When a journalist recently asked Shahid Afridi about his fitness, he was met with a typical Afridi cross bat response: “Alhamdulillah, tum jaise dus bande main abhi bhi sambhaal sakta hoon (by the grace of God, I can still take on 10 guys like you).”
In the same interview, he expressed his desire to represent Pakistan.
By some media accounts, Afridi was in talks with chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq and was seeking a farewell game against the West Indies in the United Arab Emirates later this month.
His wish has been turned down for now.
In October last year, Virender Sehwag tweeted, “I hereby retire from all forms of international cricket and from the Indian Premier League. A statement will follow.”
For some, it was a surprise announcement, presuming his retirement at the age of 37, with his last international game in 2013.
Now in the wake of the Twenty 20 Masters Champions League, whose rules preclude any current international cricketer, Sehwag was forced to announce the obvious.
With a shed of emotion ─ and perhaps fanning an open wound ─ he asked, “Should not a player who has played 12 to 13 years for his country deserve a farewell match?”
A pertinent question. Ask West Indies’ Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
Leaked e-mail threads between Chanderpaul, coach Phill Simmons and chief selector Clive Lloyd portray a bitter tale.
After being informed of his omission due to lack of form, Chanderpaul pleaded, “My request to finish up with the Australian series is not asking too much. It gives me a chance to acknowledge my supporters at home and the possibility of the WICB properly honouring me for my contribution to West Indies cricket. I should not be pushed into retirement.”
His request for a befitting farewell was made in vain.
Take that and put it against a series-long homage given to Steve Waugh in the Australian summer of 2003-04. The Border Gavaskar series was overshadowed by the presence and departure of one man.
Ten years later, Sehwag’s opening partner Sachin Tendulkar would have a tailor-made farewell for him in his home city of Mumbai against a bottom-ranked depleted West Indian team.
Abdul Hafeez Kardar, widely regarded as the father of Pakistan cricket, was revered as a leader as equally as he was feared as an authoritarian.
Exhausted at the age of 33, he hung up his boots after a tour of West Indies in 1958, and Fazal Mahmood succeeded him as captain.
The next season, before a tour of India, Kardar came out of retirement.
With an already-frictional relationship between the two, Fazal and Kardar faced off as rival captains in a trial game that was to decide the captain that would lead the team in India.
Coincidentally, Fazal’s father-in-law Mohammad Saeed was on the selection panel. Fazal got the nod ahead of Kardar, who was nursing an injury.
Saeed’s own career was earlier put to an abrupt end when Kardar, handpicked by Justice R.A. Cornelius, replaced him as captain of Pakistan.
Saeed attempted a comeback, but Kardar reportedly contacted President Iskander Mirza to end Saeed’s pursuit.
A precedent was set; Pakistan’s earliest cricketing heroes were trying to hold onto something that had already passed them by.
Sixty years down, little changed.
Fazal also felt betrayed when Imtiaz Ahmed and Hanif Mohammad dragged him down at the end of his career.
Hanif was forced to retire mid-series after the first Test of a series against New Zealand.
Majid Khan played his last Test when he was ousted under the captaincy of his younger cousin, Imran Khan.
Mushtaq Mohammad accused his friend, Asif Iqbal, to have conspired his ouster.
An ageing Javed Miandad went out of international cricket fighting for his place in the side while trying to win a quarter-final game against India in Bangalore.
The careers of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saeed Anwar were put to a forced end by ex-teammate and chief selector Aamir Sohail.
If you look at stars like Abdul Razzaq and Mohammad Yousuf, it is hard to tell if they ever actually retired.
Very often they appear unsure themselves, hanging on by the thread of hope and uncertainty in Pakistani cricket where anything can happen.
It often does. The list is long and painful.
Guards of honour ─ a recent phenomena in cricket ─ are hard to find, and an Imran Khan farewell even harder to emulate.
Younis Khan, too, retired from the game’s shortest format after picking up the World T20 trophy for Pakistan. But his ODI retirement was controversial.
