When Fa­ther Time starts his run-up it’s time for even the best to de­clare

Garfield Robin­son casts a dis­cern­ing eye back to the play­ers who stayed around too long and to those who man­aged to time it just about right

The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE -

One Tour Too Many is the ti­tle of a chap­ter in David Foot’s Wally Ham­mond: The Rea­sons Why. Therein the au­thor ar­gues that the man who Sir Leonard Hut­ton de­scribed as “the most per­fect bats­man I ever saw, more en­joy­able to watch than Sir Don”, might have made a mis­judg­ment when he em­barked on his last tour to Aus­tralia in the win­ter of 1946-47.

“Ham­mond was now 43,” Foot wrote, “His eyes were tired and his teeth stained from nico­tine. Some of the nat­u­ral ex­u­ber­ances had gone from his ex­quis­ite stroke­play, even though he had just topped the first-class av­er­ages again (84.90) and at times bat­ted quite beau­ti­fully in lim­ited ap­pear­ances.”

Ham­mond’s Test av­er­age is 58.45. But he ended that tour with a to­tal of 168 runs in eight in­nings, av­er­ag­ing a pal­try 21.00, and looked noth­ing like the mas­ter bats­man the Aus­tralians had wit­nessed on prior vis­its. In short:Wally Ham­mond was no longer Wally Ham­mond.

By 1980, Muham­mad Ali was no longer Ali.“The Great­est,” now 38, was about to chal­lenge his friend, one-time spar­ring part­ner and WBC heavy­weight cham­pion, Larry Holmes. To any­one pay­ing close at­ten­tion, and even to ca­sual on­look­ers, this was not the Ali of years past. This was not the “float like a but­ter­fly, sting like a bee” Ali. The fast-danc­ing, fast-talk­ing, sup­ple, ath­lete was re­placed by one who slurred his words, was slightly labour­ing in his move­ments.

Whether ad­mit­ting it or not, those around him no­ticed. They saw the trans­for­ma­tion, saw Ali was slow­ing, but felt some com­pul­sion to in­dulge the great man. It wasn’t as if he’d not been doubted be­fore – few thought he could’ve beaten Sonny Lis­ton, and later, Ge­orge Fore­man – but even against the most fore­bod­ing odds he some­how found a way. They were sure he’d find a way again.

Ali him­self had no doubt. He still felt he could dance and will him­self to vic­tory; that he could out­smart and out ma­noeu­vre any boxer. His mind told him he was the same Ali who trapped Fore­man with the “rope-a-dope”; the same Ali who en­dured those pun­ish­ing bat­tles with Joe Fra­zier and Ken Nor­ton; the Ali who was one of the best box­ers of all time.

He was wrong. That Ali was no more. Holmes beat him badly. And yet amid all the pound­ing, he re­fused to go down, even as Holmes looked back at the ref­eree urg­ing him to stop the fight. It took those in his corner, see­ing the fear­ful beat­ing he was suf­fer­ing and fear­ing for his well­be­ing, to throw in the towel.

There is re­ally noth­ing un­usual about the story of Ali and Ham­mond car­ry­ing on too long. His­tory is re­plete with in­stances of great per­form­ers fail­ing to recog­nise the diminu­tion of their skills. They re­main cham­pi­ons in their minds even after their finest days are past.

As with ev­ery other sport, crick­eters have had to grap­ple with the ques­tion of when to walk away -- that is if the de­ci­sion is not made for them by se­lec­tors. De­ter­min­ing the cor­rect time can be tricky and is of­ten the cause of much dis­cus­sion and dis­agree­ment in and around the team.

We of­ten hear that the time to go is when you’re at the top of your game. But it’s dif­fi­cult to see the wis­dom in that. It is when you’re at the height of your pow­ers that you should re­main in the game and build your legacy. The time to leave is when you are de­clin­ing but are still com­pe­tent. Un­like Ali, you don’t want to get to the point where too much de­te­ri­o­ra­tion has oc­curred and you are at, or in­deed, well past the point of be­com­ing some­thing of an em­bar­rass­ment.

The right tim­ing can be prob­lem­atic.

We have seen great play­ers who waited too long. In a way, this is un­der­stand­able. It must be dif­fi­cult to leave be­hind some­thing you ex­celled at and ded­i­cated your life to. Ad­di­tion­ally, top play­ers de­velop large num­bers of fol­low­ers, some of whom be­come syco­phants, stroking their idols’ egos, strength­en­ing the voice in their heads telling them they’re still great de­spite much ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

Elite ath­letes of­ten op­er­ate in a bub­ble of back-slap­ping, and pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment can lift per­for­mance. But it also con­trib­utes to a re­fusal to ac­cept a re­al­ity ap­par­ent to al­most ev­ery­one else.

