Retirements in cricket: Easing up seems to be catching on

Retirements are personal decisions but the truth is they are being hastened by the whirlwind itineraries that derail players. The choice then becomes an almost open-and-shut case — pack your Test whites and make some money through Twenty20s and ODIs.

AB de Villiers, who is a big draw in all the three formats, is thinking of preserving himself by playing less.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Syed Kirmani, now 66, was 'retired' by the selectors when he was 36. But he was harbouring hopes of a comeback even when he was 40!   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

M. S. Dhoni quit Test cricket when he was only 33!   -  PTI

Recently two snatches of news sprung up from different parts of the cricketing globe. And both streams of information, revealed the manner in which the sport has evolved especially with regard to retirements.

Syed Kirmani and AB de Villiers, legends split by generations and continents, expressed their diverse views about bidding goodbye to a game they adorned with power and panache. If there was despair and angst in the utterances of Kirmani that surfaced on the Press Trust of India page, a sense of exhaustion and the urge to have some rest rippled through the guarded words of de Villiers.

Kirmani, a veteran of 88 Tests and 49 ODIs, who found the selectors wielding the axe way back in 1986 when he was 36, has still not reconciled to the fact that he missed out on a 100-Test milestone. Even when he turned 40, India’s greatest wicketkeeper harboured hopes of a comeback! Reportedly Kirmani has threatened to spill the beans about his so-called ‘premature exit’ from the international game in a tell-all book.

Contrast this with the following words spoken by de Villiers during the course of the recent Durban Test against England: “It’s always been the most important thing for me to enjoy my cricket. It’s just important to look at the schedule moving forward, that’s the talk in the camp and for me maybe not to play all kinds of cricket.”

Mind you, de Villiers is just 31, supremely fit, on top of his game, and perhaps after Sachin Tendulkar, he is the most loved cricketer across the globe. The chants of ‘AB, AB’, that resonated across Indian venues during the Proteas’ recent tour here, stand testimony to de Villiers’ universal appeal.

 

Isn’t it illuminating that a 66-year-old gentleman from Bengaluru, is still fuming over a forced exit when he was 36 while a 31-year-old incredible player with the perfect blend of physical strength, adrenaline and most importantly, immense ability, is already pondering about easing off the pedal. De Villiers is second to none in his desire to excel in sport and if he is considering an exit from one format of the willow-game, it is only a reflection of the frenetic nature of cricket today.

Unlike the relatively gentler times of Kirmani’s era, heroes like de Villiers are spending more time travelling, playing across the world, lending energy to Twenty20 leagues and clocking envy-inducing frequent-flier miles. It may sound nice and extravagant but the incessant travel, the hotel rooms, the packed schedules and the constant media scrutiny, do take a toll, both on mind and body and with that career-spans are bound to shrink.

The kind of ‘two-decade-plus-playing-longevity’ that Tendulkar had, may never be replicated as current players, the good and great ones may at best last just over a decade. After that they tend to slowly gravitate towards the Twenty20 leagues for a few years before calling it completely quits and then mulling over the choices between the commentator’s stool and the rocking chair at home.

Over the last year, de Villiers played six Tests, 20 ODIs, six Twenty20 internationals and 16 IPL games for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Add to it the domestic matches he would have played in South Africa and you are staring at the perfect recipe for tired limbs and a fatigued mind. The tragedy is that with 7950 Test runs (averaging 51.29), an 8403 tally in ODIs and the innumerable catches and stumpings he has effected, de Villiers is inarguably one of the greatest to have played the game. Simultaneously, he is a terrific box-office draw, luring fans to the stadiums, and if he fades away soon from any one format (some speculate it could be Tests), the game will be poorer.

But if that happens, it seems an inevitable trend that has gripped the modern cricketer. M.S. Dhoni quit Tests when he was 33. Another wicketkeeper-batsman Brendon McCullum recently spoke about retiring completely from international cricket in a few months — mind you he is only 34! The big marauder with the bat — Chris Gayle — hasn’t played a Test for the West Indies since September 2014 but after braving cortisone shots to heal his bruised knee, the opener has turned out for RCB and other teams in the various Twenty20 leagues.

And horror of horrors, there is even talk that the 32-year-old Dale Steyn, plagued by injuries, might bow out.

Retirements are personal decisions but the truth is they are being hastened by the whirlwind itineraries that derail players. The choice then becomes an almost open-and-shut case — pack your Test whites and make some money through Twenty20s and ODIs.

The International Cricket Council and its members need to cast an unflinching gaze at schedules as well as the various domestic leagues, and a way has to be found to protect and extend careers. When the Tendulkars, the Rahul Dravids and the Ricky Pontings stretched their tenures into the late 30s, it only added lustre to the game and now the contrary thing is happening — men contemplating retirement even before their stubble got its first streaks of grey!

If de Villiers does bow out of any format, the alarm bells will ring loud and clear. Hopefully, he and Cricket South Africa will find a way together to extract a long career-path ahead.

The game needs him because idols are rare and you need men like that to draw in the fans and to also inspire kids to take up cricket both as a passion and as a profession.