turned it into an art form. Steve Waugh certainly did it “his way” in his final series as an Australian player and captain, at home to India in 2003-04. A four-Test series shared one-all and one of the greatest series of modern times, one of its most extraordinary features was the continuing saga of Waugh’s retirement. Shrewdly announced prior to the start of the series, the retirement was marked by extravagant displays of emotion in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, culminating in a mega-fest at the SCG. The whole thing was more like a Papal tour of Latin America than a sporting event. Andrew Flintoff tried something similar during the Ashes series of 2009, armouring his impending retirement just before the second Test at Lord’s – won by England for the first time since 1934 thanks in part to Flintoff’s magnificent fast bowling – and thereafter making a triumphant if occasionally hobbling progression round the country. There were real doubts whether he would get as far as The Oval. In fact, his spectacular running out of Ricky Ponting to derail Australia’s optimistic run chase brought an appropriately eye-catching conclusion to his career.
No player has organised his exit with more class and mastery than Muttiah Muralitharan. Before the start of India’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2010 he let it be known that the first Test, at Galle, – where he had already taken 160 Test wickets, would be his last. At that point he had 792 Test wickets in all. Kumar Sangakkara won the toss and Sri Lanka made 520 for eight. But a day was lost to rain and for the hosts to win they had to bowl India out twice in two days. They enforced the follow on, with Murali taking his sixty-seventh five-for. India resisted stoutly in the second innings with the immensely strong middle order of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar and VVS Laxman making things very difficult. But Murali and Lasith Malinga chipped away. India slipped from 102 for two to 197 for seven with Murali on 799 wickets. Number 800 took him another 24 overs but when he got it! – was joy unconfined? You bet: Murali got a 21-gun salute. Not even “Tugga” Waugh had managed that.
Timing is an issue not just for the individual but for the team. Sri Lanka have struggled to bowl sides out since Murali’s departure although Rangana Herath has worked hard to get into the upper echelons of the ICC Test rankings. Australia’s travails in the 1980s got a lot worse after the 1983-84 home series against Pakistan, at the end of which Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh all retired. Something similar happened at the end of Australia’s five-nil thrashing of England in 2006-07. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer all retired after the Sydney Test; Damien Martyn had slipped away, almost unnoticed, halfway through the series. Within a year of so, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee had gone as well. Few teams could withstand such leakage. By the time Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey retired in 2013, captain Michael Clarke, the sole survivor of the glory days, was facing an uphill struggle that made Sisyphus’s exploits look like a stroll in the park.
Of course not everyone gets the chance for a glittering finale. Most Test careers just end; that’s it. Ian Healy, one of the greatest wicketkeepers of all and a man who played as pivotal a role as Steve Waugh in the rebuilding, with Bob Simpson and Allan Border, of the Australian side in the late 1980s, had no grand send-off. He was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Gilchrist on the eve of the first Test against Pakistan in 1999-2000 at his own home ground, the Gabba. He retired immediately. He was driven round the boundary in an open top car waving to his fans but it wasn’t the same as playing.
Everyone knew that the Australian tour of England in 1948 would be Bradman’s swansong; he was going to be forty in August. The Invincibles swept away all opposition and Bradman himself displayed the same brilliance he had shown on three previous tours of England, making 508 runs including two centuries in the first four Tests. But there is something deliciously right about the fact that, despite all his astonishing achievements in a genuinely unique career, Bradman’s single most memorable innings was his two-ball nought in the final Test at The Oval. He needed to score four to average a hundred. But it was far from certain at the time that, on a pitch on which Australia made 389 (Arthur Morris 196), admittedly in response to an England total of 52 (Len Hutton 30) England would be dismissed again for 188, thereby depriving Bradman of a second go.
That, of course, is the point. For all his 198 Test matches, and his 13,000 Test runs, and his fifty one Test centuries, Tendulkar has no more idea than the rest of us how it is going to end.