Gareth Batty and Dan Christian bump elbows before the Blast final

Seniors Inc: Dan Christian (left) and Gareth Batty at the T20 Blast final last year

© Getty Images


Is there a place in T20 for 40-year-olds?

Gayle, Tahir, Hodge, Batty and others will tell you there certainly is

Alan Gardner  |  

T20 might have been conceived as cricket's crash-bang-wallop response to the modern world, all six-hitting and pop tunes to bring in the kids and casual fans - but that doesn't necessarily mean the format is a young man's game. As Dan Christian, the globetrotting Australian allrounder who will turn 38 during the forthcoming IPL, put it last year: "Old blokes win stuff." From Christian's Notts team to the CSK "Dad's Army", there's still plenty of call for the golden oldies.

But even if age is no barrier, at some stage it certainly starts being a hurdle. Players in their mid-to-late 30s know they have to keep moving just to stand still, given the ever-increasing physical demands of the sport in general and T20 in particular. Few can keep going at the very top level after reaching 40, though that hasn't prevented a hardy band from doing so with appreciable success. The 2021 IPL is likely to see Harbhajan Singh join Chris Gayle and Imran Tahir as 40-plus players appearing at the T20 circuit's premier event.

Elsewhere, Gareth Batty, Darren Stevens and Ryan ten Doeschate are still putting their hands up for selection in England's T20 Blast. Mohammed Hafeez is in the form of his T20 life for Pakistan and at the PSL, and no player has been around the block and back again like Shahid Afridi, whose genuine stats since he entered his 40s can only be guessed at.

There have been senior citizens in the format since the early days of T20, from Graeme Hick (who scored a 44-ball hundred at the age of 41) through Sanath Jayasuriya appearing at the 2010 World T20, to the IPL exploits of Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist. But while the trend is largely stable, the fact they are still holding their own in the era of Big Data, when T20 has never been more hotly contested or closely scrutinised, is pretty remarkable.

How do these oldsters adapt to the challenge? Might there be some advantages that give them an edge over younger counterparts? And could we see even more playing on past 40 in the future?

Batty is 43 but last summer captained Surrey to Blast Finals Day, displaying the familiar exuberance - "Everyone knows I'm a bit of a village idiot once I cross the whitewash" - that has characterised a professional career that began in the 1990s. Over the last five years, only fellow spinner Tahir has played more games of T20 at the age of 40-plus.

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Batty won the first of his nine Test caps in 2003, the year T20 came into existence at professional level with the advent of the Twenty20 Cup. From being a bit of hit n'giggle that nobody took seriously, the format has become increasingly associated with tactical innovation and sophisticated analytics.

"I think you have to be more structured in T20 than possibly any other format," Batty says. "If you think about Test cricket, your best bowlers always control the game and take wickets. Your best batters keep out the good balls and score when the bowlers aren't at their best. It's very, very difficult, and still the hardest game, but the basics haven't really changed a huge amount over a long period of time, whereas T20 is still evolving. And nobody has a tried-and-tested [formula]."

When you've seen it all before, you know what to do
As the role of data in the game has increased, one of the advantages of being an old-timer immediately becomes clear: the ability to process and prioritise information when the action is at its most intense.

A wide range of match scenarios logged allows you to "slow the game down in your head", according to Batty. A young player might panic after being hit for six, or facing a succession of dot balls, but experience allows the older hand to plan a route through.

"It's not going at 100mph when you get older," Batty says. "You can be a lot calmer, a lot clearer, on what is going on and where the game could be. And you can plan ahead a bit more, understanding where it could be in two, three, four overs - or even two, three, four balls. That stands you in good stead. I very rarely get flustered now, if at all."

Brad Company: Hodge and Hogg at the 2014 World T20. Both went on to play T20 for another four years

Brad Company: Hodge and Hogg at the 2014 World T20. Both went on to play T20 for another four years Scott Barbour / © Getty Images

Brad Hodge, the former Australia batsman, is in no doubt that having been there, done that is a great advantage in dealing with the more acute pressures of T20. "Playing at 40, you've gone through every scenario in your life and you are able to quickly work out what's going to work and what isn't," he says.