After extreme insistence on getting a place in the ODI team, he announced his retirement on the morning of his comeback game.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Shaharyar Khan said, “I am disappointed at not only his decision to retire from ODIs but also the timing of his decision.”
“If [Younis Khan] wanted to make a comeback to the one-day team and prove to people that he can still play that format, he should have just said it and asked for it and I guess the selectors would have given him the game time and opportunity,” said upset coach Waqar Younis.
Easier said than done; Younis Khan later explained that his decision was not sudden or abrupt, but he had “dreamt” about this many times, keeping it close to his heart.
This is how he wanted it. It was important to him and he was not going to trust anyone with it, and least the PCB.
It is common for players in Pakistan to receive the news of the end of their career from the morning newspapers, or from their family and friends with a close eye on media reports.
The PCB has a history of poor communication with its players.
Similarly, their cricketers seem to go into retirement very fast and come out of it even faster, giving commitments without coming through.
The press and the public is often rallied and used as pressure tactics for selection. In Afridi’s case, the thrust comes from all sides.
Afridi recently stated, “I have always noted that in Pakistan there is no tradition of players retiring gracefully, even the big names. Every player wants to go out on a high and I am no different.”
On first hearing reports of a possible Afridi comeback, the PCB Chairman Shaharyar Khan was visibly upset, saying, “When he was appointed captain, Afridi told us he would hang up his boots after the World Twenty20. But if he has changed his mind now, he should come to me and discuss it instead of giving public statements.”
If Afridi and the PCB had an understanding that the skipper would retire at the 2016 World Twenty20, maybe there should have been an official send off, a ceremony, a dinner hosted to recognise the contributions of Afridi and a small plaque for Pakistan captain’s trophy cabinet at home, and everyone would have gone home happy without the drama and media circus that is now on show.
Very seldom do sportsmen time their exit right. Inherently, they are fighters from within ─ they have that innate “never say die” attitude.
Their entire lives, they have fought against form, injuries, bad luck and so much more ─ and they have beaten the odds.
However, the same attributes that make them excel at their skill and craft appears to turn them delusional towards the demands of international sport and the realities of prevailing times.
The support system in parents, wives, children, and other family members is there to strengthen their confidence, true or otherwise, in good times or bad.
It is a place ripe with positive energy and encouragement.
The same off-field powers that have nurtured a career often make it go that extra mile and mistime a retirement.
It is exaggerated in a country and culture like ours, but it’s a natural sporting phenomena experienced by sportsmen across the globe.
The onus then lies with the administrators of the game; it boils down to man management. And historically, the PCB has fallen short in that regard.
When deciding on giving a player a farewell series or even a game, the elephant in the room is always merit.
Are the selectors hired to select the best team, or can they sway a little to accommodate and massage the ego of a falling crescent?
A heart warming graceful farewell can boost the morale in the dressing room, where current players know that they, too, can end their careers with honour and their heads held high, although at the opportunity cost of a more deserving player sitting out or compromising on the standard of national game play.
At the age of almost 39, Saeed Ajmal is also trying his best to make a comeback into the national squad. He, too, seems to go out on his own terms.
However, his method has been different to Afridi’s.
While the latter took to the media and rallied public support [and debate], Ajmal became the highest wicket-taker in the recently concluded domestic T20 competition.
For Afridi, it is his right to get that respect, and Ajmal shall toil long and hard to earn it. It reflects in the careers they have had. The lives they have lived. The people they are.
Meanwhile, in a response to a media query, PCB Executive Committee Chief Najam Sethi tweeted: “PCB will honour Afridi and Ajmal in fitting send-offs. I will meet and discuss this with them next week.”
Respect is something that has to be given first in order to get some.
The same goes for the relationship between a cricket board and its most important human resource ─ its players.
The key in striking that balance lies in communication and mutual respect between them. Like in any other organisation, lack of trust and a clash of egos often hinders in creating such an environment.
The board should be clear about the conditions laid out in the arrangement they make when it’s the end of the road for players with illustrious careers, still craving that last hurrah.
The player then needs to fall in line and comply with rules of engagement.