By announcing their retirements earlier this year, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman managed to extend the career of their distinguished colleague, Sachin Tendulkar. They might have saved the selectors some embarrassed throat-clearing in their own cases, but how do you tell possibly the greatest all-round batsman to have played the game that his time is up?
Firstly, you must be sure in your mind that his time is indeed up. An average of 15 over the last ten innings, a Test century made nearly two years ago, a Test fifty 11 innings back might be pointers, but against that are two arguments. Tendulkar has come out of similar patches in the past, stronger and hungrier (although he was younger then). The second, and possibly equally important argument is that the Indian team is in transition, and it is comforting to have someone like Tendulkar in the team as the link between the present and the future. He turns 40 this year, and the spirit seems willing enough after 23 years at the top. But the flesh?
"I will take a decision during the home series in November," he had said earlier. The decision will be based on how he feels about continuing rather than on how many runs he is making. But a series of clean bowled dismissals against the New Zealand medium pacers in the previous series and the failures against Monty Panesar in the Mumbai Test have probably advanced decision time.
The lack of runs is affecting his judgement. Twice in Mumbai, more clearly in the first innings, he was dismissed playing across. As great batsmen have discovered over the years, the call is for playing straighter as you grow older. It extended the career of Rohan Kanhai of the West Indies to beyond two decades. It mattered in the case of India's Gundappa Viswanath of an earlier generation. He changed his leg-stump guard to middle stump and consciously played straighter as the shadows lengthened over his career. Tendulkar changed his guard too, more middle-and-off, but negated that by playing across the line.
Both these players took another step too, and one which Tendulkar might explore. They dropped themselves down the order. If those two examples are not enough, there is the case of the great Viv Richards too.
It may be time for Tendulkar to bat a slot lower, to come in at number five. For those who think this is too subtle, the fact is that batting positions are significant. The job description of the openers is different from those of the middle order, and even in the middle order, the number three plays a role different from four or five.
Coming in at No. 5 will give Tendulkar a longer period of rest in the dressing room, and if Virat Kohli goes in at No. 4 it will mean that the batsman in that crucial position will not be dealing with personal demons so much. At five, Tendulkar can control the game depending on whether attack or defence is called for.
The only objection to Tendulkar at five is likely to be a personal one; the batsman himself prefers four. But there ought to be no ego involved here - it is the captain's job to have a line-up that best serves the team.
In a career as long and as distinguished as Tendulkar's, he is always on the verge of some record or the other. He is at this moment just one run away from making 34,000 international runs; another eight matches and he will become the first batsman to play 200 Tests. But these, in the context of his career, are insignificant, and there is right now, no pressure of an approaching record to add to the stress (as in the case of his 100 centuries, for example).
Tendulkar needs to shake things up, try something new. He has at least two more Tests in which to rediscover his touch. He can make it easier for himself by going in at No. 5.