The explosion of Twenty20 cricket has opened up the sport to a younger and more diverse audience, very crucial if cricket is to keep thriving – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the format is a young man’s game. Take the Indian Premier League (IPL), for instance. From M.S. Dhoni, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers, to Imran Tahir, Harbhajan Singh and Dan Christian, there’s still plenty of call for the veterans.
But even if age is no barrier, at some stage, it starts meddling with the on-field performance. Players in their mid-to-late 30s have to keep up with the ever-increasing physical and mental demands of the sport. And the challenges are more telling for those not playing any other top-level cricket. And yet, the UAE-leg of the 2021 IPL will see Harbhajan join Tahir, de Villiers, Raina and Dhoni – men who have had little to no game time in the lead up to the world’s premier T20 competition. So does a lack of regular opportunities in between tournaments hinder performance? It is a two-part answer.
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In April this year, de Villiers scored 48 from just 27 balls against the Mumbai Indians in Chennai in his first professional outing since November 6, 2020. It is fascinating to watch de Villiers in IPL. It is not that he has now been the backbone of RCB’s batting for so long. It is that at 37, he has managed to be this good so consistently in a fickle format without really playing anywhere else.
De Villiers’ last non-IPL cricket was at the start of 2020 when leading up to that year, he had featured in the Pakistan Super League, Mzansi Super League, T20 Blast and Big Bash League. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented him from taking part in those leagues last year. And yet, in 2020, he was among the top 10 in batting charts, having made 454 runs from 15 matches at a strike rate of 158.74 with five fifties. When IPL was suspended midway in May this year, de Villiers was RCB’s second-highest run-getter – only 16 runs behind Australia’s Glenn Maxwell, an active international – with 207 runs at a strike rate of 164.28 and two fifties.
The concept of thirty-somethings continuing to compete despite being past their ‘supposed’ prime isn’t exclusive to cricket. Think tennis stars Serena Williams or Roger Federer, who are 39 and 40 respectively. Or Cristiano Ronaldo (36) and Lionel Messi (34) signing jaw-dropping contracts with top football clubs around the world.
But since we are on the subject of cricket, here’s what England seamer Jimmy Anderson, who at 39, is the most successful fast bowler in the history of Test cricket, told the Guardian in an interview: “You draw comfort from seeing people across other sports, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting another contract at Milan [aged 39], Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl at 43, Roger Federer  overcoming injuries or Chris Thompson qualifying for the Olympic marathon at 40. It makes you think, why should I start slowing down?”
So, when you have oodles of talent, consummate self-confidence and an insatiable hunger for success like de Villiers and some of his other contemporaries, you carry on. Of course, professional cricket today has both the money and the science for players to push into their 40s.
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Rusty: In the 2020 IPL season, held in the UAE, M.S. Dhoni’s averaged just 25 with a strike rate of 116.27. This season, his form with the bat has been poor so far. – IPL
While de Villiers may have been the outlier, the lack of game time and age have been a concern for some others like Dhoni. In the 2018 IPL season, Dhoni was striking at 150.66 and an average of 75.83. In 2019, he struck at 134.62 and was averaging 83.20. However, Dhoni hadn’t played any cricket since the 2019 World Cup semifinal and the rustiness showed straightaway. In the 2020 IPL season, held in the UAE, Dhoni’s average plummeted to just 25 and strike rate to 116.27. This season, it’s been 12.33 and 123.33 so far.
In fact, Dhoni batted at No. 7 – the lowest he’s ever batted in the tournament – at the start of IPL 2020. Dhoni attributed the move to lack of time in the middle. “Oh I haven’t batted for a very long time, you know and the 14-day quarantine doesn’t really help,” he told Star Sports Network, the host broadcaster, about his batting position. “[I’m] slowly trying to get into the tournament. Also at the same time, we want to try a few different things like Sam [Curran] or [Ravindra] Jadeja, sending them up.”
This isn’t to say there haven’t any flashes of brilliance. There was that 29 from 17 against Rajasthan Royals last season and 47 from 36 against Sunrisers Hyderabad, also last season. But such cameos have been few and far between. As you grow older, and if there is a gap in your competitive cricket, the reflexes slow down, as has been the case with Dhoni. He may still tear into attacks as he once did in his prime, but just not nearly as often.
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And then you have Chris Gayle, who has shown in the IPL, PSL and CPL that he’s still just as destructive as ever. At 41, Gayle is targeting a record third T20 world title. “At 41, it’s more mental than physical to me. It’s the willpower of the mind. The mind still wants to be out there and be out there on the park, still executing from a batting point of view and still having fun. That’s what gives me that extra drive to continue playing. If the mind stops operating like that for me, then I’d have to ask myself a big question there, but for now, it’s the mindset,” Gayle had said after being recalled to the T20I squad to face Sri Lanka in March this year.
Gayle’s T20 career numbers are spellbinding: 14,179 runs at 37.11 and a strike rate of 145.82. He is 3,112 runs ahead of his nearest challenger, his West Indies teammate Kieron Pollard. In the 2019 and 2020 IPL combined, he had 778 runs at 40.94, striking at 147. With the T20 World Cup in the UAE just a month away, there will be considerable interest in how the Jamaican fares in the second leg of the IPL.
Similarly, among bowlers, 42-year-old Tahir and 40-year-old Harbhajan have defied age. While Harbhajan’s last appearance in India colours was in a T20 vs UAE in Dhaka in 2016, Tahir retired from ODIs after the 2019 World Cup but remained available for T20Is. But he is not part of South Africa’s T20 World Cup squad. Last month, Birmingham Phoenix’s Tahir claimed the first hat-trick of The Hundred. The leg-spinner finished with five for 25 after dismissing Ahmad Qais, Matt Milnes and David Payne of Welsh Fire. Tahir, however, hasn’t found much game time with the Chennai Super Kings of late, having played only three matches (1 wicket) in IPL 2020 and one (2wickets) in IPL 2021 so far. Harbhajan, meanwhile, has played three matches for Kolkata Knight Riders this season so far. He had pulled out of IPL 2020 due to personal reasons.
There is no real debate over the above men being among the best in IPL and T20 history at various stages of their careers. Even as many of their international teammates now call the game from the commentary box, offer opinions on the cricket debate shows, and even step into the dugout again, as coaches, these stars will once again lace up boots to go out there and perform.