Merely because we believe that sporting icons should say goodbye in their pomp, is it fair to nudge Tendulkar and Lara off the stage, asks NIRMAL SHEKAR

Every single day, a far greater number of professional sportsmen fail than succeed. At the end of every passing year, there are more professional sportsmen who look back and rue the lost opportunities than there are those who celebrate the chances seized.

Yet, when we think of sport at the highest levels, we almost always think of success and glory. And when we think of sport in the context of iconic high-achievers such as a Sachin Tendulkar or a Brian Lara, we go one step further into fantasy-land for, then, we think of infallibility, invincibility, superhuman abilities.

Sport turns us all the performers, the audience, everyone involved into dreamers; this is why we passionately love an activity that may be nothing more than an evolutionary luxury, a sort of excess baggage that we modern humans can afford to carry.

And the best in the business the Tendulkars and the Laras often offer us, thanks to their genius, the grand illusion that our dreams and reality have shaken hands for a marvellous merger.

Could the most fanatical fan of Lara have dreamed of the sort of innings that the enigmatic left-hander played in the opening match of the World Cup against South Africa four years ago? Would the craziest of Tendulkar's fans have foreseen the coruscating brilliance of the Mumbai maestro's knock against Pakistan in the same tournament?

Reality feeds dreams in a feedback loop that puts fantasies on a spiralling inflationary path to the stratosphere of sporting dreams.

Purveyor of nightmares

But, then, if sport appears to be a glitzy vehicle for hopes and dreams, it is, for that very reason, also a merciless purveyor of nightmares. If the over-the-moon feeling that might have swept Lara, Tendulkar and their fans four years ago in South Africa is real, then so is the sinking won't-the-earth-cave-in feeling that has enveloped them now.

Then again, for these two men two of the greatest batsmen of all time and the finest of their generation World Cup 2007 might represent much more than a cyclical low of the ever-turning wheel of sporting fortunes. Given their ages and the long, hard summers they have traversed in a demanding sport, this might be a time for hard decisions.

While Lara has announced that he has had enough of limited overs cricket, Tendulkar may not hurt himself or his legacy should he choose to follow suit.

If it is never easy to make the decision to say goodbye in professional sport, then it becomes so much tougher when the sportsmen in question are a pair of celebrated legends.

Thirty six years ago, at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, a supremely fit man in his 30s waved his famous No. 10 jersey to the crowds chanting his name and pleading with him to change his mind. "Pele, Pele, fica, fica (stay)," screamed fans as the most gifted footballer to walk the face of the earth ran a lap of honour, tears streaming down his cheeks. An era had ended. The greatest was gone; gone with the world still at his feet.

But, for every Pele there are hundreds of athletes, some of them all-time-greats in their sport, who linger on past their use-by date, and then quietly slip into oblivion.

All in the timing

Of course, a lot of sportsmen will want to go out with the proverbial bang. But, the bang has little to do with what the player does in his/her last appearance. Greg Chappell went out with a commanding 182 against Pakistan in his last Test appearance in 1984. Yet, more people will remember the peerless Don Bradman's leave-taking appearance at The Oval in 1948, when the master was bowled second ball for a duck.

In the event, the bang has more to do with timing. Bradman, Sunil Gavaskar, Steve Waugh, Pete Sampras and Michael Schumacher are some of the legends who got the timing right.

But it is indeed a tricky decision. For even the most famous athlete of the 20th century Muhammad Ali couldn't get it right. His traumatic last days in the ring proved that even the greatest of them all cannot always rise above encroaching age and consistently score over Father Time.

If the ageing process accelerates in sport, then some athletes are intelligent enough to become conscious of the subtle diminishment of skills. Still making up one's mind is never easy.

So, where does all this leave Tendulkar and Lara? On quicksand, to be sure. But, before trying to decide for them, remember this: playing cricket is what they have done all their lives. A final parting will be not be easy both for them and for millions of their fans.

And merely because we harbour this romantic notion that all our great sporting icons should say goodbye in style while still in their pomp, is it fair to nudge a Tendulkar or a Lara off the big stage?

The decision is best left to them and let me confess, I wouldn't want to be in their shoes at this point in their careers.

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