Column | Why Murali Vijay, Joginder Sharma delayed retirement

Murali Vijay
Murali Vijay last played for India in 2018. File photo: AFP

Retirements are a sore point with most sportspersons. Unlike careers that involve working in offices, one can continue to take part in sports and related activities so long as body does not protest and skillsets remain unblemished. But this also poses the problem regarding determining the exact time of hanging up one’s boots. The old adage of doing so when “people ask why and not when they ask why not” may sound attractive but to a present day sportsman who has dedicated his entire formative years seeking excellence in a particular field, losing a couple of years due to mistiming his retirement can prove to be quite costly - both in terms of continuing with an activity he loves besides the obvious financial losses. Hence a tendency towards stretching one’s career is seen among sportspersons today even at the risk of slipping down a notch or two in terms of performances on the field.

Two cricketers who donned the national colours for India announced their retirement from the game during the last fortnight. Murali Vijay and Joginder Sharma had turned out for India in the first two decades of this century. Neither of them had played first class- matches in the domestic cricket circuit during the last five years. Yet both of them held back on announcing their formal retirement from the game till January, 2023.

Among the two, Vijay was more successful at the highest level. An opening batsman from Tamil Nadu, Vijay rose into prominence during the 2006-07 season when he finished as the third highest run-scorer in Ranji Trophy. Consistent performances with the bat in the next season earned him a place in the South Zone side for Duleep Trophy and India Red team for Challenger Trophy. It was difficult to break into the national squad at that juncture as it was having an abundance of riches, with the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V V S Laxman taking up the slots in the batting line up. However, Vijay bade his time, piling up runs in the domestic circuit.

Vijay’s efforts did not go in vain as he was soon rewarded with a call-up to the national squad for the fourth Test of the series between India and Australia at Nagpur in 2008. This was facilitated by the one-match suspension that Gambhir was handed out for elbowing Shane Watson during the third Test. Vijay grabbed this opportunity with both hands and had a decent debut scoring 33 and 41 in the two outings with the bat besides effecting two run outs and taking a sharp catch. However, he had to yield his place to Gambhir when the latter returned to the side after serving his period of punishment. Vijay’s next chance came when Gambhir was allowed to skip the third Test against Sri Lanka in 2009 and he again came good with a knock of 87.

Thus, it can be seen that during his initial years in international cricket, Vijay spent more matches warming the benches and stepping in only when a regular top order batsman was indisposed. It would have been hugely disappointing for him to sit out after playing well and scoring runs in the limited opportunities that he got but he did not allow this to affect him. It was only after Sehwag and Gambhir left the scene in 2013 that he could cement his place in the playing eleven. He celebrated this with back-to-back centuries against the touring Australians and finished as the top run-getter in that series. He continued his good form during the next two years, with centuries against England at Trent Bridge, Australia at Brisbane and Bangladesh at Dhaka. In fact his contributions with the bat in Australia in 2014-15, where he scored at least a fifty in all four Tests, was one of the factors that helped the team to emerge with their pride in tact, despite losing the series 2-0.

Murali Vijay
Murali Vijay played 61 Tests. File photo: IANS

It might appear surprising that a batsman who scored hundreds against all top attacks in challenging situations in different parts of the world would be out of the squad within the next two years. It remains a fact that despite the runs he scored and the assurance with which he batted, Vijay was never considered as an integral part of the national side, both by the selectors and the critics. This tendency to downplay his achievements was witnessed yet again during the recently concluded Test between India and Australia at Nagpur when Sanjay Manjrekar expressed his astonishment that Vijay had the maximum conversion rate (60%) among Indian batsmen at home, when it came to scoring centuries after crossing 50 runs. By a strange and unfair quirk of fate, the contributions of Vijay at the top of the order never won the appreciation it deserved. Hence it was not surprising when he was left out of the squad after a brief poor run with the bat. Though he continued to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL) till 2020, his performance levels dropped after 2016, when he led Kings XI Punjab. A wrist injury forced him to miss the 2017 edition of IPL and he played in only four games during the next three seasons, after which he was not picked by any franchisee.

In contrast, the career of Sharma was highlighted by one match which gave him a nearly immortal status in the history of Indian cricket. He hailed from the state of Haryana and made his debut as an all-rounder in the state side during the 2002-03 season. He soon established as a reliable all-rounder and forced his way to the national squad with a string of outstanding performances on the domestic circuit. He made his debut in One-Day Internationals against Bangladesh at Chattogram in December, 2004, but did not do anything much and went back to the grind of first-class cricket. His consistent showing there earned him a recall and he was included in the national squad for the inaugural International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007.

Joginder Sharma
Joginder Sharma, right, is congratulated by Rohit Sharma and S Sreesanth on dismissing Australia's Brett Lee in the semifinal of the 2007 T20 World Cup. File photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

Sharma played his first T20I game for India when he took the field in the group match against England during this World Cup. He did not fare too well giving away 57 runs in his allotted four overs but was persisted with by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the next game against South Africa where he fared better. A wicket-taking spell in the semifinal against Australia ensured that he was in the playing eleven for the final against Pakistan.

The final over that Sharma bowled in the final when pitted against the marauding Misbah-ul-Haq has acquired the status of a legend. After beginning with a wide ball, he delivered a dot ball which came very close to inviting the same penalty again. He was understandably tense and let slip a full toss which Misbah despatched over the fence for a six, bringing down the target to six runs off four balls. This shot probably dulled Misbah into a state of complacency and he committed hara-kiri by attempting to play the scoop shot to an innocuous delivery pitched outside the off stump. The resultant skier was held comfortably by S Sreesanth a short fine leg to give India a victory by a margin of five runs. This win changed the face of Indian cricket as it led to the advent of IPL from the next year and the nation soon transformed itself as the financial powerhouse of the game, who no-one wanted to displease.

Incidentally, Sharma did not play an international match after the World Cup final in September, 2007. He continued to play first-class cricket for Haryana till the 2015-16 season. He also turned out for Chennai Super Kings in IPL for four seasons without making much of an impact. The Haryana government appointed him as Inspector of Police in 2007 and he was subsequently promoted to the post of Deputy Superintendent of Police in 2020.

Thus, it can be seen that the active cricketing days of both Vijay and Sharma had ended by 2018 but neither announced their retirement from the game till recently. It could be the case that they entertained hopes of being given opportunities to play domestic cricket or in the IPL; further, they had kept themselves fit by competing in leagues modelled on IPL played within Tamil Nadu and Haryana. Both of them have announced their intention of staying in touch with the game and exploring avenues relating to business activities therein. This also shows that opportunities are opening up for former players in the commercial side of the game as well, in addition to places in the commentary box and selection panels of the BCCI.

Let us wish Vijay and Sharma good luck and success in their future activities. Both of them have done commendable service to the cause of Indian cricket.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.