A tricky issue of when to call it quits

When sport is the centre of your universe and the only life you have known, it can be a wrench to walk away. And very few sportsmen have picked the perfect moment to retire. The temptation, as Greg Chappell, the former Australian batting great, once said, is to play one game too many rather than one too few.

Imran Khan, centre, the captain of Pakistan, finally claimed the World Cup in Melbourne in 1992.
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It is probably no exaggeration to say that fans are more obsessed with the perfect ending than athletes.

When sport is the centre of your universe and the only life you have known, it can be a wrench to walk away.

Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, said it best about the day he offered his resignation after 15 years in charge.

"It was like walking to the electric chair," he said.

Very few sportsmen have picked the perfect moment.

The temptation, as Greg Chappell, the former Australian batting great, once said, is to play one game too many rather than one too few.

Chappell scored a wonderful hundred in his final Test, but not everyone has been as lucky.

Of the modern-day greats, no one chose his last lines quite like Pakistan's Imran Khan.

When the subcontinent first hosted the World Cup in 1987, his bravura performance in the semi-final (three for 36 and 58) was not enough to deny Craig McDermott and Australia.

A devastated Imran listened to The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want and went into retirement.

Only presidential intervention brought him back and on his return, he spearheaded a campaign against the mighty West Indies, nearly beating them in the Caribbean in 1988/89.

But the eyes were firmly set on the big prize, the one that had been denied him in Lahore.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 1992, he claimed it, scoring 72 and taking the final wicket against England as Pakistan overcame a disastrous start to their World Cup with cornered-tiger tenacity.

Sunil Gavaskar, his one-time rival, was not so fortunate. He played his final Test against Imran and Pakistan in 1987, but one of his finest innings - a peerless 96 on a turning wicket in Bangalore - could not stave off a 16-run defeat that gave the visitors a first series win on Indian soil.

Six months later, and a day after Imran's heart-break in Lahore, England's Phil DeFreitas bowled Gavaskar for four in his final one-day innings.

India would lose by 35 runs, and that was that. He had made a 85-ball century in the previous game against New Zealand, but there was no fairy tale ending in front of his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium.

Mumbai's premier venue, just off Marine Drive, is also Sachin Tendulkar's stomping ground, and the final on Saturday will almost certainly be his last in India's limited-overs colours.

For several years now, Tendulkar has focused most of his attention on the Test arena, severely rationing his one-day appearances.

After a dismal 2007 World Cup, this was the limited-overs ending that he has craved.

The desire to leave nothing to chance has been palpable right through this competition.

Against England and South Africa, the toughest opponents in India's group, he made sublime hundreds, and the subsequent victories against Australia and Pakistan have both been underpinned by his half-centuries.

Muttiah Muralitharan's is an incredible a story. At times during this World Cup, he has resembled a patched-up doll, bandages here and strapping there.

There is not the bite off the pitch that there once was, but he is still good enough to bamboozle some of the world's best, and the childlike delight when it happens is something to savour.

Tomorrow marks Murali's last game in Sri Lanka colours, while Tendulkar at least has some Test cricket to look forward to.

Between them, they have 76 years and a staggering 801 one-day international caps. One of them, Murali, already has a World Cup winners' medal and is struggling with a hamstring injury. The other craves his Cinderella moment.

There are few things as heartwarming in sport as a weather-beaten veteran leaving on a high.

Dino Zoff of Juventus and Italy fame once went 1,142 minutes in international football without conceding a goal.

But Italy got nowhere in the 1974 World Cup and his 1978 tournament was ruined by Arie Haan's thunderbolt from 40 yards in a game against Holland that was a semi-final in all but name.

Zoff was 40 when an unfancied Italian side went to Spain in 1982, but he conceded only six goals in seven matches as the Azzurri overcame a poor start to win the competition. John Elway, the Denver Broncos' quarterback for a remarkable 16 seasons, had lost three Super Bowls in his prime, leading some to question his big-game calibre.

At the age of 37, a beat-up Elway led the team back to the summit clash.

He had a wretched game, throwing an interception and completing just 11 of 22 passes. But it didn't matter. The Broncos won.

A year later, his body as patched-up as Murali's is these days, he returned for one more tilt at glory. This time, he was the Most Valuable Player as the Broncos won again.

Good things do come to those that wait.