Old friends

After the Matt Prior story broke this afternoon, it got me to thinking about all the cricketers I have watched retire from the international game over the last few years. Looking back at the squad lists from the 2007 World Cup – the tournament where I started following the game – and seeing the names of all the greats that are no longer with us, for lack of a better phrase, I was overwhelmed with memories of days gone by.

Ponting, Gilchrist, Hussey, McGrath, Smith, Boucher, Kallis, Pollock, Dravid, Ganguly,Tendulkar, Flintoff, Pietersen, Strauss…and the list just goes on and on. It is a veritable who’s who of the best world cricketers to ever walk out onto a pitch, and it is also a list of the players who taught me what this great game is all about.

Cricket, like all sports, reinvents itself every 10-15 years or so. Superstars retire and new blood takes their place. Tendulkar stepped down, and in stepped Kohli.

But just as Virat will never fill Sachin’s shoes in the eyes of Indian fans, no other players will take the place of the ones I “grew up” with, that taught me the game of cricket, that showed me its magic and its passion – and those players include Matt Prior.

Those were my guys, my teachers, and now that entire generation is slipping away, seeping back into the periphery from which they came. And no matter how much I love to watch this new crop of superstars swagger up and down the pitch at Lord’s, or the MCG, or the Wankhede, they will never replace the players I saw in the Caribbean seven years ago, the players I saw in the England-India series the following summer, or the players that lit up the whole of England in the 2009 Ashes.

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When Tendulkar retired, I mourned his loss like the rest of the cricket world, but I also cried at the stories of how his career summed up people’s entire childhoods – and that with him gone, so was their youth. And while I have always bemoaned the fact that cricket does not benchmark my life, I can suffer the same slings and arrows as my fellow cricket followers when the cricketers of my “youth” retire. I was not a young man when I started watching Matt Prior, but I was young to the game, and with him gone, so is just a bit more that drew me cricket all those years ago.

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Nowadays teams at the club level turnover their squads with ruthless efficiency. You can watch your team win a championship only to turn around two or three years later and realize that there isn’t a single player left from that group of athletes that thrilled you so.

This is less the case in international sport, of course, where we are able to develop relationships with athletes that last a decade or more, but it is even less the case in cricket than other international sports, because of the high importance of international competition in cricket overall. And because of this, the relationships we have with cricketers are deeper, longer and more meaningful then they are with athletes from any other sport. It’s just one more thing that makes this game so special. And it’s why when players step aside, struggle at the crease, or pass away, we mourn so fiercely. Like we all did today – English, Indian or otherwise – when that grizzled old keeper was force to tell the world that he’d had enough. An old friend, a fixture on the English XI that beat the world, fading off into the sunset.

Watching proud men and women age is difficult. Sport forces us to do it every day. And in cricket, it’s woven into the fabric of the game.

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Note: I know that Prior is only taking a break. But let’s be honest, he has played his last game for England.

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