Hodge played international T20 and in the IPL until he was 39, and had a productive career in his 40s, appearing at the BBL, CPL and PSL.

"There's nothing good about walking to the crease knowing that you got to get ten or 11 an over," he says, shaking his head. "And that's where experience comes in, right, because you know you've got a limited amount of balls, and you'll work it out because you've done it before. Like anything in life, if you've experienced it, you'll know the sensations and the emotions that you go through.

"We often see young players thrust up to the top because the game hasn't been set yet, and you can play with a lot more freedom. In the middle order, when you're facing Rashid Khan, needing 11 runs an over - the thought process to work your way through that and work your way through the rest of the game, can only come through experience. The older you get, you can dissect the game a little bit clearer than the younger cricketer."

The older player isn't worrying about the next career step
Hodge actually won a recall by Australia for the 2014 World T20, a few months before turning 40, but for most players at that stage, worrying about catching the attention of national selectors is a thing of the past. "Your concern is, you're just going to get the job done. There's no external pressures or feelings on your shoulders. All the pressures of playing for your country or at a higher level are off."

"Old? Me?" Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez at the PSL this year © PCB/PSL

And having been around a while means you are fully aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Or as Batty puts it: "You know what you can do and you don't get too carried away. Everyone's calling you an old sod, so you don't want to start trying to do things you wouldn't normally do - because then you look even sillier."

The art of being smart with your body and its resources
It's all very well having an extra yard in your head, but T20 demands plenty of actual hard yards on the field, too. The exertion of batting and bowling, which might only come in short bursts, is just the start. Stir in the intensity required for 90 minutes of fielding, the mental load of keeping up with the game, and the adrenalin sloshing around the system throughout, and the result is a taxing cocktail for most 40-year-old bodies.

"We're very lucky, at The Oval we get massive crowds, and it's brilliant," Batty says. "So you're up all game. It's as close to international cricket as you're going to get. But my wife leaves me the next morning - there's no waking me up because it is literally like you're peeling yourself off the bed."

Not wanting to be "that old man who is an absolute liability in the field" means the fitness side of things is non-negotiable. As well as keeping up on a cardiovascular level, there is the strain on the body of having to throw yourself around for catches and to save runs, as well as being nimble enough to turn and give chase if the ball zips past.

Hodge says one of the most challenging things about playing on past 40 was fielding in the 30-yard circle.

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"Your expectation when you were 20 was, the ball just doesn't get past you. And your mindset when you're 40 is that you just need to not make a fool of yourself. You want to make sure you're elite, [because] you're on TV, you're on show. And no one wants to see a sluggish 40-year-old running around the field not doing their job."

Darren Veness, Surrey's head strength and conditioning coach, has 25 years' experience of working with cricketers, and he says "the pace of the game has gone through the roof". That means no shortcuts for the likes of Batty, Rikki Clarke (40 in September), Hashim Amla (38) or Liam Plunkett (36 on April 6).

"If you want to be competitive and available and keep your spot," Veness says, "you can't just be being canny or using your nous or being a wily old dog - which probably would have got you a long way back in the day. You've got to be offering with all facets of the game."

One of the benefits of working with modern players in the latter stages of their careers is that most who have played T20 since its earliest days are well used to the physical requirements.

"They've got a decent training history behind them. They will all have good aerobic capacity, they'll all be comfortable with a yo-yo test or a 2k time trial, they'll know their way around a gym and they'll do well on the speed tests. They know the drill and they know the game."

The Universe Boss might come across as something of a slacker, but he works as hard as anyone else on the circuit

The Universe Boss might come across as something of a slacker, but he works as hard as anyone else on the circuit © BCCI

Veness focuses on making the older players as efficient as possible in their training, which includes analysing running mechanics, sprint mechanics, acceleration and deceleration, even how a player turns with his bat in hand. "That efficiency of movement is a big deal, because if they're efficient, they're wasting less energy," he says. "That means you've got a better chance of recovery and there's more in the tank for a little burst later in the day or later in the season.

