Time is running out

TOP PLAYERS such as Glenn McGrath have their eyes set on the next World Cup.-AP

Most Indian cricket legends have got the timing of their exits horribly wrong.

Age, in cricket, is an age-old problem, and as the years add up for players, tough questions come up about how long to continue, when to call it a day, draw stumps. As it is, sport is essentially a celebration of youth, of energy and promise. When players get on in years, nature steps in and skills diminish.

Batsmen suddenly find their judgement just that bit slow, drives meant to hit the gap through cover are edged to slip and the feet are not in the right place. Bowlers have an even tough time: with pace gone, quick bowlers have perfectly good deliveries smashed to the boundary, spinners realise the ball refuses to travel after landing and batsmen have years to decide what stroke to play. Inevitably, there comes a time when the place of stars is in doubt. Questions, first polite and then cruel, are raised about the time to go. This cycle — of peak performance followed by gradual decline and final fadeout — is a harsh reality.

At the domestic level this is in evidence as several stalwarts have departed from the scene. Hirwani will no more be with MP, running in to toss up leg breaks as he did for 20 seasons. Delhi's spinners, Sarandeep and Rahul Sanghvi, have exited and a major shakeout is due in UP, this year's Ranji winner.

For long it was admirably served by a group of seniors (Rizwan Shamsad, Gyanendra Pandey and Zaidi) who contributed to the team's success. But UP, overflowing with young talent, has decided to go with juniors coming through the under-19, and 22 tournaments. It has a large representation in the India under-19 and `A' sides and the same players will now break into the State team.

While time is running out for seniors, there are some who have got a second life. MP's Amay Khurasia came back from the wilderness to score heavily. Gagan Khoda, just when people started questioning his position, hit back with hundreds. Jadeja, in Rajasthan, has enjoyed the most productive season of his 18-year-old first-class career. Himachal's Rajiv Nayyar has been gifted another innings thanks to the manipulations of the BCCI.

Domestically, the decision to play or quit is now a matter of economics and the same consideration works, though on a bigger scale at the international level. Currently, top players — whether it is Glenn McGrath or Sourav Ganguly — have their eyes set on the next World Cup. That is the big stage and all covet the opportunity to produce one more grand performance in front of a global audience. That's why McGrath defends himself against critics who want a fresh partner for Lee and Ganguly hopes for a recall.

Many (including Lara, Pollock, Inzamam and others) will soon have to make the tough decision about their future. All are terrific players with wonderful records but a stage arrives when they need to take a tough call. In cricket, timing is of essence and players must know when to hit and when to block. The captain has to make up his mind about placing an extra slip or pushing a fielder to the fence. But the toughest decision of them all, the big question, is for players to know when to quit.

In other fields, like films and politics, the head honchos receive convenient cues about this. In rajniti, people announce a verdict through elections, their will is stamped on ballot papers or captured in EVMs and this seals the fate of candidates. In films, popular opinion (PO) is reflected in the box office (BO), trends of public acceptance/rejection are known on Friday and this decides whether someone moves up or down.

In cricket, the scorebook measures performance and the selectors then weigh available evidence to pass a judgement. But, usually, much before this happens, players have a gut feeling whether their innings is over. The computer in their mind sets off alarms and the inner voice beeps danger signals about imminent doom. Still, a problem arises when warnings are ignored, the system kept on silent and the player is trapped in a denial mode. Most Indian cricket legends have got the timing of their exits horribly wrong. SMG left with dignity and honour but others departed through the backdoor, accompanied by controversy and, sadly, even a touch of disgrace.

Champions delay their departure because they feel they are capable of producing more magic. Which is why Agassi searches for a last Grand Slam and a film star for one more smash hit. Faith in one's ability, the confidence and inner strength, made them winners in the first place. But, with time running out, strength becomes a weakness. For a star to suddenly confront reality — that he is done, his skills faded — is not easy. As success ebbs, as it must, he leans on hope, an element which previously did not figure in his calculations.

More so when the benefits of stardom (the cash/guaranteed contracts/media attention/celebrity profile) are enormous. Success is a deadly addiction, it is both cancer and vitamin; the glitter and the glitz of fame does not encourage saintly renunciation or a silent retreat into retirement. The normal response is to hang on and somehow cling to the exalted position.