The Autum of the Patriarch

Sports Psychology Commentary from The Times of India – By Partha Bhaduri – December 22, 2012 – Sachin Tendulkar Clings On To An Image Of Himself From a Long Time Ago. Is It Time He Saw The Real Picture?

Remember Dorian Gray in that seminal Oscar Wilde novel? “If it were I who was to be always young and the picture that was to grow old…I would give my soul for it, ” says Dorian, as Wilde attempts to connect the dots between the protagonist’s inner fragility and enduring public persona. The exercise itself is fraught with vanity, for in each of us resides a Dorian Gray, a yearning for everlasting spring. It can’t be wished away and it can’t be attained. Yet there it lurks, a festering wound, a constant reminder of withering beauty and fading prowess.

Those who live their lives in the public glare are more vulnerable, of course. Sometimes we come across a senile politician, an exhausted writer, a fixated actor or an oddball singer who prompts us to look in the mirror and count the blessings of our anonymous existence. Yet nowhere is the celebration of youth as the peak of physical, mental and creative faculty more pronounced than in sport.

Peter Pans abound in sport as a necessity. It’s an arena where the end of youth signals professional death, and yet the conquest of new challenge is rewarded. It’s a ‘contradiction trap’ which sooner or later ensnares all sportspersons. The ones who have been the best, who were taught never to give up, are the most susceptible. They are those who, as a necessity, start believing in the invulnerability of their own myth.

This is what is happening to Sachin Tendulkar. It’s not over yet but the runs are not coming. Age is catching up. It’s a painful but inevitable occurrence in the life of every accomplished athlete.

“Tendulkar’s desire to play on is an overestimation of his abilities at his age. That’s natural for a sportsman who has almost transcended his sport, ” says social theorist Ashis Nandy. “It’s a dilemma which can be understood at many levels. It’s very difficult to accept that one’s abilities may have declined. He needs to confront his own self but can the world’s biggest cricketer do that? He has grown up with public adulation and cricket as the only constants. He is, after all, larger than life. He believes it. ”

It’s interesting how a nation which built up ‘Brand Tendulkar’ or ‘Icon Tendulkar’ is now scrambling to tear down the edifice. These days, a confused Tendulkar looks at the picture – at his public image – and sees ugliness. This is a man whose sole task was to bring us joy with a bat in hand. What should he do now?

This is the rare child prodigy who lived in a bubble but did not fade away when he grew up. Anybody who has seen Tendulkar at nets will know him as a cricketer whose devotion to batting borders on the religious. He has not been afraid to chase the extreme in his quest for perfection. This is the man-child who has been a part of our collective consciousness for almost a quarter century. He had a ‘legend’ status in the pocket and riches in the bank, yet just a few years ago pushed his body and mind to the limit and bounced back from injury and poor form. It would have been easy to just give up and walk away.

But Tendulkar fought, for he was brought up to fight. Now, he is fighting the fickle masses. He is fighting self-doubt. He is fighting bad form. He is fighting age. How can there not be another star turn lurking, another glory day, another challenge to cherish? Of course he will retire. But right now? When the body is creaking, the runs aren’t coming and the clamour for his head grows with every passing day? When India’s Test fortunes have hit rock bottom? Isn’t giving up now fundamentally at odds with Tendulkar’s competitive nature?

Unless, of course, he is forced to quit. And give up on what has been his life.

It’s not for nothing that Vivian Richards, another supreme exponent of batting whose powers had declined to the extent that he became a strutting self-parody before quitting, talked about ‘death’ when asked about Tendulkar’s retirement recently. “When you’re retired, you’re retired for a very, very long time. It’s like being dead to some degree. So while you’re alive and still enjoying it, that’s what it’s all about. ”

This is how serious ‘retirement’ is for those wealthy sportspersons who’ve known nothing else but their sport. Yet there are those who know when to take the call. Steffi Graf. Sunil Gavaskar. Annika Sorenstam. Even Bjorn Borg, though that didn’t turn out so well. There are those who adjust well to a life outside their own routines. Freddie Flintoff has controversially taken up boxing to keep busy. Shane Warne preens and plays poker or the odd T20 game. David Seaman catches fish.

Will Tendulkar, now 39, know exactly when he ceases to be a part of the solution and becomes a part of the problem? Or has he already crossed the line? Psychologist Dr. John F Murray, often called the ‘Roger Federer of sports psychology has worked with some of the biggest sports stars on the planet and believes Tendulkar must now expand his concept of self.

“This fits within what we term ‘athletic identity’, to the extent that an athlete’s identity is wrapped up in the athlete’s role, ” says Murray. “It is said that athletes are the only people on this planet we ask to die twice. The bigger they are, the more horribly traumatic it is to consider retirement. Tendulkar cannot fathom it stopping. He might know he has lost something physically, but he figures that mentally he can still make it up because he has done this his whole life, and done it the best. He will have a higher athletic identity, and there is more to lose since more of his self is invested in this athlete role.

