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How does AB de Villiers boss the IPL at 37, despite playing no other top-level cricket?

Shahbaz Nadeem bowls to AB de Villiers Arjun Singh / © BCCI

AB de Villiers looks wrecked. He's sweating uncontrollably. There seem to be new veins that weren't previously visible.

He is speaking to the TV crew after one of his innings in the IPL in Chennai, and they are trying to understand how a guy who plays so little cricket stays in such good shape. He's joking that he didn't feel fit while batting. He looks like a 37-year-old who offered to do a fun run for charity and now regrets having taken part.

In truth, he is the only batter to have conquered the oppressive Chennai surface. He wasn't just good on this pitch, he played a different form of cricket to everyone else. Rahul Tripathi's impressive cameos provided him with the next best strike rate among players who made 50 runs there.

These are some players with over 50 runs on that wicket: Gayle, Maxwell, Bairstow, Warner, Kohli and Pollard. No first names needed because none are required. And de Villiers clowned them all.

Remember, this pitch resembled a balloon slowly losing air. By the second half of the innings it was almost impossible to play a shot on. The scoring rate was 7.38 per over, and batters averaged 15.75 runs. It was easier to bat in the first ten overs, and de Villiers never batted then. He only arrived for the soft-ball section, where he scored at 11.36 runs per over and averaged 62.5.

The 48 from 27 balls that made him sweat all over the microphone was his first professional innings since November 6 last year.

It is not that de Villiers is great, because we know that. It is not that de Villiers is consistently great - that too is quite obvious now. It's that de Villiers is managing to be this good at T20 cricket - a fickle and random sport - in the world's toughest league, without really playing anywhere else, at 37.

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In his book, Ricky Ponting admitted that he batted on too long. His last few years were incredibly barren for a player of his talent. But in his last full year of Test cricket, he scored 134 and 221 against India. At his best, Ponting was still someone who could make 200 runs in a Test. But from 2009 until he retired, he averaged 37.76 in Tests. That's low by anyone's standards, but more so if over the previous nine years you averaged over 60.

This is what you expect from a top player in their late 30s. The peaks rarely stop but their troughs just get deeper and occur more frequently. They can still do what they do, but not as often.

There was a match in this year's IPL where MS Dhoni came out and hit 17 from eight balls. It was the sort of innings you might have seen him play more than a decade ago. It wasn't long and two of the fours were edged but it had a significant impact on the innings. It's also the only knock of the four he played this year where he had a strike rate over 150. In 12 innings in the last campaign, he only scored at a strike rate of over 150 three times.

Dhoni is not the player he once was; in the 2018 and 2019 IPL seasons he averaged 79.18 while striking at 143. This last season and a half, it's been 21.54 and 117. But even last season, there were little cameos of 29 from 17 and 21 from 13. For Dhoni, this could just be a two-season dip - that is, more of a one-year dip. It's possible this isn't the end of old Dhoni.

But this is generally how players curve with age. They can still do what they once did, just not as often. Or at least, this is how they are supposed to age.

There is one thing that de Villiers and Dhoni share other than both being in their late 30s: both play little outside of the IPL. Dhoni hasn't played anything outside the IPL since the 2019 World Cup semi-final. And de Villiers' last non-IPL cricket was at the start of 2020. Leading up to that, he played the PSL, Mzansi Super League, T20 Blast and Big Bash. He didn't play those leagues last year because of Covid, and yet, twice he has rocked up to the toughest league in the world and smoked everyone.

For many of the smaller T20 tournaments around the world, you turn up late if you are a star player, spend a bit of time in the nets and then hit the first ground pretty raw. The IPL is better than this - even star players play in intra-club warm-ups and other matches, and there is a longer lead-in. Players who have gone from IPL to IPL with nothing in between can struggle. At the end of his T20 career, Shane Watson would play club cricket just to keep his eye in for the IPL. Many of the older batters have said what they found toughest was having no cricket in between. That - so far at least - has not seemed to matter to de Villiers. His preparation coming into each of the last two IPLs has been superb. Whatever he is doing between tournaments is working.

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Tennis players are getting older. It would be hard to watch professional tennis now and not feel that way. Before, 14-year-old girls would sweep to the top of the rankings and burn out by their early 20s. The men started later and fared better, but it was not a sport for people over 30. That is not the case anymore.

From 1980 until 2005 there were 15 teenage winners of Grand Slams; there have been two in the 16 years since. Among the men there are two players in the top 20 under 22, and seven over 30. There are two players over 30 in the women's top 20, and one teenager.

But while it might seem tennis is getting older, in 2017 a blogger called Matt wrote about how the top 100 is getting older, but the top 1000 is more or less the same average age as it has been since the mid-'80s. That is, there are relatively more older players among the best players in the game than there are among the rest.

The reasons are quite simple. Most players drop out if they are not in the top 100. Those who succeed make a lot of money and hire teams to look after every single part of their life. Meaning that the normal ageing curve for an athlete does not apply to Serena Williams or Roger Federer, who are both 39.

And this isn't just a tennis thing. LeBron James won a title last year at 36, an age when basketballers, whose trade depends on athleticism and power, are well beyond their best. Once known as Air Canada for his high leaping, Vince Carter retired from the NBA at 43.

Incredible performers in high-paying sports are staying on longer. Thirty used to be the normal age for when results began to decline; that seems to have been pushed to 35 for the super-talented. And some like NFL player Tom Brady want to see just how far they can push that number.

Cricket's new-found love of the free market means that players have financial incentives to keep playing. And cricket has many skills that age better than some sports. Batting and spin bowling are certainly two parts of the game where we almost expect players to go on past where professional athletes in other sports can. Peak batting age is 27-29 according to modern data, and in baseball, hitters start to decline at 29.

Yet Graham Gooch played his final Test when he was 41. Spinners often age even better. Clarrie Grimmett started his Test career at 33, while Rangana Herath played almost his entire career in his 30s. Recently Australia's two Brads, Hogg and Hodge, played into their late forties. But they might not have done so in previous eras. Hogg had already retired when he realised his form of mystery was worth money.

(I have left Pakistani cricketers out of this article as their ages don't abide by the laws of sport or nature. Though I love the fact that they just gave a debut to a 36-year-old seamer.)

But really, Jimmy Anderson is the best example. This was him talking to the Guardian the other day: "You draw comfort from seeing people across other sports, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting another contract at Milan [aged 39], Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl at 43, Roger Federer [39] overcoming injuries or Chris Thompson qualifying for the Olympic marathon at 40. It makes you think, why should I start slowing down?"

England at one point almost ruined Anderson by changing his natural action and then later by overbowling him. But since then has any fast bowler ever had the amount of science and support he has had?

As Tim Wigmore noted in the Telegraph a few years ago, professionally Anderson has bowled not that many more balls than Darren Gough, but the ECB has made sure what he does bowl is for England, not in domestic cricket. They track his performance when he trains, and again on the field with health monitors. They have a collection of analysts allowing Anderson access to information about opposition weaknesses. They are at the forefront in terms of rest and rotation of their bowlers. Their dietary guidelines are detailed. England currently think about their bowlers more like how baseball handles pitchers. It's no surprise they have managed to get so many deliveries out of Anderson - and Stuart Broad.

Dale Steyn recently said Anderson was more skilful than him. Steyn relied on incredible fast-twitch fibres, fierce competitiveness, smarts and athleticism. Anderson has never matched Steyn physically, even if he is a remarkable athlete in his own right. His main trade is what he can do laterally with the ball. As long as England can keep him over 83 miles per hour, with his skills and decision-making ability, why would he not keep taking wickets?

Before this era of cricket - and really, sport - athletes played in what we thought their peak years were and then disappeared when their bodies or love of the game gave way. Now, for the likes of Brady, Williams and James, who aren't just athletes but lifestyle brands, it makes sense to invest as much as they can in their bodies because these are likely to be their peak earning years. When the money in professional sport was just good, in the days when players, writers and broadcasters all made around the same wage, there wasn't the money - or science - for you to push into your 40s.

Team athletes like Brady and James now prepare like players from individual sports. They build support networks around themselves: psychologists, decision-making specialists, analysts, eye trainers, and whoever else they need. Cricket isn't quite there but many top players have their own dieticians, specialist coach, trainers and other support staff.

Of course if you are lucky, your team can provide a lot of this for you. In another era England would have phased Anderson out and moved on to Chris Woakes. But now they have invested all this time and money in their greatest modern bowler, he helps them win, and success gets them more fans. Think about how long it took England to find one Anderson. If this was your business, you would spend all your money on two things: trying to find another, and trying to keep the first one on the field. This is where modern sports are. Players who are just good will be moved on, greats will be nursed as long as they can be.

Recently writer David Epstein described ageing in athletes as essentially a choice. Research suggests that you can delay the inevitable, as many rich athletes are doing, by staying active. Of course there are things we can't stop from slowing down, as Epstein notes. Reaction speed and power, for example. The fast-twitch muscle fibres responsible for them starts to disappear. That explains why Steyn might have deteriorated quicker than Jimmy Anderson. But you might think that simple reaction times are essential in batting, so that should affect batting into old age, but it doesn't. And part of the reason is that batting isn't just about reaction time.

In fact, it's impossible to react to a ball being bowled at 90mph. Batters don't do that; instead, they read the field, the bowler, the ball as it's released, and they use all that information to get into the right area to play. Even as their reaction times slow and their eyesight fades, they can face quick bowling. Not as well as in their prime, but Gooch, Hodge and others have done this.

Now think about peak de Villiers. Perhaps Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson went past him as great batters. But at least part of that was because of de Villiers retiring from, or barely playing, international cricket. At his best, as great as the others were, there was probably no other player who was in position to play a ball as early as him. de Villiers slows the game down to his speed. In Centurion, when Mitchell Johnson was destroying South Africa, de Villiers was playing him like he was Boris, not Mitchell.

It is not just reaction time and eyesight that slow down - so do the movements of batters. Their bodies degrade. Find any old athlete and ask them how many anti-inflammatories they take. As we said earlier, de Villiers is playing less cricket than other great players do, and has done for a long time. He has over 736 first-class, List A and T20 games; Dhoni is up at 892. de Villiers last had a full international career in 2014. His body shouldn't have the wear and tear of a 37-year-old player. Between 2014 and 2018, when he started ramping down, he averaged something like 63 days of cricket a year. Since the start of 2019, he has played 71 in total. Some of that is because of Covid.

But why would he want to play any other leagues now? We do not know what his actual salary is at RCB, nor the advertising and promotions income that boosts it. But that amount might well double what he can pick up in all other leagues. That means if he uses a certain percentage of his earnings on dieticians, physicians, trainers, yoga, and someone to take off his cape after innings, he could play on at a high level. It could mean one, or two, extra years of peak IPL form - which would mean more money than playing as much cricket as he can and burning out. There will be an expiration date but he has the ability, skill, finances and work ethic to push this as far forward as possible.

The other problem is form, especially in T20, which can be so fickle. A season is so short, you can get run out a few times, or get stuck, and your next contract will be affected. And so maybe he can't only play the IPL and stay in that kind of form. He could always warm up every year with games in the MSL or Big Bash League, which both occur a few months before the IPL. And for the rest of the year let his body recover while staying at the best level of fitness he can.

de Villiers doesn't let himself go; he stays fit. He turned up to this IPL having worked hard. A lot of things can go wrong for any athlete once they pass 35. Their body doesn't recover from injuries the same way as before. And there is always the chance that he wakes up one day and has had enough mentally.

After that innings in Chennai, de Villiers played two more incredible knocks, of the kind that would be career-defining for normal players. We'll hardly remember them with his 25 player-of-the match awards in the IPL. In the history of this league there are 39 players with over 2000 runs. Among them, de Villiers has the third-highest average and second-highest strike rate. There is no real debate over him being the best batter in IPL history. He plays the game his way.

de Villiers already slows the game down. If there is any batter who can slow ageing down, it would be him.