Great careers strike the right cord in fans’ hearts
In the documentary The Road to Big Whiskey, Dave Matthews speaks of Le Roi Moore, the band’s saxophonist who tragically lost his life in an automobile accident in the following terms – “we lost a comrade, but at his best, and that’s a great thing to say.”
Retirements drench an ordinary day in saccharine. To the world, it’s a bread and butter day. The sun rises, the alarm clock goes off and nothing it seems has changed. But for a fan, it’s the end of a phase in life.
Lives aren’t just measured in years. They’re measured in moments. The journey of a player and a fan are subliminally intertwined.Which is why a retirement feels like a part of them is withering away too, almost like saying goodbye to a childhood home, the moment bringing back all the good times, points in time where their paths intersected. A fairy tale ending makes crossing to the other side less fraught with uncertainty.
But neither Michael Clarke or Kumar Sangakkara were afforded a fairy tale ending.
When Australia were decapitated in the 4th test in the Ashes, their first innings resembling a pileup of epic proportions on the highway, Clarke’s mind gave out. His body had been held together by painkillers and will, his hamstring and sore back increasingly unwilling to trudge the distance with him. Unlike Sangakkara, Clarke had to fight for a lot of things that captains take for granted – loyalty, respect and the unquestioned love from his fans. At times, it seemed like it was unrequited love; Clarke battling through injuries and pain, running on grit and scoring; the fans guzzling their beers and telling him he wasn’t enough.
Michael Clarke’s last summer in cricket began with death in the line of duty. Phil Hughes was struck on the head by a bouncer in a Sheffield match, a few days before he was to presumably make his test comeback against India. Australians likes their heroes tough. Australian captains are supposed to guzzle beers and cloak themselves in a garb of toughness that doesn’t shy away from outright machosim. Much like how Princess Diana’s death tore the facade of the Brits dourness, Hughes’ death brought down the veneer of toughness and got the cricketing fraternity together. The days that followed were a maze of tears, eulogies, despair and implacable grief, when a nation was looking for a shoulder to cry on.
Michael Clarke gave them his.
With a nickname like ‘pup’, you would think he never had to fight for love, attention and respect from his people. But what’s in a name?
Then his hamstring reared its ugly head again and threatened his chances of playing the World Cup. In the end, the mind triumphed and Clarke led Australia to their 5th world cup title. Leading Australia to an Ashes victory away from home would have ensured that his cup runneth over.
What he got instead was a wretched run of form and an even more wretched morning at Trent Bridge where Australia surrendered the Ashes. If the perfect retirement is bowing out on a high, with a victory against all odds in front of your home crowd cheering wildly, Michael Clarke was afforded none of that. A guard of honour when he walked out for the last time and a convincing victory in the last and final test of the Ashes were his retirement gifts.
If you went by the book, it wasn’t a fairy tale ending.
The Ramayana culminates in the island of Sri Lanka. In the epic, the relationship between the brothers Ram and Laxman in the most trying of circumstances is held up as the elixir of loyalty. In the arena of sporting warfare, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane can stake claim to, among numerous other things, being the Ram-Laxman of modern day Sri Lankan cricket. The World Cup was to be the duo’s last appearance in Sri Lankan colours. A quarterfinal loss meant no fairy tale ending in the limited overs format. Over the years, Sangakkara and Jayawardane have reached the finals of the 50 over world cup twice and lost. In 2014, they beat India to win the t20 world cup. In tests, they notched up among other things, a record 624 run partnership and numerous memorable wins outside home. Sangakkara is the 5th highest scorer of all time in test match history. While Jayawardane announced his retirement from all forms of the game after their World Cup quarter-final defeat, Kumar Sangakkara announced that the second test match in the India-Sri Lanka series would be his last.
The Herculean numbers he raked up in his memorable climb to the hallowed echleons of greatness are well documented. His 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture speech was as endearing as one of his exemplary straight drives. It gave us a glimpse into the mind of one cricket’s finest minds, without the aid of the tools of his trade. Sangakkara, who grew up in the midst of one of the worst civil wars and took to cricket seriously after being inspired by the team’s victory in the 1996 World Cup, spoke of not just cricket, but the responsibilities that come with being an international player. In today’s world, a simple tweet is seen as standing for something. But long before twitter became the default good samaritan, Sangakkara, Jayawardane, Muralitharan and a few other players rushed to the aid of their people when the nation was hit by a devastating tsunami in the 2004. In 2009, the team escaped a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, the closest cricket has ever come to the Munich massacre.
When the end was announced, fans and well-wishers came in droves to bid him adieu. After snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the first test, the stage was set for a farewell worthy of a legend. But as it happens so very often, there was a twist to the tale.
With Sri Lanka needing 413 to win, it needed more than a gargantuan effort to save the match, leave alone win it. At 8/1, Sangakkara walked in for the last time in Sri Lankan whites, the task ahead of him something he would have relished, even in his final innings.
His final waltz lasted a little less than 30 minutes and yielded 18 runs. Even in his all too brief stay, he regaled us all with his signature straight drive. Kumar Sangakkara had been dismissed by R Ashwin 3 times in as many innings and in his last innings, the script wouldn’t change. Stepping forward to defend, the ball turned, got the edge and glided into Murali Vijay’s hands in the slips. Like it always happens when a towering figure walks away into the sunset, one is never prepared.
His retirement speech reinforced what he stood for. Surrounded by family, friends and well wishers, he choked back emotions and tears and spoke fondly of his parents, wife and team mates. A sportsperson’s sporting days are but a speck in their lives. Just when their buddies are climbing the corporate ladder and grappling with mid-life crises, their careers are over. Years after the sun sets on their careers, it isn’t the dredged up statistics and numbers that a fan will reminiscence about. It’s about the moments of unbridled joy that their sporting heroes gifted them. Dazzling careers make for dazzling memories. Even if the end doesn’t come dressed up as a fairy tale.
When a band walks away after playing a glittering set, they go inside and pretend the show is over. Eventually, they come out for an encore.
And how many times have we found ourselves wishing our sporting icons came back for one last roll of the dice? We like to remember them as being forever young. That they should retire when they still have it in them to come out for an encore.
But sport isn’t a gig. And all we can do when they walk away from colour into sepia is to thank them for the music.