Age is, in many contexts, something to be respected and admired. We often say that age and maturity go together (even if it’s not strictly true), that wisdom comes with experience and that can only come with age. Words like ‘elder’, ‘dada’, ‘senior’ and ‘periyar’ all indicate an attitude of respect if not reverence.
We’re generally taught in school and elsewhere to show respect to our elders, so obviously it must be something worth striving for (even if old people don’t seem to be particularly enchanted with their condition). But this is not a universal truth; indeed, in one particular context, age is dreaded rather than welcomed. And that is usually when the word retirement comes up.
That feeling usually sharpens when we’re talking about sportsmen or women. Retirement comes much earlier for athletes at every level because their performance is so dependent upon the coordination of muscle and sinew that is best done when the body is at its physical peak.
That, unfortunately, is relatively brief in a life that may extend to 80 years or more. The time you leave depends on the sport. Footballers, for instance, are past their peak in the early thirties, while cricketers and baseball players can go on longer. But the long and short of it is that all the wisdom in the world is useless against slowing reflexes and physical weakness. You simply can’t play at 90 miles an hour then.
Take the case of Rahul Dravid, one of India’s greatest sportsmen. It stands out because of the combination of complete triumph and total failure at almost the same time.
Last year playing away against the West Indies and England he scored five test centuries. He added another at home against the former. A couple of months later he announced his retirement from international cricket, shattered by his returns from the tour of Australia where he was totally undone by the pace and movement of a raw but enthusiastic opening attack. The man who had played such a magnificent lone hand against a rampaging English attack in summer was confessing his time was over. He was no longer up to the stresses of the game any more.
Dravid is not, of course, the first of his generation to quit the game. His great contemporaries Anil Kumble and Saurav Ganguly had already left, but in both cases it was clear that they were past their best.
Rarely have triumph and abject failure come so closely together as in Dravid’s case. And now that VVS Laxman, stylist and warrior without peer has also said farewell, about half the side that gave India its greatest moments in international cricket is gone. Watching the two in Australia it seemed clear that they were a beat too slow for the Australian quicks. Even Dravid’s technical soundness wasn’t proof against the speed and movement.
Now that they’re gone, what will they do? It’s a question that’s rarely asked because fans are usually too busy mourning the departure of their heroes or wondering who if anyone can take their place. Certainly the retirement of Laxman and Dravid has left great gaping holes in the edifice, but spare a thought for the men who walk into the sunset knowing their summer is over.
These days, fortunately, retirement is not such a terrifying prospect. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is rich enough and in recent decades has been generous enough to allow players to retire in comfort, especially if you’ve played international cricket. Career prospects too have improved with a constant demand for pundits from the broadcast and online media. It’s well paid and there is some reflected glory as well, because people might hang on to your words with the same attention they paid to your batting, bowling or fielding.
Then there’s the other familiar route, coaching, for which there’s a growing demand in all the formats of the game. It’s a far cry from the old days of penury and obscurity after your days in the game were done.
Vasant Baburao Ranjane, son of a factory worker and father of six children, died on December 22 last year in poverty and obscurity after a long life spent struggling to provide for his family. Yet he was one of the game’s finest servants, playing seven Tests from 1958 to 1964, and nearly 200 first-class matches. As a coach in Pune, he oversaw the development of many talented youngsters including Yajurvindra Singh, Indian cricketer in the Eighties, but it was all about keeping the wolf from the door.
The quiet ignominy imposed by economic realities overshadowed his achievements as an individual.
Sadly his case is not unique. The number is legion and the names come from every corner of the country. Each state has its own roll of cricketers who got nothing from the game to which they gave so much, and were forgotten almost as soon they left it. If they were lucky enough to be in a well-paid job, it took care of the day-to-day stuff, but the limelight was gone for ever.
In that sense, things couldn’t be better for the men in white (or multi-coloured if you play only in limited overs cricket) in India. Whether you play club or first-class or international cricket, there’s a safety net of some kind. Nowadays, in fact, you don’t have to play for the country to secure your future. Both the Indian Premier League and the first-class game offer pretty generous incentives. That’s good enough to take care of the present and there are plenty of opportunities, as the game becomes more and more commercialised, of cover for the future as coach, umpire, commentator, columnist, and so on.
“Playing cricket” is already a viable career option. The major difference is that it demands talent. Unlike other professions, you can’t “become” a cricketer. You’re born with it and sharpen your skills as you grow up. But the end of days need no longer be a time of fear and uncertainty.
Part of the reason is the BCCI’s bulging coffers but the major thanks must go to a billionaire named Kerry Packer, the first to demonstrate the market value of a cricketer’s talents.