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Weighing the time to declare


AS A young man, new to the big time and full of wide-eyed wonder, he watched one day as a teammate, a grizzled veteran, announced his retirement. The older player read from notes, pausing frequently, sometimes finding himself lost for words altogether. At the back of the room, officials watched, faces set to neutral.

Dimly, it occurred to the younger player that this announcement was not his teammate's idea, any more than was his retirement. Vaguely, he resolved that they would never get him that way. He would know before they did when his time came, and he would tell them.

It was all so far in an almost unimaginable future then. He was living the life. At an improbably young age, he had been singled out as a rare talent and hustled off to a series of training camps and academies. While his schoolmates swotted over their books and fretted over what they might do with their learning, he was doing what he loved and getting paid and acclaimed for it. Periodically, officials would impress on him the need to develop other talents, just in case. He nodded solemnly, but did not take them seriously; this was his calling.

In time, he had a long and successful career, replete with prizes, decorations and international recognition. He was never glib about this. He worked hard at his skills. He took care to stay fit, and wondered at teammates who were slipshod in this regard. Why, he thought, would you not control that controllable, if it helped to prolong your time in this lark?

He made sacrifices, endured scrutiny, barely tolerated media, but in his mind, set this against the many privileges. The foremost was that he was doing this for a living.


He fell in love with the lifestyle. He was admired widely, paid lavishly and travelled the world in comfort. The routines of the road became his routine. He rarely had to make his own arrangements. He giggled to hear a media manager say of a former great that if he had been set down in, say, Manchester, with $10,000 in his pocket but alone, he would have no idea about how to go about making his own way home. It rang so true.

He matured, married, settled down, had children. He cherished family life, mazy as it was. In the long absences necessarily entailed by what he did, his heart ached. But if he was honest with himself, he would admit that when he was at home, he missed the uncomplicated life on the road, and ''the boys'', for they were also a kind of family.

Teens became twenties, became thirties. He knew he was closer to the end than the beginning. But he was still playing well, if not quite as explosively as in his youth. He still looked forward to getting out of bed to train and play, even if it took him a little longer now.

In any case, the money, always good, was getting better every year. Sponsorships and endorsements still were plentiful. Privateers had arrived. He didn't really care much for their ''product'', a word that sounded odd to him anyway, but they were offering piles of money. Besides, what else would he do with himself?

When he was young, lulls in form were reported as the inconsistency of youth. Now, a lull was said to be sign that the end was nigh. It irritated him. The captain and coach always said that he was the best man for the job. He knew, of course, that if he was replaced, they would say his successor was the best man for the job. But he was reassured anyway. Besides, what else would he do? There was always television, people said, but he was sure that he would never become one of those ex-players who earns a crust bagging current players.

He puzzled at the way teammates and opponents grew progressively younger, and better, making his life increasingly harder. Periodically, he picked up a niggle. This, he thought, was unlucky; it had not been like this in his youth. He put bad days out of his mind, steered clear of officials and told everyone he did not read the papers. Except the one he wrote for, he added hastily.

He would know when his time was up, past players said, but all he knew was that he loved it still, and on the best days it still loved him back. His wife and family supported him, or said they did. The dressing room was a kind of cocoon; no one there doubted him. But when he looked around, he could not help but wonder if that merely was in deference to his age, and in order not to hurt his feelings.

A year too soon, a year too long, what else to do; it wasn't as easy as people imagined. He was sitting in the change rooms meditating on this one day when suddenly he saw the chief selector walking towards him with a solemn look on his face and a piece of notepaper in his hand …