Some pre­fer to leave while their spot is not in ques­tion rather than place their des­tiny in the hands of the se­lec­tors. Michael Hussey, to ev­ery­one’s surprise, an­nounced his re­tire­ment from Test cricket shortly be­fore the Syd­ney en­counter dur­ing Sri Lanka’s 2012-13 visit. He had scored a hun­dred in the first game of the three-Test se­ries in Ho­bart so he was in no dan­ger of los­ing his place.Yet he was also aware that at 37 he was get­ting on and the se­lec­tors would no doubt be look­ing to the fu­ture.

In My Story, his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Michael Clarke, Hussey’s then cap­tain, takes us back to Hussey’s de­ci­sion, ref­er­enc­ing the pre­vi­ous de­par­ture of an­other stal­wart, Ricky Ponting.“Un­like Punter, Huss is un­der no im­me­di­ate pres­sure to score runs. He’s had an­other solid sum­mer. But he is 37, six months younger than Punter, and dreads the pres­sure that bub­bles up ev­ery time a player of his age has a cou­ple of fail­ures. He’s sick of that feel­ing: Are they go­ing to drop me? Why is the Press talk­ing about my po­si­tion again? We all know what this feels like. It’s a nasty, nasty feel­ing.”

In con­trast, it could be ar­gued that some­one like West Indies bats­man Shiv Chan­der­paul left it too late and suf­fered the in­dig­nity of be­ing dropped, even after plead­ing that he wanted a few more games so he could re­ceive a proper send-off. It was ap­par­ent that he was no longer the player he was and ought to have risked leav­ing too early rather than make him­self so vul­ner­a­ble.

It is a sub­jec­tive ex­er­cise de­ter­min­ing who might have stayed on too long, who left too early, or who got out at the right time. Did Ten­dulkar, for ex­am­ple, al­low his abil­i­ties to fade too much be­fore he left the scene? What about San­gakarra? After he re­tired from in­ter­na­tional cricket he showed that, had he been minded, he could have stayed on a bit longer.

Un­doubt­edly, Brad­man could have con­tin­ued scor­ing cen­tury after cen­tury a few more years. In his last se­ries in Eng­land in 1948 he av­er­aged 72.57 and was still the best in the world. Michael Hold­ing re­tired at 33. His coun­try­man Court­ney Walsh played un­til he was 38. Could “Whis­per­ing Death” have granted us the plea­sure of view­ing him in ac­tion a few more years?

In the end, time con­quers all ath­letes. It de­pends of the genre but, gen­er­ally, sports­men are at their peak from their mid-20s to early 30s. There­after re­ac­tions slow; eye­sight be­comes less sharp; fast­twitch mus­cle fi­bres de­crease; the body be­comes less ef­fi­cient in trans­port­ing oxy­gen, lead­ing to less aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity; and the body takes more time to re­cover from ex­er­tion.

Sports­men can rage all they want against its dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects, but Fa­ther Time even­tu­ally knocks on ev­ery door and there is lit­tle choice ex­cept to let him in. It is then the ath­lete has to be­gin the process of de­cid­ing how much he will al­low his skills to de­te­ri­o­rate be­fore he calls it a day.

In the not too dis­tant fu­ture, Pak­istan bats­men Mis­bah-ul-Haq and You­nis Khan will have to make these de­ci­sions. Both are great play­ers who have served their coun­try out­stand­ingly well. But at 42 (which makes Mis­bah a freak of na­ture) and 39 re­spec­tively, both are at an age where their end in the game can­not be far off. In­deed, it is as­ton­ish­ing they have lasted this long and it will be a sad day for cricket when­ever they de­cide to, or are forced to, say farewell.

De­spite re­cent runs, nei­ther could claim to be the play­ers they were in their prime.You­nis’ as­ton­ish­ing cen­tury at Syd­ney shows he is still a valu­able mem­ber of the side, yet it will take only a brief bar­ren pe­riod for his place in the team to be ques­tioned.

At his and Mis­bah’s age a de­cline in pro­duc­tiv­ity is seen as fa­tal, rather than dis­missed as a tem­po­rary set­back in form as it prob­a­bly would have been ten years ear­lier. It will be in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve the choices they make.

The de­ci­sion to em­bark on an ath­letic ca­reer is nor­mally made in a fit of ex­cite­ment and ex­pec­ta­tion. De­cid­ing when to go nor­mally re­quires much more thought and re­flec­tion. It is one of the most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions the great player will have to make in his ca­reer and in his life.

At You­nis and Mis­bah’s age, a de­cline in pro­duc­tiv­ity is seen as fa­tal, rather than a tem­po­rary set­back in their form

Spot on: Aus­tralia’s Mi­ichael Hussey is chaired off by Mitchell John­son and Peter Sid­dle

Still go­ing strong but for how long? Pak­istan’s Mis­bahul-Haq and You­nis Khan, right

Good tim­ing, bad tim­ing: Eng­land’s Wally Ham­mond, left, made one tour too many while Don Brad­man re­tired when still at the top

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.