Column | When legends made their final bow

Laxman and Dravid
V V S Laxman, left, and Rahul Dravid played their final Test for India at Adelaide in 2012. File photo: AFP
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These days Test match cricket is often seen as a dreary and unexciting version of the game with spectator interest being more focused on its shorter duration cousins such as One-Day Internationals and T20 matches. The period of five days over which it is played, long stretches of time when run scoring remains slow without any fall of wickets and the fact that some of the games end without any result being achieved all contributed to the dip in its popularity. But despite this, Test cricket remains the ultimate test for the skills of both batsmen and bowlers.

Further, old timers and long time followers of the game continue to view Test matches as the real and orthodox version, whose charm would never vanish, in spite of the present fall in its viewership.

Fans of the game remember Test matches for a variety of reasons. It is the norm that matches won by the home or favourite sides remain etched in the minds of their supporters. Similarly exciting matches are invariably recalled with alacrity by the fans. Occasionally bad defeats, which one would like to erase from the mind also may reappear in one’s thoughts. However, there also exists certain games that are memorable not on account of any of the above reasons, but due to other factors.

One such cause for some matches remaining special in the minds of fans is the retirement of players. The second Test of the home series against the West Indies in 2013 remains in the minds of cricket lovers solely on account of the fact that this was Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell game. There are some more matches that have have attained special status due to the retirement of prominent players. I shall recount a few such prominent matches.

Fitting farewell

Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh were key members of the strong Australian side during the 1970s and early part of 1980s. They decided to bid adieu to international cricket together at the end of the fifth Test of the home series against Pakistan at Sydney in January, 1984.

Chappell, who scored 182 in the only innings that he batted, crossed the Australian record for highest Test aggregate of 6,996 runs held by Don Bradman and became the first Aussie to score 7,000 runs in Test cricket. Lillee, then the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket, took eight wickets in the match, four in each innings, to finish with a tally of 355. Marsh also had 355 dismissals to his credit, which was another world record. The Lillee-Marsh combination accounted for 95 dismissals, a record that has not been bettered till date. For the record, Australia won the Test by 10 wickets, but the focus on Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) during this game was more on the retirement of these three all time greats, than on the match being played in the middle.

Viv Richards was, without doubt, the best batsman in the world during the years from 1976 till 1991, while the late Malcolm Marshall was the fastest bowler during most of the 1980s. Jeff Dujon was the regular wicketkeeper of the West Indies side since 1981. Richards scored 8,540 runs in Test cricket, Marshall took 376 wickets while Dujon had 272 dismissals to his credit. These three maestros decided to retire from Tests at the end of the tour of England in 1991, and the last match that they played was the fifth Test of the series at the Oval. Unlike the Aussie greats, the West Indian trio could not stamp their class on their farewell match. Richards, who had been the scourge of England bowlers since his first tour there in 1976, could make only 2 and 60 in this match, while Dujon, no pushover with the bat, could only scramble 0 and 5. Marshall also had a poor game picking up one wicket in each innings as West Indies crashed to a five-wicket defeat, which enabled England to square the five-match series 2-2.

End of an era
From left: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer line up for the Australian national anthem at the SCG in 2007. File photo: AFP

Shane Warne remains the greatest leg-spin bowler that the game has seen till now. In addition to the 708 Test wickets and 293 scalps in one-dayers, Warne was one of the most colourful characters in the history of cricket. Glen McGrath led the Aussie pace attack during the time that Warne played international cricket, picking up a total of 949 wickets, out of which 563 came in Test matches, 381 in ODIs and 5 in T20Is.

Justin Langer was a contemporary of these two greats, who scored 7,696 runs in Test cricket with 23 centuries. The three players quit the international arena after the last Test of the Ashes series against England in January, 2007. The venue was once again the SCG and Australia had reasons to celebrate as they blanked the visitors 5-0 to regain the Ashes they lost two years ago.

There are many instances of two cricketers saying farewell to Test cricket together. The most important among these was at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1973, when Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai announced their retirement from Test matches at the end of the series against England.

Sobers, one of the greatest cricketers to have graced the game and had to his credit 8,032 runs and 235 wickets in Test cricket, was in the twilight of his career and could not contribute much during this match where he made only 0 and 20. Kanhai, who was leading the West Indies and had scored 6,227 runs in Test matches, could manage only 2 and 7 in his final game. West Indies, who were set a target of 226, found the going tough and were dismissed for  199, thus leaving England winners by a margin of 26 runs. This victory helped the visitors to level the series 1-1.

Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin Tendulkar called it quits after the Mumbai Test against the West Indies in 2013. File photo

There are seven more instances of two players, each of who have played for more than 75 Test matches, playing their last game together. Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman of India figure in this list as both of them played last for the country in the fourth Test of the series against Australia at Adelaide in January, 2012. However, neither Dravid nor Laxman had decided prior to this game that this would be their last appearance on Test match arena. Dravid announced his retirement in March, 2012, while Laxman decided to leave Test cricket only after another five months, in August. Hence, neither could get a farewell from the followers of the game in a manner similar to what Tendulkar received in November, 2013.

What happens to sides when a host of top players leave it? History tells us teams find it difficult to cope with the void left by the departure of stalwarts who were a permanent presence in their midst. In the case of Australia, they struggled when Chappell, Lillee and Marsh left the scene in 1984 and
they lost eight series at a stretch before they could get back to winning habits. However, they were better prepared when Warne, McGrath and Langer retired in 2007, but still lost three of the next eight series. This was a far cry from the period prior to 2007 when they lost only one out of the previous16 series!

West Indies managed the departure of Sobers and Kanhai quite well as a new team was moulded under Clive Lloyd, which grew into the strongest side in international cricket by the mid 1970s and held sway for the next decade and a half. The exit of Richard, Marshall and Dujon hurt the side but they still managed to hold on to their record of not losing a series till 1995. But the decline that started in the mid 1990s has not been arrested till date. Indian middle order still misses the solidity of Dravid and Laxman and this comes to the fore when playing in Test matches outside the subcontinent.

Tough decision

It is always a sad day when a top sportsman bids farewell from the game. While the fans and followers feel the sorrow of not being to see their favourite star in action again, the person himself would be anguished over the prospect of leaving a sport that had been his love and sustenance. But none can prevent the changes that ageing brings to body and even the most supreme of athletes find that they can only delay its effects. Top players make suitable adjustments in their technique and style to prolong their career but in the end they too realise that the body cannot be subjected to further trauma. All the players mentioned earlier had careers in international cricket for more than 15 years and hence one can imagine the amount of physical strain and mental stress they would have gone through.

The matches detailed above remain in the minds of followers of the game as celebrations towards the memories of those great cricketers who took their final bow in these games. The sport will continue to be played, though poorer by the absence of these maestros who contributed so much towards enriching it. Memories, however, would  continue to be cherished by the fans and nourished through occasional reminiscences, like the instance above.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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