Editor’s note: Statistics are updated as on July 21, 2017

With over a billion dollars in hand, Calico is one of Silicon Valley’s hottest research companies. The problem Calico and many other companies are trying to tackle is perhaps man’s ultimate challenge – how to stop aging? Why does this top the tree among the innumerable issues that plague us?

Age slows the best down. Age dulls the mind and affects one’s movement. The finest brains and bodies suffer as they age. Nowhere is the effect of age more pronounced than in sport. Hand-eye coordination, fleet-footedness, feline reflexes, and instinctive reactions are all suddenly a thing of the past as the great athletes age. But then, along came Roger Federer in 2017 and brushed aside every notion we had regarding the effect age has on the finest sportsmen.

Cricket, like most other sports, is rather unforgiving. Age suddenly presents itself as an opponent that even the finest cannot handle. Very few have managed to perform at the same level as they did when they started their careers.

Can age be conquered?

In recent years, there have been a few stories that seem to suggest that some players have managed to ‘age’ successfully. Is there a pattern here that can be analyzed? Do batsmen who have a strong technique cope better while those who rely heavily on their hand-eye coordination suffer?

To understand this, I have considered seven leading ODI batsmen of the 1990s and 2000s. These include four top-order batsmen – Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya and Adam Gilchrist. Three exceptional middle-order batsmen in MS Dhoni, Michael Bevan and Yuvraj Singh. These players provide a unique opportunity to analyze batting performance across various age groups since most of them had fairly long careers. Their contrasting styles also lend a lot of weight to the analysis and will undoubtedly provide us with a chance to figure out the impact of age on different batting styles.

Dhoni’s finishing ability at the end of the innings, which was perhaps his greatest strength, has come in for quite a bit of criticism in recent times. The second part of this piece will aim to analyze Dhoni’s batting over the years across different phases of an ODI innings and against pace and spin. Perhaps this will help us understand if one of India’s greatest match winners has actually lost the battle against age.

For the age analysis, I consider six different age groupings – 15-21, 22-25, 26-28, 29-31, 32-34, and 35+. In any age grouping, I consider the score as 0 wherever there is no data (player has not played or played less than 5 matches) for the sake of clarity and ease of analysis.

So, for example, Adam Gilchrist would have a score of 0 in the age groupings 15-21 and 22-24 because he had played only two ODIs before the age of 25.

Run distribution by age grouping

Few players have had as early a start to their career as Tendulkar did. He was just over 16 when he played his first ODI in the 1989 tour of Pakistan. An inauspicious start (two ducks in his first two games) did not seem to affect him as he batted his way into the record books with the most runs and most centuries in ODIs.

How was his performance in different age groupings though? Tendulkar scored 17% of his runs in the 15-21 age range and 26% in the 22-25 age grouping. No other batsman in the list but for Yuvraj Singh (64% of runs before the age of 25) had as high a proportion of runs in the first two age groupings as Tendulkar did.

Gilchrist had a very late start to his career so did Bevan. Jayasuriya, one of the most aggressive ODI batsmen, had a very slow start to his career, scoring just 11% of his career runs in the first two age groupings. In the middle two age groupings (26-28 and 29-31), Sehwag and Gilchrist made a significant proportion of their runs (53% and 58%).

But the leader in this category is Bevan, who made 69% of his career runs in these two groupings. Tendulkar, Dhoni and Gilchrist had good finishes to their careers (age groupings 32-34 and 35+) but Jayasuriya finished top – an astonishing 51% of his career runs scored after he turned 32. Talk about getting better as you age.

Batting Performance by age grouping

For analyzing the batting performance, let’s consider the quality factor (QF) which is the product of the runs per innings (ignoring not outs) and the strike rate. Tendulkar experienced a major surge in his QF between the first two age groupings (~40% increase) but the QF dropped off steadily over the next three phases before a strong finish (QF of 42.49 in the 35+ grouping) helped him finish with a career QF of 35.15.

Sehwag’s start was measured but had incredibly high QF scores (51.83 and 44.28) in the age groupings 29-31 and 32-34 – the best among all batsmen in the list. Gilchrist’s QF increased continuously before falling off slightly in the final grouping (35+).

Dhoni’s QF traces a see-saw pattern, alternating between an increase and decrease. While Bevan had a surge early on (26-28), the QF dropped off in the next two phases. Yuvraj Singh, on the other hand, had a great QF in the age grouping 26-28 but the loss of form and his poor health meant that the QF dropped sharply in the next two phases. His most recent phase (35+), however, has witnessed a rise in QF again (36.71) though it remains to be seen how his ODI career is likely to end.

Batting first v chasing (by age grouping)

Does age affect how a batsman performs when the pressure is well and truly on such as in a chase? Or is the performance similar in both innings? The QF ratio here, defined as the ratio of QF (2nd innings) to the QF (1st innings) provides us with a measure of how good the batsman has been in a chase relative to his display batting first. Tendulkar’s QF ratio went up from an acceptable 0.76 to a stunning 1.71 in the age grouping 22-25.

The QF ratio then dropped off steadily over the next few phases to a low of 0.54 in the 35+ grouping. This perhaps suggests that he found it much harder to score quickly and consistently in chases later on in his long career.

Sehwag had an excellent record in the 2nd innings (QF ratio of 1.23) in the age grouping 22-25 but the corresponding figure crashed to a very low 0.15 in the age grouping 32-34. Gilchrist seemed to respond superbly to the challenge of a chase throughout his career; his QF never fell below 1 and reached a high of 1.56 in the 32-34 age grouping.

