The day the Mumbai crowd booed Sachin Tendulkar after his failure in the third Test against England, another Indian legend was formally, finally, leaving his field. This was Dr Verghese Kurien, who announced that day that he was resigning as Chairman of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation. This coincidence got me thinking—when, and in what manner, must an acknowledged master of his profession call it quits?

It must be said at once that Indians are not very good at retirement. Perhaps the example of that old graybeard Bhishma Pitamah is too compelling. He went into battle at a very advanced age, thus to provide a mythical justification for warriors and rulers down the ages to keep going, and going. Jyoti Basu might have been the last Indian politician to retire from office, and he was pushing ninety at the time. L. K. Advani is the wrong side of eighty, but seems still to hope to become Prime Minister of India the next time around. M. Karunanidhi is even older, but one suspects that he harbours the same ambition, with a slightly lesser one in reserve. That is, if he cannot become Prime Minister, perhaps he can yet enjoy one more term as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

As one who supports neither party—indeed, supports no party at all—I can dispassionately observe that the BJP and the DMK have not been helped by Advani’s and Karunanidhi’s zest for life and—dare we add—power. Much the same could be said about Verghese Kurien and the co-operative movement. Without question, this Malayali who became a Gujarati built and nurtured both the Anand Milkowners Union Limited (AMUL) and the National Dairy Development Board. And, again without question, he stayed on far too long. For at least a decade now he has been an embarrassment to those he trained but would not allow to exercise their independent authority. It was a former protégé, Amrita Patel, who had finally to ask him to leave the NDDB, and it is other protegés who have now compelled him to leave the GCMMF.

Dr Kurien is a very distinguished Indian, whose distinction has been somewhat sullied by his refusal to retire and let the younger generation take over. Will the same happen to Sachin Tendulkar? Since administrators go on much longer than cricketers, we might say that Sachin is now where Dr Kurien was, say, ten or fifteen years ago. It was when he was about seventy (he is now 84) that the great milkman showed his first signs of fallibility. That was when he started getting into scrapes with his juniors, these based on his refusal to accept that they might have good reason for seeing the world of rural co-operatives somewhat differently from him. Over the years, the gap between him and those he trained has only widened. Sadly, it is he who, each time, has had to retire hurt. This eventuality could have been avoided if he had the grace or good sense to leave before he was pushed.

It is in this last twelvemonth that Tendulkar has shown his first signs of fallibility. On the flat pitches that are prepared for one-day matches he remains a very good player. In that form of the game he is still indispensable to the Indian team, in part because he can also chip in handily as a fifth bowler. But in Test cricket, where the pitches afford greater help to bowlers and where the pressures can be far more intense, he has seemed increasingly vulnerable. One still sees flashes of the old Tendulkar, as in his 35th Test hundred, when he played the great Muttiah Muralitharan with complete assurance. He went from 88 to 100 with three marvellous boundaries in a single Murali over, two drives past cover and a flick through the on side. But at other times he has looked very ordinary indeed. The behaviour of the Mumbai crowd in booing him was unconscionable. It must still be said that the shot that got him out that day was played by a man not just out of form, but also not entirely in control of his nerves. He looked jumpy from the time he got to the crease, poked around for fifteen minutes before he got off the mark, and then hung out his bat to a short wide one to be caught behind the wicket.

Tendulkar now goes off to have his shoulder attended to. He will be out of the game for two months at least. It is too early for him to contemplate retirement. He will, indeed should, be an integral part of our 2007 World Cup campaign. But the question is already being asked—how long shall he go on? If, after he returns to cricket, he does not score regularly and well in Test cricket, that question will be amended to—how long must he go on?

The one Indian cricketer who timed his retirement perfectly was the first of the great Bombay batsmen, Vijay Merchant. He quit the game after scoring a hundred in Delhi in what was, interestingly enough, the first Test of a five match series. Unlike so many others, he went out at the top of his game. And unlike them he sought an alternate career outside cricket and an alternate passion outside it as well. Merchant spent the day working, and by all accounts working hard, in his family ’s textile business. After office hours and on weekends he worked for the rights of the disabled and handicapped. Some Indians thus knew him as an old cricketer, some others as an established entrepreneur, and yet others as a selfless social worker.

Outside of sport, the Indian I know who gave up power gracefully is the scientist Obaid Siddiqui. A Fellow of the Royal Society, Siddiqui built a centre of biological research in Bangalore, getting the land, raising the funds, building the buildings, recruiting young scientists and technicians, and preparing a plan for their research. In other words, he was to the National Centre for Biological Sciences exactly what Dr Kurien was to the NDDB or Mahatma Gandhi to the Indian nation—its founder, or shall we say its father. However, while still in his early sixties, Siddiqui handed over as Director to an able younger colleague. Perhaps more crucially, he has not since offered him a single piece of gratuitous advice. And so the NCBS is exactly what its founder hoped it to be—a truly world-class institute of scientific research, that will continue to be world-class long after he himself has gone.

In the context of modern Indian history, men like Vijay Merchant and Obaid Siddiqui are altogether exceptional. Politcians go on too long, cricketers go on too long, social workers go on too long, scientists go on too long. The refusal to retire is an Indian disease. For sportsmen it is caused by a failure to recognize the signs of age, for politicians by an unwillingness to give up on the perquisites of power. Sometimes (as in the case of the peerless Ravi Shankar) the desire to stay in the limelight is occasioned by the wish to see one’s progeny rise to prominence while one is still around to help.

As I said, the time has not yet come for Sachin Tendulkar to leave the field. When it does, one must hope—for his sake and ours—that the manner of his leaving is as becoming as the manner of his entering it, all those very many years ago.