Of veterans and extended careers

Published : Apr 01, 2010 00:00 IST

It's intriguing to ponder the return of the quinquagenarian to cricket's upper echelons. The IPL would surely welcome the spectacle, and the storyline of a crafty 50-year-old spinner tormenting an upstart six-hitter young enough to be his son. And surely, in the 21st century can't fitness trainers keep players in shape far longer than ever before? By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

The need to respond sagely to every little development on or off the field and thereby provoke a debate is the scourge of a sportswriter's job. The back pages of newspapers are full of premature conclusions, drawn from the smallest of samples. Some of these conclusions become fact over time, while others are repudiated. It wasn't long ago that Ian Chappell advised Sachin Tendulkar to “have a good long look in the mirror and decide what he's trying to achieve in the game.”

What to say of Shane Warne, whose fizz, according Peter Roebuck, is gone for good, whose “days of pulling rabbits out of hats are behind him?”

It's easy to see how Saurabh Tiwary's sardonic treatment of the blond genius in Rajasthan Royals' opening game of the season could have induced despondency in the sensitive viewer, but cast your mind back to February 25, 1998. That day, another Mumbai left-hander, Amit Pagnis, only 19 years old then, smacked Warne's first two first-class overs in India for eight and 15, setting the tone for a wretched series for the leg-spinner.

Warne's figures, mangled by Pagnis and a maiden first-class double hundred from Sachin Tendulkar, read 16-1-111-0 on a wicket where Nilesh Kulkarni — a spindly left-arm spinner whose three-Test career fetched him two wickets in 738 deliveries — snared a match-winning five for 23 in the Australians' second innings. Which is to say that Warne has bowled badly in the past and recovered from beatings far more painful than anything any batsman can manage in four overs.

What's to stop the blond Victorian from repeating in Rajasthan Royals' remaining games the sort of bowling that saw him defeat Virat Kohli and Balchandra Akhil with drift and dip in successive overs in South Africa last year? (He knocked back Kohli's leg stump with a straighter one and Akhil's off stump with a leggie.) Or, from Season One, his beating of M.S. Dhoni's prodding blade with vicious away-spin, and his dismissal of the Chennai Super Kings skipper with his follow-up delivery pitched closer to the stumps to induce the edge to slip?

What's to stop Warne? His 40-year-old body, perhaps, whose parts might already have lost some of their silken co-ordination. Or his shoulder and fingers that might, in the nets in the weeks approaching his latest Indian jaunt, have felt for the first time the physical strain of the ripping leg-break. Or perhaps the dulling of his match-sharpness, provoked by the dwindling competitive appearances following his international retirement.

Has Warne already experienced these warning signs, and if not, how long can he delay their onset? How long can a cricketer prolong his career in the Twenty20 era? The question dangles not just in Warne's mind, but also in those of his compatriots Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn, and the two Indian international retirees, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly. It must also flash in front of Brian Lara, who, according to recent reports, may strap on his pads in IPL's fourth season.

Twenty20 cricket isn't particularly taxing for a professional sportsperson, or even someone who's crossed 40 and is in the second life of his career, nor is the annual burst of activity concentrated to 45 days in a year, especially when viewed next to material reward.

It's intriguing to ponder the return of the quinquagenarian to cricket's upper echelons. The IPL would surely welcome the spectacle, and the storyline of a crafty 50-year-old spinner tormenting an upstart six-hitter young enough to be his son. And surely, in the 21st century can't fitness trainers keep players in shape far longer than ever before?

It's an unrealistic expectation. While sports science has evolved unrecognisably since 1930, when the 52-year-old Wilfred Rhodes ended his Test career, the Warnes and Kumbles will need to achieve levels of fitness far greater than the venerable England all-rounder did to match his longevity, even as pure Twenty20 players playing only for 45 days a year.

Rhodes, in all probability , maintained himself close to the mean fitness level of the cricketers of his day. That mean fitness level is now much higher, and the game a lot faster and more intense. To take an analogy from a different sport, it's impossible now for someone to play top-flight football at 50 like Sir Stanley Matthews did because of the pace at which modern teams play, and the way teams now defend as a unit with co-ordinated pressing, a feature largely absent from English football of the 1950s.

How long will the current crop of international retirees play in the IPL? Their futures are in different shades of doubt. Damien Martyn, like his compatriots Darren Lehmann and Justin Langer before him, will probably stay in the Rajasthan Royals' roster for just the one season. Most of the others are in the final year of their three-year contracts signed before the first season. Kumble, Gilchrist and Hayden, who have been central to the bright starts achieved by the three South-based teams this year, will probably get one-year contracts—if the IPL franchises were to follow the over-30s wage policy of top European football clubs. Rajasthan Royals might offer Warne something similar, unless it decides to retain him only as a coach, or he makes that decision himself — like Shaun Pollock did at the end of the first season.

Reinstated Knight Riders skipper Sourav Ganguly might, for his lukewarm efforts so far (he averages 16.75 from four innings, with a strike rate below 100), be rewarded with the cold shoulder of rejection. Looking at it unemotionally, does he merit a place in a 23-member IPL squad, and that too with quotas for under-22 players and foreigners which requires a consistent core of senior Indian players?

If he does get snubbed, or if indeed he himself declines a new contract, Ganguly can look back on an IPL career in which he has earned, playing only 45 days every year, over a million dollars each season, which is approximately 10 times what the BCCI offers players in the highest pay bracket in the list of contracted players for 2009-10.

Aren't those dancing dollar signs, therefore, a come-hither inducement for players to retire early from international cricket, or at least from Tests, especially for those representing the less financially secure cricket boards of the West Indies or Bangladesh? As things currently stand with the IPL, not particularly since players are supposed to furnish no-objection certificates from their home boards for up to two years after their retirement to participate in the IPL. Nearly every player who has retired from Tests in the last two years has done so due to persistent injury. However, if the IPL does relax these regulations and breaks away from the ICC — as it could well do given its financial clout — the future of international contests, particularly of the five-day variety, will come under serious threat.

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