There’s an infamous plot line in an episode of the American comedy series, Seinfeld. The episode is called the “Burning” and it’s the one where Jerry Seinfeld advises a friend, George, to use the old Vegas showmanship trick of leaving the room after a comedic high note. Get a good laugh? Great, say goodnight and leave the stage. Later George uses the advice and leaves a work meeting after a good joke and goes to a movie theater to watch “Titanic.”
It’s also the episode, if you’re familiar, with the “tractor story” and the where Kramer and Newman fake illnesses for Med students and Elaine accuses David Puddy of being a Christian. That’s a lot to pack into a 22 minute show.
Leaving on a high note is exactly what Alistair Cook did today in London. He strode out to thunderous applause and honestly could have just had a nice little day in the sun, but instead he batted for hours and hours, saw 286 balls, and just like he’s done so many other times, scored a quiet and attractive and game-winning ton. it was easily the perfect way to go out.
I can’t think of anything else to compare it to, in cricket or in sports overall. My first thought was Cal Ripken, Jr., who hit a home run in his last All Star Game. But that pitch was grooved and it wasn’t his last game, just his last All Star Game.
Thinking about Cal Ripken, Jr. — who famously played in over 2,600 games — got me to thinking about baseball’s original Iron Man, Lou Gehrig, who sat himself down after 2,130 games. Two days later he retired. Two years lated he passed away at only age 37.
That’s usually how it ends for sports figures. Either their careers end tragically short due to injury or death, or they hang on a bit too long. The ego that led them to their ascent of their chosen profession also contributing to their sad demise. Zidane’s headbutt. Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes in 1980. Willie Mays’ last two seasons with the Mets.
In cricket there was Ricky Ponting who looked like a dying and raging Lear in his final Tests, but he was one of the few. For some reason, cricketers know more than other athletes when to call it quits. Sachin could have held on a while longer, so could have Dravid, surely. I think Shane Warne could still bowl at the top level. But they always seem to hang it up on top.
Part of this probably has to do with the fact that the sport isn’t quite as physically punishing as say, American football or boxing (Ali had taken 200,000 hits by the time he retired), which affords cricketers the ability to remain competitive right up until the end. But I think it’s more than that. I think, more than any other sport, cricketers have a flair for the dramatic, for the poetic moments. Cook surely could have played another year or two at the international level, but doing so would have risked injury, or a drop in form leading to getting dropped, and so his career would not have ended in London on a sunny September afternoon with the scent of autumn on the wind, but it could have ended on day 3 of a rain shortened match in Bridgetown. Cook never would have let that happen.
Cricketers are like Russians, in that sense. They both love to do things the poetic way. When Russians need to duel, they pick a spot that could be the setting of a second act of an opera: a sun dappled forest hill, a sumac grove near the bend of a river, under a cherry tree as it rains it’s blossoms on them. And Cook is the same way. He never would have retired someplace utilitarian. Despite his quiet manner, he wanted London and autumn, against the side that he made his debut against.
I am being hyperbolic, of course. Cook decided it was his time, and called it quits. Like Sachin and Dravid and thousands of other cricketers have done. But still, I think it’s true that cricketers, more than other sportsmen, simply love the poetry of the game, and their actions within its confines. You see it in celebrations and in how they dress (do you really need that sweater, Stuart?). They don’t just like playing cricket, they like being cricketers, and they like acting like cricketers. The jackets at the coin toss, the gallantry of upholding the spirit of the game, and the retirement at the end of summer on the far edge of the world’s greatest city.