Cricket as a sport in the past was always looked at as one that had the aura of royalty. Whether it was played on the village green or in a stadium, it had that lethargic approach of a sport that showcased elegance, character and endurance rather than one with a fast and furious approach. Cricket was a sport that taught one the way of life, of its ups and downs, where individuals shone but a teams’ performance finally was the ultimate goal.
The slow pace of the game with time between each delivery, breaks in play, change of ends, all culminated into sportsmen who had more of a mental ability to have patience rather than one boasting of a six pack. Fitness was important but not essential to achieve success.
Cricketers of legendary status went on to play the game well past their 50s and some who performed well even then were W G Grace and the two great Indian cricketers, D B Deodhar and India’s first Test captain C K Nayudu. For them and many more such cricketers, “age was just a number”. The cricket followers who admired them encouraged their presence, as they were the royals who graced the sacred turf.
Cricket in India after independence took a very different turn as regards the age of a cricketer. Any individual after the age of 30 was branded as a veteran. To play cricket for India, if one was not already well established after that age, was a remote possibility. The reason for this was that through cricket one could not make one’s living and the 30s was just the age when a cricketer, having played his part in partaking in his passion, was ready to settle down to make a life for himself.
Cricket was, therefore, looked upon as a young man’s game where the older players were kept more for their experience to educate the youngster in every aspect of the game. Age has become a very important issue in Indian cricket. The U-19 age group has become the most prominent platform for a young budding cricketer to get recognised.
Fudging of age, therefore, became one area of concern that the BCCI has finally taken a very strict approach to. India’s century scorer, Manjot Kalra, in the last U-19 World Cup final that India won, was a prime example of the crime of fudging his age. This was only unearthed recently.
In Olympics, the team would have been disrobed of their title, which fortunately didn’t take place in this case. But, for India, it was an embarrassment and a good reason to put a system in place to monitor each player.
Personally, I do not agree with Rahul Dravid’s views of an U-19 player playing in only one World Cup. One participates in the cup donning the Indian colors and the best side should be playing for the trophy, whether one has played earlier or not is immaterial. India as a nation comes first, especially when one is participating with the Indian colors. The lacuna in the system is another issue.
The limited-overs version of cricket has brought in a completely different perspective in the life of a cricketer. Athleticism, agility, speed and stamina have become essential ingredients for a cricketer, given the increasing work load of matches and the fast pace of the shortened version of the game.
The T20 version that was introduced to make cricket more exciting, made physical fitness and power an addition requirement for a cricketer. A burst of quick activities while bowling, fielding and faster running between the wickets have all led to an acceleration never before encountered on the cricket field. The muscles of a cricketer today have to be able to sustain the initial thrust similar to that of a 100 meters runner. A far cry from the slow and smooth pace that a cricketer faced in the days is gone by.
The modern technique, equipment, advise and well trained and certified physical fitness and nutrition trainers have played a major part in making the modern cricketer a fit, trim and a chiseled body individual.
The “age” of a player now has, therefore, become a non-entity. However, in India one finds that the mindset has not changed. M S Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav are two players who come to mind, one who will turn 42 and the other 38 when the next World Cup will be played in India in 2023.
For most, age is one criteria that they feel will automatically debar both Dhoni and Jadhav from contesting for a place in the side. One was, therefore, amused when in a recent press conference, the Australian limited-overs captain, Aaron Finch, was asked as to whether he and Warner will be playing the next World Cup.
Both would be on the wrong side of 30s and his answer was quite interesting. He said it was not the age but their respective wives who will decide their fate as three years is a long time to think ahead.
Selecting a cricket side now has made age a non-existent criteria for selection at the senior level. The passion to continue playing and the zest to do so mentally and physically is far more important. The monitoring of one’s state of health and body and opportunities to stay fit and young are immense in today’s world.
Colonel C K Nayudu played first-class cricket till the age of 68. Virat Kohli is just 31 years old. One wonders if he can over time sustain the same enthusiasm and love for the game. A span of eight World Cups for him should be easily possible.
Roger Federer is still going strong at the age of 38 in tennis and Fauja Singh, the tenacious Sikh, ran the London marathon at the age of 101. One can confidently say that “age is just a number now”, in cricket, it is how you play it that will make the difference.