Jayasuriya’s QF ratio, on the other hand, had a bit of an up-and-down journey across the various phases of his career. Like his overall performance, the QF ratio also closed at a very respectable 0.92 at the end of his career.

Dhoni, who guided India to the World Cup win in 2011, started his career (age group 22-25) with a great run in chases before the QF ratio fell away by nearly 50% across the next two phases. In the age grouping 32-34, the QF ratio rose again to 0.74 but dropped drastically to 0.33 in the most recent (35+) age grouping, suggesting that his consistent display in chases might have been hit by the age factor.

Bevan, the master of many Australian chases in the 1990s, had a QF ratio that hovered close to 1 for 3 out of 4 phases of his career. After a strong start, Yuvraj Singh has had a middling performance in chases in the latter stages of his career with the lowest QF ratio (0.47) coming in the 35+ age grouping.

By analyzing the performance of all batsmen, it does seem that the ability to handle the pressure of a chase falls away (with a few exceptions) in the final stages of a batsman’s career.

Performance Ratio

Finally, let’s consider the performance ratio which is defined as the ratio of high scores (50+) to the low scores (dismissals for 20 or below). Tendulkar had a remarkably consistent performance ratio throughout his career with the factor ranging from 0.74 to 0.89. Sehwag had a high performance ratio of 0.76 in the age grouping 29-31 but a much lower figure for much of his career and an overall performance ratio of 0.48.

While Gilchrist and Jayasuriya had one excellent phase (29-31 for Gilchrist and 26-28 for Jayasuriya) where the performance ratio was over 0.80, they had average numbers in the other phases. Dhoni has had an exceptional performance ratio throughout his career with top scores of 1.69 and 1.67 in the age groupings 26-28 and 35+ respectively.

However, the top position goes to Bevan, who ended with a career performance ratio over 1 and a brilliant performance ratio of 3 in the age grouping 32-34. Yuvraj Singh, despite playing mostly in the middle order where one is less likely to be dismissed early, has a very average performance ratio of 0.52 across his career.

MS Dhoni, on the wane?

Now that we have established how these greats have progressed with age, let’s look at Dhoni and his evolution.

For most of his career, Dhoni has played in the middle order and come in when India have set a decent platform. However, in the early days, Dhoni played at the top and scored at a fast clip. In recent matches, however, his legendary ability to help the team wriggle out of tough situations and chase down seemingly impossible targets has come under some serious question.

Has his scoring rate come down? Is he struggling to get the big hits going? Does he end up facing more dot balls now than he used to? A detailed analysis of his performance over the years across three different phases of the innings (overs 1-15, 16-40 and 41-50) and his display against pace and spin is likely to provide the answer.

Data: ESPNCricinfo

In the first phase (overs 1-15), Dhoni has had a low strike rate against both pace and spin (70.53 and 67.82 respectively). This is well below his career strike rate of 88.69. The highest strike rate he achieved against pace and spin (120) were in 2015 and 2008. Since 2012, Dhoni has scored at a strike rate of 50 or below against spin in three years but has had an improved performance in 2017 (strike rate of 100). His dot-ball percentages against spin in 2007 and 2016 (the years with the lowest strike rates) reflect the struggles too; they are among the highest in his career (78% and 71% respectively).

Data: ESPNCricinfo

During the 2nd phase (overs 16-40), Dhoni has definitely stepped up the scoring. Except for a couple of years, his strike rate against pace in this phase of the innings has almost always been above the corresponding figure against spin. Between 2014 and 2016, however, the strike rate against pace has dropped from 86 to 74 and the number against spin has fallen from 67 to 61. While the dot-ball percentage against spin (~60%) has been much higher than the corresponding figure against pace (~47%), the boundary percentage against pace bowlers has been significantly higher. This does suggest that in recent years Dhoni has experienced a bit of a problem when it comes to rotating the strike off spinners.

Data: ESPNCricinfo

In the final ten overs (overs 41-50), Dhoni has maintained an average strike rate of 130.61. His overall strike rate against pace is nearly 28% higher than his performance against spin. His strike rate against pace in this phase of the innings has never fallen below 115 after 2005. On the other hand, his strike rate against spin has dropped below his overall career number (88.69) on six different occasions (three times between 2012 and 2017). This does clearly indicate that Dhoni has found the going tough even in the end overs when he faces up to quality spinners. His dot-ball percentage against spin has been much higher than the figure against pace in 5 of the last 6 years while the boundary percentage has been higher against pace in the same period.

Data: ESPNCricinfo
Data: ESPNCricinfo
Data: ESPNCricinfo
Data: ESPNCricinfo

From the analysis it becomes quite clear that most batsmen have faced multiple challenges as they age. Some of them have found it tough to score at a fast clip while some others have found it much harder to maintain their consistency in chases.

Batsmen who have relied heavily on hand-eye coordination (Sehwag, Gilchrist) have struggled to perform at the same level but there have been exceptions like Jayasuriya who have had a resurgence as they have grown older.

Players like Dhoni have been unable to force the pace, especially against spin and have had a considerably higher proportion of dot balls in recent years. Most batsmen have scored the majority of their runs before they cross 32 but for the notable exception of Jayasuriya. But for Dhoni and Bevan, all other batsmen have struggled to maintain a consistent performance ratio in the latter stages of their career. Overall, this does suggest that while age does not completely nullify a top batsman’s ability, it does go on to seriously affect his chances of performing in certain crucial contexts.

Note: All ball-by-ball data for the analysis in this section has been provided by ESPNcricinfo.