Thirty-nine is not an age that finds any great significance in the affairs of the human race. History, literature and mythology remain indifferent to this figure. But since every statistic associated with Sachin Tendulkar becomes a landmark, I reckon there will be the usual brouhaha over his 39th birthday.
So, happy birthday Sachin and all that, but I think the 365 days beginning today to his 40th are going to be more important: perhaps even more than the preceding 12 months which were excruciating for reasons too widely known to repeat here.
His 100th international century was widely celebrated, but for the first time in 23 years, this was accompanied by several questions about whether he should continue to play or retire from the game. Tendulkar himself has debunked all questions about retirement, but it is fair to say that what he does from here will be watched with great interest by everybody in the cricketing universe.
Unlike in most other field sports, forty is an interesting age in cricket. Not too many players go on to play that long, yet the number of players who have done this even at the Test level is not as few as is imagined. Going through the records one finds as many as 102 players who played till 40 or beyond, the oldest being Wilfred Rhodes who was 52 years and 165 days when he played his last Test!
Of course, more than two-thirds of the 102 `over 40s’ (78 to be precise) finished their careers before 1960. Five of them were Indians, the last of these being the redoubtable Vinoo Mankad (C Ramaswami, C K Nayudu, R Jamhetji and Vijay Merchant being the others) when he played against the West Indies in 1959.
The pace of cricket then, it is widely accepted, was more languid then compared to say football, hockey, tennis etc which obviously helped longevity. Tests were few and far in between and there was no limited overs cricket either. This meant far reduced physical burden on players, more time for rest and recovery, lesser wear and tear of the body.
But there have been players in the modern era too who have played beyond 40. Tendulkar himself might remember the Zimbabwean off-spinner John Traicos who got him for a blob in a Test at Harare in 1992-93. Traicos was then 45 years and 304 days! But he had lost none of his guile as a bowler, nor his zest for fielding.
English cricketers, for some reason, outnumber others in the list of 40-plus players. In the past two decades alone, there have been four: Graham Gooch, John Emburey, Eddie Hemmings and the last in this list Alec Stewart, who was 40 years and 153 days when he played against South Africa at his home ground, the Oval, in 2003.
But a decade is a long time and the contemporary scenario is vastly different even from the time Stewart retired. Players with a regular place in the side take the field for at least 10-12 Tests, 35-40 ODIs, half a dozen T20s – not to mention new developments like the IPL which can take up 2-3 months in a year. Indeed, there is no off-season in cricket these days, which means that players have to be in prime fitness all year round.
Fears of premature burn-out and/or breakdowns are not unfounded. But this must be juxtaposed with the advancements made in fitness training and management and the huge improvements in sports medicine. True, there are far more injuries and niggles, but it is also true that recovery is that much quicker. Health consciousness among players has also increased enormously, so playing till 40 or even beyond is not as far-fetched as may seem.
Tendulkar is a year away from becoming the next man in the 40-plus list. Though his fitness struggles remain, his powers are largely undiminished. Seen in a four -year horizon, he has been India’s best and most prolific batsman since 2008. True, his run-making in the year since the World Cup victory has been modest, but that is only compared to his own high standards.
To me, the clamour for his retirement in the past few months has been misplaced. Having watched him in England, India and Australia, I did not think he had lost form and rhythm. This wasn’t a `lean trot’ as is conventionally understood. Yes, he was undoubtedly feeling the burden of expectations to score his 100th, and this kept growing exponentially with every passing match. But it is also true that he lacked some luck.
In any case, that is now in the past and what happens from here is of the essence. I reckon Tendulkar himself will see this as perhaps the most challenging phase of his career. While he has been dismissive of any retirement plans, it stands to reason that the thought of retirement will have crossed his mind nonetheless. It surely would for anybody who has played that long or is of this age. But this could also mean a renewed effort to make the home run, as it were, productive and memorable.