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Old and Beautiful

21 April 2009.

Men written off, men supposedly past their primes, have proved that the IPL, and the world, belong not to youth or any other category.

Not the least delight of the opening rounds of the IPL, and among the most unexpected, was to be found in the performances of the old stagers. As far as cricket is concerned, becoming a greybeard is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Of course a chap can potter around looking sagacious, prodding at the pitch before the match, remaining mostly calm, chatting to umpires and reporters – an otherwise dubious bunch who belong to the same generation and might likewise not know much about hip-hop and the other topics of the day. It has its temptations that in part compensate for the pains. Youth may stiffen its sinews in the hour of battle, but age feels the stiffness almost everywhere afterwards.

Along the way, it must be conceded, seasoned campaigners learn a few tricks of the trade that allow them to sustain their returns until their bluff is finally called. Experienced players know how to cobble together bad 30s on the days, ever more frequent, when the bat seems to be heavy and thin, and the feet are reluctant to respond to orders with the alacrity seen in the better-run military corps. They know how to put together a few maiden overs on the days when the ball is not turning or swinging, merely rising slowly from the pitch and sitting up to be hit like a ball on a tee.

Anil Kumble

Anil Kumble being lifted by fellow players as he declared his retirement from International Cricket during the last day of the 3rd Cricket Test match between India & Australia at Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium in New Delhi on 2nd November 2008.
Photo © Public.Resource.Org / Flickr under creative commons license.

Certainly age has its advantages. In any case no one in his right mind wishes to revisit adolescence, while youth is notoriously wasted on young people. Not that their parents have all the answers. Too late everyone realises that only 85-year-olds know anything about life, a spell at the popping crease they refuse to take seriously.

As far as sport is concerned the purple patch is brief. The Australian version of crickets spend six years underground, emerge amid the heat of summer, flourish for a few weeks, chirp lustily in the antipodean way and then perish. More or less, it’s the same with cricketers, or it was until ICL and IPL came along.

Once the glory years have passed, a short and by no means constant interlude between the rise and the fall, cricketers suffer all sorts of embarrassments, dropping sitters in the slips, as at the critical moment thoughts turn towards domestic matters, enduring the scrutiny of newspapers not so long ago convinced of their merit, and hearing about new kids on the block bound to cause a sensation. It does not seem so long ago that the old hand was the next big thing. Now he is a veteran. It all happens in the blink of an eye.

Hereabouts a dignified retreat is the last remaining hope, followed by a stint in the commentary box, whose main attraction seems to be the freedom to strut about on the field without ever having to bat or bowl.

In Victorian times professionals could keep playing into their late 40s. Admittedly it did not happen in every country. Australia did not like to pay sportsmen, so players tended to retire at 30 and to focus on careers, bills, wives and whatnot. Other nations worked along similar lines.

Only England, where county cricket predated the international game and was set up not to supply the national team with players but to allow the upper class to take control of the game, paid domestic players a living wage. As recently as the 1970s, counties fielded men with 45 and even 50 years on the clock. Partly it was because experience was important on the wet pitches used in those years. Partly it was because the pay levels were too low to attract anyone except devotees. Unemployment was high and ageing cricketers had fewer options. Coaching staffs were thin and umpires were poorly paid.

County cricket was more akin to a craft than a sport. Brian Close ad Bill Alley, two forthright characters with powerful convictions and pugilistic faces speaking of a disdain for victories on points, turned out for Somerset into their late 40s. Actually Alley’s age was a closely guarded secret, especially from the committee.

The first few matches of this year’s IPL have reminded all and sundry that cricket is just a game played with a bat and a ball, that good cricketers will find a way, that determined and skilful players will adapt, that the leading lights in 10-day cricket are likely to prosper in 10-over cricket as well

Ray Illingworth (Yorkshiremen are a breed apart, and to arrive in Khartoum in the 1990s was to find a White Rose couple happily running a cricket club) and Ken Higgs also played in their 50th years, not so much veterans as vintages. They seemed indestructible.

In the last 15 years or so, though, older players have been as thin on the ground as leftist fox-hunters. Cricket has become a more fleet-footed, less cerebral game. Teams form huddles. Older hands could not manage that without either bursting into laughter or punching someone. Fielding, running between wickets and power are emphasised. No place can be found in the brave new world for wily professionals, let alone grumpy ones, with their averages and containment and expenses.

Only in golf and marathons, individual and easily measured activities, is age not regarded as a handicap. Elsewhere the bright young things are to the fore, with their daredevilry. As much can be told from observing tennis tournaments and leading soccer matches.

Inevitably cricket fell into line. It’s not so much that teams have become younger – Australia haven’t, and India are not exactly overburdened with striplings. Just that there are fewer players staying into their late 30s. Partly it has been desire: the hectic modern touring schedules stretch the sanity of the older brigade. Partly it has been the public’s irresistible urge to find new faces. Perhaps, too, the vintages found Test cricket too hard and 50-over capers too plentiful to be enjoyable.

Recognising the signs, Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Sourav Ganguly, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and others declared their innings closed. Only Rahul Dravid clung to the wreckage, and his end seemed to be at hand.

No one blamed them for taking the easy money to play in the IPL or ICL. After all those years of distinguished service, they were entitled to a last waltz. Moreover, they would bring glamour to the competition and give pleasure to crowds. Of course they might play badly, but a million dollars covers an awful lot of dented pride, and anyhow their records were written in stone.

Few, though, expected the sages to surge. Twenty-over cricket – dancing girls, diving, trash-talk cricket – it hardly seemed to be their cup of tea. They might manage the first campaign, but they were certain to be swamped once the younger fry had made their mark.

Nothing of the sort has occurred. In fact, the first few matches of this year’s IPL have reminded all and sundry that cricket is just a game played with a bat and a ball, that good cricketers will find a way, that determined and skilful players will adapt, that the leading lights in 10-day cricket are likely to prosper in 10-over cricket as well. It has been uplifting not so much because youth has been put in its place. Only the dreary seek anything of that sort, but because the old truths have been reinforced.

To watch the opening days of the IPL was to see aged legspinners and classical batsmen flourishing, as they did in the 1930s. Although his batsmen let him down, Shane Warne teased and took wickets for the Rajasthan Royals. Despite his exotic background and thoroughly modern earrings, Dimitri Mascarenhas landed his mediums on an old-fashioned dinner plate.

Next, Dravid and Anil Kumble worked wonders for the Bangalore Royal Challengers, an outfit hitherto scorned as powerful only on paper. Adapting their games to meet autumnal African conditions, Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were the batsmen of the weekend. Dravid’s revival counts among the surprises of the season, and reflects well on him and his selectors. Even respectful observers thought his time was up. Kumble struck a blow for spin and experience. His refusal to give up has long counted among his greatest assets.

It was a joy to behold. The IPL, and the world, belong not to youth or any other category. Even now, even in 20-over cricket, age is not the issue. Provided they have open minds, the classical and contemporary can join forces, learning from each other, playing to their strengths and appreciating their comrades’ qualities. And there is no better place to teach than on the field itself. The IPL has its excesses, but it offers competitive cricket and gives us another, unexpected, opportunity to watch great players whose powers may be waning but whose resolve remains intact.

Sentiment has no place in sport. For that reason, some of us cannot abide seniors’ tours and so forth. It might have been sad to see past champions still trying to compete with the younger fellows. For all concerned, it was a risk. Instead it has been instructive, and rewarding. But they ought not to push their luck.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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