“If I were working with this fine superstar, I would try to get him to expand his self-concept. His life may seem over to him, but it’s only just beginning. He has to return to earth for perhaps the first time in his life. Maintaining a positive self identity gets difficult for superstar sportsmen who are nearing the end of their careers. ”

Tendulkar is not alone in this predicament. There is boxer Manny Pacquiao, an icon in Filipino society whose influence stretches to politics, religion, even showbiz. After his recent loss to Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez, even his mother took to national television and urged him to quit. Yet at 34, Pacquiao keeps delaying the inevitable. “We will still fight, ” he said.

The opinionated former Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi, who calls himself an “unadultered Tendulkar fan”, retired at around 33. “There’s only one death and retirement is not it, ” he says vehemently. “I retired because I wasn’t enjoying it. Simple. The human body, or mind, is tenacious but even tenacity has its limits.

“You have to detach yourself from your public persona to keep delivering the gifts you are famous for, whether in sport or music or literature. My left arm, with which I bowled, was a gift. Tendulkar’s abilities are a gift, and gifts can be taken away. It’s when you start believing you are larger than your gifts that you become cagey about failure or retirement. It’s self-created hyper anxiety. ”

The Tendulkar issue has also attracted the attention of California-born Dave Bernard, an expert on retirement issues and the author of Navigating the Retirement Jungle and Are You Just Existing And Calling It A Life. He usually advises people to focus on finding their passion after retirement, but sports stars pose a different challenge.

“It’s an interesting dilemma, ” says Bernard, “Sports figures know that because of the physical demands, they will retire very early. My concern with these super athletes is what they plan to do after retirement. Their life is dominated by practice, games and basking in the glow or bouncing back. Even beyond the challenge of coping with a fall from fame, what will they do?

“What is left to buy? What is left to chase? They have two of everything. The threat of boredom, unfulfilled days and a feeling of wasting your life are likely byproducts, magnified even more for those whose life has been a glorious one in the spotlight. How can their natural competitiveness be redirected? I do not envy these famous super athletes. It’s a long and painful exit from their accustomed world. ”

The signs of Tendulkar’s decline have been there for a while now, screaming large in our faces. The eye is weaker. That immaculate judgment of length is missing. The feet seem rooted the spot. He plays against the spin as a reflex action and perishes. Sometimes he gets out to good deliveries he would have kept out earlier. Sometimes ordinary bowlers growl in his face as he hangs his head and departs. He has now gone 31 innings without a ton, the longest such break between centuries in his career.

Tendulkar had a similar slump from December 2005 to January 2007, going 17 innings without a century, but rose like the phoenix, defying age and critics to average 78. 10 in 2010 from 14 Tests and scoring the first double ton in ODIs. But is it endgame this time? Year by year, his performance dips. Against England he averaged only 18. 66, and 2010 seems an eternity away. It hasn’t helped that Team India keeps losing.

For India’s biggest football icon, Baichung Bhutia, being involved with the game after retirement has been a blessing. “Retirement can be very, very tough on us. In Indian football, I’ve seen poverty, depression, even suicide after retirement. Of course, for a well-known super-rich athlete like Tendulkar, money is not the issue. His desire to play the game is the problem. I know the feeling. He should know when to call time on his career, ” says Bhutia.

“For me, I’m blessed to be involved with my club in Sikkim. I can still go the ground and play. I can involve myself with the financial aspects. It’s a way to keep busy with new challenges. But I still feel I can play for India and score a goal. That confidence is still there. But suppose I do score a goal in my comeback match, what then? I can have an ordinary next 15 games. It’s false confidence, ” he adds. “Tendulkar, I’m sure, feels he can play on and score a century or two or three. It’s his call. But for him too, it’s always good to have concrete plans in place for the future. ”

What if there is to be no grand farewell for Tendulkar? Or what if grand farewells are overrated, and leave no lasting impact on one’s legacy? Tendulkar won’t be the first or last athlete to confront these doubts. “The bigger the sportsman, the harder it is for him to retire, ” says former India stumper and selector Kiran More, who retired at only 31. “I opened an academy. I had a business. I took to golf. Let me tell you this. You never get over it. It still hurts. The sooner one accepts that, the better. ”

Of course, Indian cricket has no real replacement for Tendulkar. He will soon be in action again. The squad lacks depth. Australia arrive in two months time for another round of Tests. Maybe after that, or even before, Tendulkar will be forced to confront his fallibility. He must glance up at the picture again. Will he see what everyone else sees?

I hope you enjoyed this article from the world of sports psychology.