Senior moments: For many sports, age is just a number

One of the in-jokes during the 10th edition of the Indian Premier League was the average age of the Chennai Super Kings’ (CSK) team. Chennai Senior Kings, one wag dubbed them, because most key players were over 30 years — captain M S Dhoni (36), Suresh Raina (31), Shane Watson (36), Ambati Rayudu (32), Harbhajan Singh (37), Faf du Plessis (33) and Imran Tahir (39). In the sporting world, performers past 30 are considered geriatric. This is particularly the case for the 20-over version of the game, its fast pace demanding a far higher level of mental and physical fitness than One-Day cricket or Tests. CSK’s senior players made a mockery of that notion. The Army of Oldies put on a stunning performance that rendered the final a virtual no-contest. 

CSK’s performance throughout the tournament underlined an emerging reality about the mainstream sports industry: when it comes to competing, age is just a number. From cricket to tennis, football, baseball and basketball, the average age of top players is rising, and they show few signs of quitting. There was a time when conventional wisdom suggested that sportspeople typically peaked at 27 and headed into retirement by their early thirties (which may explain why a certain Indian all-rounder maintained his age at 27 for years). That’s history now. Consider tennis. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who seem to exchange the top two seedings between them at regular intervals, are, respectively, 31 and 36. Stan Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam title (the Australian Open in 2014) at age 29. Seven of the top ten men’s players are over 29 years of age. In the women’s game, the issue is even more stark. Number 1 seed Serena Williams is 36, and her sister Venus, ranked 6, is 37. Six of the top ten women are over 30 and none is below 27. In football, the two highest paid stars in Europe are 30 (Lionel Messi) and 33 (Cristiano Ronaldo). Across the pond in the US, the average age of the Major League teams ranges from 30 years (the Atlanta Braves) to 27 years. In the National Basketball Association, the average age of the Cleveland Cavaliers is 29.5 years, with its star player LeBron James clocking in at 32. The average age of the 2017 champions, the Golden State Warriors, is 28 years. In American Football, the current reigning star is New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, an old man of 40 who vows to continue playing as long as his body allows him to do so. 

The extraordinary durability of modern-day sports stars is not a serendipitous development. The expansion of the market for sports properties and the exponential rise in the rewards sportspeople can hope to earn from plying their trade as full-time professionals have raised the stakes considerably. The demand for new and exacting levels of physical and mental endurance has brought with it the development of increasingly scientific fitness regimens and tectonic progress in sports medicine. No longer do fast bowlers have to resort to a jump rope in their backyard, as Bodyline exponent Harold Larwood did in his heyday in the thirties; now, training regimens include developing specific muscle groups to maximise speed. Lifestyles, too, have changed dramatically. The louche drunkenness that characterised the footballer's life till the nineties has been replaced by iron discipline, diets and rigorous psychological routines. All the top performers sleep early, avoid nightclubs and are abstemious about alcohol. The IPL appears to be exerting a similar influence. It has often been harshly criticised for corrupting the gentleman’s game with big money. But those millions have also ensured that oldies seek to maximise their earnings — and delight their fans with miracles.

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