In T20, life doesn't have to end at 40
When Roger Federer bested Rafael Nadal in last month's Australian Open final, he did more than add to his legend. In winning a Grand Slam aged 35, becoming the oldest winner for 45 years, he issued a two-fingered salute to those who believe that professional sport is irrevocably becoming a pursuit for young athletes.
Indeed, the opposite is true: we are in a golden age for those who, by the standards of professional sport, are positively middle-aged. Of the eight Australian Open singles semi-finalists across both genders, six were aged 30, and the two winners, Federer and Serena Williams, had a combined age of 70. As the Economist noted recently, the average age of men in the top 100 has risen by 4.2 years, to 28.6, since 1990. In the Olympic Games, track and field athletes are now older than at any time in history: the average age of competitors increased from 22 in the early 1900s to 26 today.
The trend extends to cricket too. Thirty-six-year-old Michael Klinger, fresh from lifting the Big Bash for Perth Scorchers, who had four players aged 34 or over, will shortly become the oldest Australian T20 international debutant in history. Forty-two-year-old Brad Hodge was the fourth highest run scorer in the group stages of the tournament, while Brad Hogg, who turns 46 - 46! - on Monday enjoyed another fine season. Veterans are not only thriving in T20: Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, now aged 42 and 39, were both instrumental in Pakistan's brief stint as number one in the Test rankings, and Younis has made 218 at The Oval and 175 not out in Sydney in the past six months.
In many ways, the ascent of the middle-aged sportsman is a triumph for sports science. The ubiquitous hangers-on around professional sports teams are easily mocked - recall the Sun's 61 "guilty men" involved in England's disastrous 2013-14 Ashes tour, including 29 non-players. Yet progress in medicine and sports science allows the workloads of players to be managed better, and at its best, warning signs of injuries can be diagnosed, allowing injuries to be prevented. "The bodies of athletes are conserved much better compared to the past. So athletes can perform at a higher level for longer," explains Raymond Verheijen, director of the World Football Academy and a specialist in sports fitness.
Ed Joyce is 38 but has been Cricket Ireland men's player of the year in three of the past four years. "My hip operation in 2009 was make or break, and from what the surgeon said, I'd have been extremely lucky to play on after only a few years before," he recalls. "More and more players are recovering from injuries that previously would have been career-ending - both from improved surgical procedures and better understanding from physios around recovering."
As physiology has improved, so has players' awareness of what they need to do to stay in shape, and their commitment to doing so. "The information around nutrition and the importance of flexibility and strength, especially in a player's 30s, is also much better, and more and more players are heeding this information to give themselves longer careers," Joyce says. Another example is Azhar Mahmood, who played 230 T20 matches around the world, until he was 41. "As you get older it gets harder to stay fit. However, if you have a strict regime and are disciplined, you are able to do that," he reflects.
Demands on modern athletes are also becoming more gruelling - not merely the arduous schedule but also the physical requirements. In cricket, bowling at 90mph, throwing the ball in from the boundary from 70 yards, or having the physique to belt the ball out of the ground are all skills that require physical development of the sort that few 18-year-olds possess. Which raises the overall average age of athletes. The ability to hit sixes does not diminish all that quickly with age (it's a different matter with the ability to bowl 90mph, though Mitchell Johnson can probably bowl faster on average aged 34, over four overs, than he could have done aged 23).
"Except for the unique talents, many athletes cannot compete with the best with a not yet fully matured body," says Verheijen. "The demands in top sports get higher and higher, so many athletes have to fully mature first - after age 23 - before they can compete at the highest level."
The huge amounts of cash in modern sport means that teams are now better able to protect the welfare of players to elongate their careers. "More money is being invested around the athlete to maximise their potential and reduce any risk of losing an asset for the team," explains Stephen Smith, the chief executive of Kitman Labs, a sports-science company. "This investment has meant that there is more and more emphasis on keeping athletes in peak physical condition and maximising their shelf life."
Money in sport also helps longevity in another way: there are now far greater financial incentives for cricketers to stay in the sport rather than retire prematurely. Players are more protective of themselves, realising what they stand to earn by remaining in peak condition for longer. Where once cricketers had little economic reason to carry on playing after leaving the international game behind, now they have bounteous opportunities on the T20 circuit. Increasingly these are not only available to elite - or former elite - players but the next tier too, who might not be attractive to teams in the IPL or Big Bash, but stand to make a good living in the BPL, the CPL or the PSL.
The sheer number of leagues also enables what could be called a managed decline: leaving an international career to play in the IPL and the most lucrative T20 leagues; then, after becoming less effective, enjoying another few years on the next rung of leagues. The process of retirement can therefore be extended over a number of years.
The ascent of older cricketers has also been aided by the sheer volume of cricket. Three formats of the sport, and the greater financial rewards now available, allow cricketers to specialise and manage their workloads, and be picky about their tournaments so they can peak for those that are most important. Federer and the Williams sisters are now very choosy about which tennis tournaments they enter, prioritising the Grand Slams. Similarly, before Pakistan's Test series in England last year, Misbah and Younis had both gone eight months since their last internationals, while Joyce has not played a T20 match since 2014 in order to preserve himself for the two longer formats.
More often, older cricketers specialise in T20, which, while an intense and physically demanding game, has far less onerous requirements than Test matches. Some players now play only a couple of T20 leagues a year: the financial rewards are sufficiently great, ensuring that they are in peak physical condition when they do play, and have ample recovery time.
Specialising in T20 "helps because there's less workload on your body, and you stay fresh," Mahmood says. "Time off is the most important as it allows you to recharge, look back at your mistakes and work on technical issues. Refreshing by spending time with family away from cricket brings you back with a bang."
But older players are not just playing for longer in T20 because of sagaciously management of their workloads; the format also rewards those with experience, who know the roles, are calm under pressure and unflustered in front of boisterous crowds. "It takes me only one game to get back into the groove," 37-year-old Ashish Nehra said recently. By the end of his career, Mahmood had six different slower balls, and was an expert in adjusting his style according to the pitch, ground dimensions and opposition.
Teams are recognising the boons of selecting an experienced cadre of players, especially in T20. In the 2007 World T20, the average player age was 27.38 years; by the 2016 tournament, the average age in the main stage had risen to 28.94, according to the statistician Ric Finlay. Even more strikingly, the best team of the lot was the oldest: the average age of the victorious West Indies side in the final was 31.94, proving the value of experience in T20.
The proliferation of data analysis in domestic T20 leagues might prove to be another boon for older players: data analysts tend to prefer those whose success is over a greater sample size of games, and are thereby deemed less of a risk. Oakland Athletics, the original Moneyball team, had a propensity for signing aged players.
And so, increasingly it is becoming clear that T20 is the format of the game that allows players to remain near their peaks for longest. As sports science continues to evolve, and players manage their workloads more astutely, cricketers thriving as they approach, or even exceed, 40 will become more common. In cricket and beyond, the veterans are fighting back.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts