The Peculiar Joy of the Veteran

On the day that the peerless Dale Steyn retires, James Anderson carries on. And on. Sure, he’s rather good, but for the purposes of this piece I don’t care about the detail of his outswinger, or how he sets a batsman up. I care that he’s bloody old. He’s 39 years old and still running in. Sodding hell say we all. And rightly so too, for the ability to remain at, or near the top of your game at a time when most have forgotten where they hung up their boots several years earlier is worthy of praise in its own right. The skill never wanes, but the demands on the body as it ages, as muscles fibres weaken and joints become less flexible, usually diminishes the overall ability long before now.

We are in an era where sports science when it comes to diet and preparatory exercise appear to allow those prepared to put in the work to extend their careers at the highest level beyond what has been historically the case. Whether it be James Anderson or Roger Federer, it isn’t that they carry on, it’s that they carry on at, or near the top. Anderson’s record is actually getting better by most measures, which is frankly preposterous, while it is only very recently there are clear signs Federer is significantly below his previous level.

And then there’s Darren Stevens, who does undermine the sports science and diet hypothesis fairly spectacularly, but it’s my piece, so I’m including him anyway. Into his mid forties and providing hope for all middle aged people who wake in the morning to yet another unexplained back spasm or sore foot for no apparent reason. He too seems to have pulled off the impossible of not just playing at an advanced age, but doing so effectively and arguably every bit as much as a decade earlier.

Yet it is not their records that interest me here, it is the response to them. And not just them, they’re merely the most visible. Us. The rest of us, our own ageing process in sport and how we handle it. Part of it is to marvel at the continued ability to compete and win, but part of it also is the recognition of our own struggles as we age. It’s maybe why the young tend to care far less about such things – a “move over grandad” attitude is normal enough in youth, and in any case by definition they don’t much remember players at the start of their careers. That’s not to say young people don’t recognise the longevity, but they can’t possibly fully appreciate how much this must damn hurt, nor how extraordinary it is to see Anderson bowling at 85mph not far shy of his 40th birthday.

It certainly doesn’t have to be at the highest level. Every club cricketer will know the player who unaccountably is still in the 1st XI aged 50, surrounded by teens, 20s and 30 somethings. A total liability in the field of course – probably put into gully in the hope that they’ll stop something because they can’t get out of the way in time. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it tends to be a bowler, a spinner perhaps, who takes two steps and releases the ball, usually with a knowing grin on their face as the youngster at the other end slowly realises this old fart has forgotten more than they know, and that they’re about to become his (it usually is a his) 3,000th victim in club cricket. It happens a little less for the batsmen simply because eyes tend to decline in efficacy, and there’s nothing more disconcerting than the realisation you can’t see the sharpish opening bowler who you used to be able to handle with ease. Note to those aged around 30, the first sign of what’s to come is struggling to see the ball in indoor nets.

This state of affairs can last for many years, the magnificently elongated period known as middle age, defined as about a week for those aged 20, and about 40 years for those who have retired. But then we reach the truly special ones, those who turn out in cricket, or football (usually standing in the centre circle, not moving, but spraying 40 yard passes everywhere and impossible to tackle), or any other sport, at a time when all of their contemporaries have long since given up. That they love the game beyond measure is not in dispute, that they love the game to the point they are determined to play at a level that is a shadow of where they were is less common, not least because of a lesser involvement. To have once scored glorious hundreds and now to wander out at number 10 to save the game (it’s always to save the game and you know it) is to set sights at a very different level.

Perhaps the pleasure comes from teaching the younger players about the game – certainly that is what the endless and vital volunteers up and down the country do anyway. Perhaps it is just that it is the socialising. But there is a slightly different lesson to be given in this context, which is that the grey haired old bugger who is holding you up a) is someone you can’t get out and b) if you can’t get him out now, imagine how good he was 40 years ago.

Now clearly, none of this applies to a James Anderson, or a Shivnarine Chanderpaul, or a Graham Gooch, or a Courtney Walsh. But there are some similarities in how we approach this and how we feel about it, it’s a matter of familiarity with those who surround us and how we go through life ourself. The admiration for someone maintaining their level as a professional is still related to someone able to take the field alongside the rest despite being half a century older. And it’s a very special thing too, but one that can only truly be appreciated from the perspective of someone facing their own passing years. On the cricket field, tutting at the “oof” as an older player bends down and misses the ball in the field attracts a particular horror when years later you become that older player involuntarily expectorating from the shock of a ball drilled at you. Which you still fail to stop.

There are the good parts. The joy of turning around while standing at slip as the 15 year old hares after it, oblivious to the entirely deliberate placing of him at fine leg to perform this valuable service while the chat with the wicketkeeper continues uninterrupted. It is in itself a life lesson for all young players, and notably one they soon learn themselves as they transition from young buck to old lag over the years. It’s perhaps unlikely Jimmy Anderson has entirely grasped this, though there must be suspicions that Darren Stevens absolutely has, another strand to the deserved love that comes his way.

They are the reminder that a game can be played by all, appreciated by all, and that the little brats have got a hell of a shock coming to them. That’s got to be a good thing, right?