Being smart with your body and smart on the field of play are closely linked, Batty suggests. "If you can perform your skill very, very well without taking too much out of your body, you have a chance of extending your career. You don't need to be 100% all the time - or you're giving 100% but you're not having to take 100% out of your body."

Ground speed is especially important in the shorter formats, for running between the wickets and in the field, but also one of the first areas to debilitate with age. Surrey place an emphasis on "the first three steps in any direction". Batty says he changed his approach to training, working on speed and strength rather than the long-distance running designed to keep you going for a full day of first-class cricket. Sure enough, Veness says his speed and acceleration mechanics have got better year on year.

Injuries are increasingly likely to creep in with age, but Veness preaches "training the posterior chain" - the muscles of the lower back, the gluteals, the hamstrings - as a way to help minimise the risk of something going twang. Staying abreast of advances in science and technology can also help prolong careers, from the use of biomechanical analysis to information on body composition and nutrition.

For veteran batsmen, the other main worry is the eyes going - but even that can be turned to your advantage in T20, Hodge reckons.

Darren Veness (centre, walking):

Darren Veness (centre, walking): "[Older players at the top level] have got a decent training history behind them. They will all have good aerobic capacity, they'll all be comfortable with a yo-yo test or a 2k time trial, they'll know their way around a gym" Gareth Copley / © Getty Images

"We've seen over time where cricketers' eyes have just started to deteriorate around sort of 35-36," he says. "So when you come up against someone who's quick - Mark Wood, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson - your reaction time is a bit shorter. But the thing is, T20 allows you to be more extravagant, so you don't have to actually get in behind the ball and play a perfect pull shot, you can step away and try and carve it over backward point. And if you get half an edge on it then it creates chaos."

Ryan ten Doeschate: good genes, functional fitness, and a healthy sport-life balance
"To be dead honest, it's not an issue for me. I don't ever think I'm 40, I don't ever think I'm old."

ten Doeschate, who at 39 helped Essex lift the T20 Blast for the first time in 2019 and could feature for Netherlands at the T20 World Cup later this year, is in no doubt about his level of contribution to his teams despite advancing years.

"I've been very lucky genetically, my body has held up 100%, I'm still one of the fitter guys… Not necessarily on testing but in the field, being able to bat for a period of time, able to run between the wickets. On those sorts of things, which I think are more important than fitness metrics, I think I'm still very sharp."

ten Doeschate believes that, alongside the good genes, a healthy approach to balancing life as a professional sportsman has helped him to keep playing into his 40s. That includes spending time on pursuits away from cricket, playing tennis and golf, working in the garden, and reading - one of his goals at the start of lockdown last year was to read "all the classic classics", including the Odyssey and the Iliad.

Ryan ten Doeschate:

Ryan ten Doeschate: "I don't ever think I'm 40, I don't ever think I'm old" Alex Davidson / © Getty Images

"I've always believed in functional fitness and I play a range of sports, which I believe is the best way to do it. I think it's more, mentally, making sure your mind's still fresh and almost not making a big deal out of it."

ten Doeschate spent several seasons playing in the IPL with Kolkata Knight Riders, and has appeared at the PSL, BPL and Afghanistan Super League in recent years. However, having lost out on a deal to feature in the ECB's new 100-ball format, the Hundred, after it was pushed back a year by the pandemic, he thinks that there is a bit of "stigma" attached to older players.

"My personal opinion is they've looked at it and gone, 'Well, this guy's 40.' We live in a time where youth is more valuable than experience. I think that's partly the reason I haven't been able to play in other comps around the world, because I'm certainly no worse a player than I was three years or five years ago."

Know your role, boss the game
Unsurprisingly, some disciplines are more likely to see classic models being replaced by the faster, sleeker units rolling off the production lines. There aren't too many wicketkeepers still playing T20 at 40 (although Gilchrist managed it), and fast bowlers have by and large given up the battle with their bodies long before then - although, note to commentators, choose your words wisely next time you see 37-year-old Dale Steyn charging in with the wind in his hair.

