Sachin has done enough to deserve the right to choose his own time of departure

For sportsmen, especially great sportsmen, sunset is the toughest thing to sight in time. For, these are men who have basked in the sunshine for far too long; and they often tend to believe, mostly mistakenly, that they are perennially just past noon-day.

In sport, quite often, not being a genius may be a virtue of sorts. For, the very tag, ‘genius,' might lead you to delude yourself into the belief that nothing is impossible, even after 22 or 23 years of wear and tear in international sport as the country's most celebrated sports icon.

A lot has been said — especially by former sportspersons who themselves stayed on well beyond their use-by date — about Sachin Tendulkar's ODI career. Whatever the intentions, these gems of seemingly timely advice are clearly uncalled for.

No matter his form in the ODI tri-series down under, Sachin Tendulkar will be the first to know when his time is up. He has played far too long, and for the most part with unmatched brilliance, to wait for some kindly soul to tell him that he is past his shelf-life.

It would be a dream-come-true for his tens of millions of fans, and for the great man himself, if he were to score his 100th ton and then say goodbye to one-day cricket. This may or may not happen during the Australian summer.

Few sportspersons get to leave on a memorable high. Pete Sampras never played a competitive tennis match after beating his arch-rival and friend Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final. He waited a full year to announce his official retirement but when it did come, it was an unforgettable occasion at the Flushing Meadows in New York.

The style of athletic leave taking has changed significantly since the day a man called Pele lapped the field at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janerio, waving his No.10 jersey in triumph, tears streaming down his face, the noise of fireworks cutting through chants of “Pele, Pele,” and “fica, fica” (stay, stay) after the first half of a Brazil-Yugoslavia international.

An era had ended. To the fans of the world's most popular sport, it was the equivalent of the Romantic period in music and the Renaissance in art. And the greatest maestro of them all left as the whole world hoped he would stay on, as hundreds of thousands signed letters urging him to continue.

Fading imperceptibly

But then, for every Pele, there are 100 other athletes, some of them among the greatest, who slip into quiet oblivion, fading imperceptibly.

Do you remember when John McEnroe retired? Do you recall when Gundappa Viswanath called it a day?

Then again, you could wake up schoolkids at midnight and they would be able to tell you instantly that Sunil Gavaskar made a magnificent 96 on a minefield of a wicket against Pakistan at Bangalore in his last Test match appearance.

Of course, a lot of sportsmen, great and average, will want to go out with the proverbial bang. But more often than not, the bang has very little to do with what a player does or does not do in his last appearance. More Australians — or, for that matter, cricket lovers anywhere in the world — will remember Don Bradman's last innings ‘duck' than any other outstanding leave taking innings by any of their countrymen.

The most influential and popular sportsman of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali, came back a third time and won an unprecedented third world title by avenging his defeat to Leon Spinks. If that was a statement of will and pride, a redemption song, then Ali's traumatic last days — the humiliation at the hands of his former sparring partner Larry Holmes — were proof that even the greatest of them all cannot always rise above encroaching age.

Time almost always has the last say, in sport as in life. If the ageing process accelerates in sport, then some sportsmen are intelligent enough to become conscious of their eroding skills, of the slight diminishment of reflexes, footwork and eyesight.

But even the most committed and extraordinary sportsmen — Sachin, for instance — who are able to keep the emotional fires raging well into athletic old age will find out sooner or later that the fires are continually doused by the callous hose of Father Time.

But merely because we want to remember our great sporting heroes as immortal icons who said goodbye in style, it is ridiculous to expect them to quit at or near the peak of their powers.

Sachin has served the country with exceptional pride and genius for far too long and he deserves the right to choose his own time of departure.