When should one retire? This question has assumed greater significance ever since India's debacle in Australia and earlier in England. Ideally one should retire when they are at the top of their respective profession and there is no other mountain left to climb. But this is more easily said than done. Retirement has to do with as much the player as with the administration the player is a part of.
Don Bradman retired when he had played 52 Tests and had scored 29 centuries. Had Bradman scored four runs in his last visit to the wicket, his average would have been a perfect 100. But that didn't happen as he was bowled second ball for a duck.
The average of 99.94 against his name hasn't diminished the greatness of Bradman one bit. Bradman too enhanced his image by not postponing his retirement by a Test or two to ensure the record against his name stood at 100. Nobody cribbed and nor did a nation lose sleep over it. In fact, he served the game in many capacities as captain, selector and chairman of selectors. He was involved in the game one way or other and even kept track of achievements of players' couple of generations down the line by noticing the genius in Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne and calling them over for his 90th birthday.
Cricket administration, namely the selectors and the boards, have also a role to play in the retirement of an individual. In a country where individual achievements are given far too importance over a team's performance often leading to the detriment of the game, the Indian selectors seem to shy away from taking important and firm steps.
Cricket Australia on the other hand, appears to take decisions keeping the future of their cricket in mind. Individual performances and records do not influence their decisions, especially when it concerns the team's future. Steve Waugh was scoring heavily towards the end of his career but still the selectors decided it was time for him to go. Since they had already talked about his impending retirement it was all handled gracefully. How one wishes a similar policy came into being in our country, chalking out exit plans clearly spelling out timeframes.
Sachin Tendulkar is a colossus along with other greats of his era such as Michael Schumacher, Diego Maradona, Tiger Woods and Vishwanathan Anand. They achieved greatness and scaled heights few could dream of. But there is a time to go in sports as well, as in other walks of life.
Imran Khan was right in saying Tendulkar should have hung his boots when India won the World Cup after 28 years, a target towards which Tendulkar strode all his career. India had reached the pinnacle of cricket being No. 1 in Tests and World Cup champions in ODIs. Tendulkar somehow allowed the golden moment to slip through, for he is never going to get such a magical moment even if he scores his hundredth century.
Sunil Gavaskar - whose timing has always been precise - got it right when with the Benson & Hedges World Championship in hand he announced his retirement after beating archrivals Pakistan in Australia in 1985. The credit should partly go to Vijay Merchant, who in his weekly TV show 'Cricket with Vijay Merchant' kept the pressure on the little master to retire. How one wishes Gavaskar had done a similar favour to Tendulkar.
In such an exalted position where even the board chief takes advice as to who should lead India, would any selector, commentator, colleague or a coach dare tell him when he should retire? Tendulkar should be careful not to become a 'sacred cow', where nobody can offer well-meaning suggestions on retirement lest it be construed sacrilegious or preposterous.
For Indian cricket to grow, a new No. 4 should take Tendulkar's place - as Brian Lara, Gundappa Viswanath or he himself did - and now make way for Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara or whoever; so should the places of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. Talented as they are, they may still score centuries that will not take Indian cricket far. The future of Indian cricket lies in how soon the youngsters find as much space and time to fit in their seniors' enormous shoes and contribute to the team. There is no doubt the senior cricketers themselves would like to see that happen.
When will a new talent get as much space and time to prove his worth? Amidst the ruins wasn't it heartening to see a newcomer to Test cricket, Virat Kohli, grappling with fast bowlers learning the hard way? How will we find out if they don't get a chance?
Great players, like great leaders, walk into the sunset having made their priceless contribution hoping somebody would better them and take their team to greater heights. That time has now come for all our seniors, without an exception.