Kumble, Dravid and the long goodbyes
There is a subtle but very obvious difference in retiring from cricket, depending on which format of the sport is last.
It's been five years, but the memory is as fresh as ever. VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly were batting together on the final day of India's third Test against Australia at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, when L Sivaramakrishnan, on air at the time, prefaced his announcement with "Breaking news". You fancied you could hear his throat catch when he spoke the next few words to let the world know that a titan was retiring from cricket. Which was strange because when Siva, once India's premier legspinner, was trying to make his way back into the national side, it was the presence of the man he was eulogising that kept him out. Nobody - legspinner, offspinner, mystery spinner or others - could usurp Anil Kumble's place as the No.1 bowler in the Indian team. And no one has filled the void, even five years after he left the game.
But, he didn't actually leave as a player. After that day (November 2) in Delhi in 2008, Kumble played for Royal Challengers Bangalore in two IPL seasons and one edition of the Champions League Twenty20. It's an effort to remember the match that was technically his final one in senior, competitive cricket. More so because we didn't know then that he wouldn't return as a player in 2011.
Rahul Dravid led a team that was under siege for a while, and Rajasthan Royals became everyone's favourite underdog, which is why his final bow was likely to be more remembered. Then it happened to coincide with Sachin Tendulkar's final outing in Twenty20 cricket. Partly due to the hype generated, and partly due to the stature of the men involved, the build-up to the CLT20 final was all about saying farewell to the legends, as was its aftermath. After all, you don't get to see two legends of the game going out together very often.
Except that it didn't really feel like a farewell. At the same ground, when Kumble bid adieu, the swirling emotions were so much more raw and real, even though the stands weren't as packed as they had been during the CLT20 final.
Last year, on March 9 and then August 18, Dravid and Laxman said goodbye in press conferences. There was no cheering stadium while they rode on teammates' shoulders. But as both began by saying they were retiring from the game, those who had followed Indian cricket for a few years felt like something deeply personal and cherished was being torn away from them.
When Dravid walked off after a two-ball innings in Delhi, it was nice - heartwarming even - to see the Mumbai Indians' players converge on him for a parting handshake, and the crowd get to its feet. But where March 9, 2012 left you aching, this was merely a skin-deep wound.
It's the nature of the beast that is franchise and Twenty20 cricket. The shortest format is good fun, has evolved as a legitimate contest rather than just hits-and-giggles, and is a number-cruncher's dream. And if you're looking for a Moneyball moment in cricket, 20-overs-a-side seems the most likely to deliver it. But as has been said on many occasions by a variety of people, it cannot match the longer format for nuance and drama. And what is a proper farewell without these?
True, we won't get to see Rahul Dravid bat again in competitive cricket, but the batsman who made watchers sigh and get lumps in throats when he was on song was the one they saw in whites. The memory of what he did in whites kept the affection alive when he was wearing jersey No.19 for Rajasthan Royals. Not that he didn't find success in Twenty20s. In fact, contrary to popular perception, whether with Bangalore or Rajasthan, Dravid generally had more successes than failures.
A day after the CLT20 final, Dravid himself said, "When you give up Test cricket, that's when you feel really emotional about it."
With Sachin Tendulkar, the emotion was even less, because he's still going to be around. He might be on his last legs, they might creak rather more than they did, but he's still going to be playing Test cricket. The day that is Tendulkar's last in whites will be seismic, a tectonic plate-shifting event for the cricket world at large, and it will be so regardless of whether he goes out with a bang or a whimper. But Tendulkar playing his last match of Twenty20 cricket hardly evoked the same sense of an ending.
After Kumble's unexpected retirement announcement during a Test that was meandering towards a draw, the final session of play was charged, even though no result was possible. After the match, Kumble was hoisted on to different shoulders while completing a lap of honour - possibly the only time he didn't have both feet on the ground.
There was sadness of course, but it was tempered with much joy at the incredible career that had gone before, the privilege at being able to witness it, and the reception from fans that showed you were not alone in feeling that way.
The five-day game is not just the true test of a cricketer's skill; it's also the only proper stage for a farewell to legends.