Hodge suggests "you're more likely to do it as a spinner", partly due to the value of experience to the craft, partly because it puts less strain on the body. Of those players with the most T20 appearances at 40-plus, way out in front is Brad Hogg, the left-arm wristspinner who featured in the Big Bash until a few weeks shy of his 47th birthday, followed by Tahir and Pravin Tambe; Muttiah Muralitharan, Warne, Batty and Robert Croft round out the top ten.

Run, Hashim, run: modern coaches are big on efficiency of movement, or getting the most bang for your effort

Run, Hashim, run: modern coaches are big on efficiency of movement, or getting the most bang for your effort © Getty Images

This is a reminder both of the importance of spin bowling in T20 and of how much of it is in the head. Reflecting on his role as Surrey captain last season, Batty says he often ended up bowling the 16th and 18th overs in order to protect younger players in the side. "But I didn't get taken any more than I would been bowling the eighth, the tenth. Because you don't fear it, I suppose. When you're younger, you're making sure you're not getting parked in the eighth, ninth, tenth over - well, why can't you do that when it's even more pressure?"

Spin bowlers are only one example of the specialism that T20 has encouraged. Hodge says it was a conversation with Rahul Dravid at the Rajasthan Royals that prompted his shift down the batting order to No. 4 - "the hardest place to bat in T20 cricket". Christian, meanwhile, has evolved into one of the most reliable death hitters in the game (in addition to bowling useful medium pace), and Hafeez recently spoke of how a few rounds of golf had helped transform him into a six-hitting, match-winning machine at the age of 40.

Even Gayle, the leading T20 run scorer of all time, has embraced change late in his extraordinary career, moving to bat predominantly at No. 3 in the last 12 months. That was a data-driven idea suggested by Hodge during his time coaching the Kings XI Punjab, although it took a couple of years for Gayle to come around to the notion.

Older players are not just players, they're mentors
Hodge moved into coaching while still taking part as a player, overseeing the Gujarat Lions and the Kings XI at the IPL and the St Lucia Stars in the CPL. Contrary to ten Doeschate, he thinks that experience has become increasingly valued on the circuit - whether you're 38 or 41. He cites the example of Tahir, who only played three times for the Chennai Super Kings during the 2020 IPL but still offers great value as a squad player and mentor for younger spinners.

"To be able to just pull him in, even if he doesn't play every game - when he comes in, it's effective anyway, because his computer's in tune with what he has to do. He's going to go for seven runs an over, probably pick up a couple of wickets. It's a no-brainer.

But don't ask about the morning after:

But don't ask about the morning after: "There's no waking me up because it is literally like you're peeling yourself off the bed," Batty says © Getty Images

"I definitely think that people have gone for experience now over youth. Definitely in their positions where they want [something specific]. Not that you don't want youth, but come critical time, who do you want in the driver's seat? Do you want Lewis Hamilton or do you want a rookie [F1 driver] like George Russell. You want Lewis, don't you?"

W hat are the chances of a starting grid packed with old-boy racers? Or, to put it another way, could the day when it's possible to pick a 40-plus T20 XI be not that far off? Prospective inductees to the club in the next 12 months include Harbhajan Singh, Peter Trego, Fawad Ahmed, Shoaib Malik and Fidel Edwards. Kamran Akmal could take the gloves - if he can get them off MS Dhoni.

Cricket used to be a sport that was notably welcoming to old stagers - Wilfred Rhodes played a Test aged 52 - and Veness believes it could be again, pointing to examples from other sports, such as the NFL's Tom Brady, who has won two Super Bowls and counting since reaching 40.

"If we're pushing back those barriers, and making sure we're doing things smarter for longer, then let's keep it open-ended, shall we? Let's see how far we can push this envelope. I see no reason why we can't push things back to the previous scenario, when it was commonplace to be busy in your 40s. You've seen it across the world with all different sports."

Batty certainly has no intention of hanging up his boots just yet - though he laughs off the suggestion that he might still be going at 50.

"If I'm fit enough and doing what everybody else is doing, just because my age says I shouldn't be playing, why should I be voluntarily giving up? Don't get me wrong, if I'm keeping lads out of the game that should be in the team, then I would step aside, of course. But whilst there's a gap in the market and I'm still able to do it, I'm going for it."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick