"What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed," writes Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending. Those that love cricket, and who have witnessed their heroes fade away, can relate to that sentiment. Years from now, when you think of Sachin Tendulkar's last act in India's limited-overs kit, will your final memories be of the Asia Cup, where he made the 100th hundred and then a half-century against Pakistan? Or would you rather think of an April night in Mumbai a year earlier, and a dream that had finally come true after more than two decades?
One-day cricket has not indulged its finest batsmen when it comes to the final curtain. Think of the greatest of them, who averaged 47 and scored at 90 runs every 100 balls at a time when a strike-rate of 60 was considered rapid. Viv Richards played his final ODI at Lord's in 1991, 12 years on from illuminating a World Cup final there in the company of Collis King. He made 37 from 57 as West Indies lost.
A couple of days earlier, Gordon Greenidge, who averaged 45 and matched Richards' 11 hundreds, had left the game limping. A knee injury ended his tour and career, and he was run out for four in his final innings. The greatest opener of his time signed off while batting at No.8.
Greenidge had just turned 40 when Father Time tapped him on the shoulder. Richards was getting there. Dean Jones was only 33 when Australia's selectors cut him adrift. Those that never watched him play probably associate him with over-the-top antics on television. But for those who did, Jones was the one who rewrote the one-day lexicon, with his tip-and-run, aggressive batsmanship and superb fielding.
Jones didn't add to his seven centuries in the final three seasons of his career and he exited with an innings of eight at Newlands. He finished with an average of 44.61 and a strike-rate (72.56) that was considered exceptional even a decade later.
Ricky Ponting would go on to make the No.3 position his own, and win the World Cup thrice – Jones only did it once. But like the man he eventually succeeded, Ponting's last act was far from memorable. He scored the last of his 30 hundreds – second only to Tendulkar - in the World Cup loss to India in 2011, but managed just 18 in his final five innings. It was no way to end a career best remembered for a breathtaking unbeaten 140 in a World Cup final nearly a decade earlier.
The man that Ponting and Tendulkar were most often compared to also got no fairy-tale ending. Brian Lara presided over a disastrous West Indian Super Eights campaign at the 2007 World Cup, and at the Kensington Oval in Barbados, there would be no consolation victory. A mix-up with Marlon Samuels saw him run out for 18, and England won with a ball to spare to ensure that the lap of honour had a hollow ring to it. The last of his 19 hundreds - a brilliant 138-ball 156 against Pakistan in Adelaide - had come nearly two and a half years earlier.
Two other stylish left-handers also left with a whimper. Saeed Anwar, who held one-day cricket's highest score (194) for more than a decade, finished with an unbeaten 40 in Bulawayo in a World Cup match ruined by rain, at the end of a tournament where Pakistan had failed all the big tests. Those that admired the fluency and skill with which he batted will probably recall the last hundred against India at Centurion, even if it came in a losing cause.
Sourav Ganguly's final game saw India complete a series win against Pakistan in Gwalior. His own contribution was just five. Having matched Tendulkar stroke for stroke during his halcyon years, he had not scored a hundred for nearly half a decade.
The more callous among us can talk of botched exit lines and a reluctance to let go. But when it's the only life you've known, walking away is far from easy. More than one great will tell you that what they miss most is not the runs or the glory, but the feeling of being out there on a summer's day, the breeze teasing your flannels as the bat's sweet spot connects with the ball and sends it speeding to another time and space. Matthew Hayden called the act of hitting a cricket ball "addictive", and it must have been for most of these men.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce wrote: "The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl."
Only Tendulkar and those that took the sunset walk before him will know how hard it is to turn your back on that.
Story first published on: Thursday, 27 December 2012 13:37 IST