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Growing age vs Performance: A case study

Controversy associated to age-related disability and loss of performance currently plagues the world of cricket. This case discusses demographic data and the effect of aging on physical performance in senior cricketers to identify key time points for intervention to address declining performance. Cricketers with 7000 runs and above in international ODIs were surveyed for demographic and performance characteristics. Age-related changes in physical performance were determined from mean batting average, strike rate and ball faced per dismissal. These were plotted against age over a span of their respective careers. Percentage performance change across events was compared.

Recently on cricinfo.com there was an article that attempted to track the effect of age on player performance. In any case their results seemed to show that there was little to no correlation between the two. The problem with the article was that they simply posted an average of all batting averages for players in a given age range. The issue with this, which I think the people writing the article probably knew, is that it creates a selection bias toward players that are still performing well as they get older, since poor performers will be dropped. In fact if the selectors were completely rational, and picked a team for every game only with the goal of winning, one would expect for batting performance to be independent of age. Actually, if this were true, I would probably expect averages to rise with age, even for players in their mid thirties, the reason being that younger players would be likely to earn a place in the side based on better fielding even if they were weaker with the bat. To greatly reduce the effect of selection bias and accurately measure the effects of age it is necessary to track how each player performed over time relative to how they performed over their entire career. I have performed this work, and acquired data for all batsmen with at least 7000 runs in ODI cricket, 27 in total. Each batsmans performance in batting average, balls faced per dismissal, and strike rate in each calendar year was compared to his career performance. To reduce the effects of variance, which are still huge, only years in which the batsman had at least 10 ODI innings are considered for the purpose of this study. I chose ODIs over Tests due to the availability of accurate strike rate and balls faced data as well as the tendency for batsmen to have more years with 10+ innings. One can probably guess the trend from looking at the average of averages for each age:

Difference in Avg
10 5 0 -5 Difference in Avg -10 -15 -20 -25

Plenty of variance here, but the overall trend is quite clear - batsmen rapidly improve between the ages of 19 and 24, peaking at 28-31, then decline as they reach their mid 30s. To be honest, I doubt this is earth-shattering to anyone, especially if you are familiar with similar work on baseball, as the results are pretty much exactly the same in that sport. I expected results something like this, but one thing that interested me was whether batsmen tend to improve more by learning to hang around longer at the crease, or by hitting more boundaries.

Difference in Balls per Dismissal


10 5 0 Player/Age 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32 34 36 -5 -10 -15 -20 -25 -30 38

Difference in Balls per Dismissal

The numbers for balls faced per dismissal almost exactly mirror those for batting average. However the strike rate numbers are far more interesting in that there is no notable decline with age. I would have expected a decline as players lost their ability to run quickly between the wickets, but it seems that any decline in this is countered by increased boundary hitting.

Difference in Strike Rate


20 15 10 5 0 Player Age 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32 34 36 -5 -10 -15 -20 38 Difference in Strike Rate

To capture the performance of cricketers with the maximum function for their ages, the stat records of the portal cricinfo.com were analyzed as above. Cricketers holding more than 7000

runs demonstrate the utmost capacity to overcome the difficulties of aging. As expected, the performance times and percentage change in performance times increased with age. The implications of these numbers are actually fairly interesting when interpreted in the context of modern Test and ODI squads, as these days ODI teams tend to be much younger than the Test sides of the same nation. Older players show little to no decline in strike rate, yet are somehow considered only suitable for Test cricket. Of course, it is quite likely that the better fielding abilities of younger players make this type of selection policy correct. But in the IPL/ICL, where there are going to be many retired players over the next couple years, these older players may not be such a bad investment as one may think, even if they are past their international prime. If anything I think selectors are a little too hasty to drop players in their early to mid 30s, and dont pick players of ~30 or so nearly enough when looking for replacements or squad players. The rate of decline is quite slow until 33-35, and in general I think several big names have been dropped a couple years too early due to some cold runs which may well have been simple poor luck. Looking at say, India, there are half a dozen guys around 28-30 that performed decently well but realistically will never get a run again in the ODI side as some younger worse player is taking their place. Granted, the numbers show that these guys may have more upside and are likely to eventually be better players, which could justify picking them so they can gain experience, but I actually think that international tours are poor in that regard. There are always 3-4 guys, usually the youngest or fringiest on the squad, that end up carrying the drinks the whole tour or playing just one or two games. Even then, because they are the 5th or 6th batsman they end up batting at 6 or 7 in the slog overs where they will usually get out early in trying to help the team, and may be considered players who cant cut it in the international game as a result. Worse than that, they dont even get full time in the nets because the starting XI gets priority, so then they come back to domestic cricket and are out of form and somebody else takes their place in the order. Almost every team has some variation of this selection style with perhaps Australia being the least guilty. This policy is doubly bad - first, the average strength of a team over time is reduced, because injuries are inevitable and these young guys then get a game while a better veteran sits. But worse is that it may actually retard the growth of the youngsters career as they get less time in the middle in competitive matches. Furthermore it is such a poor way of judging player ability as many of the best players inevitably fall to variance over the 10-20 innings they get to bat in and never get selected as regulars, which leads to lesser players getting the side due to simply going on a hot run when they first come in the side before crashing down. The simple solution is to always pick the best squad based more on performance at the domestic level, which should include both statistical analysis and scouting of their technique. Young players should be included only if they are legitimately good enough to play for the first team and can be expected to play in multiple games. In medical literature and sports related research multiple age-related factors have been attributed to the functional decline seen in senior athletes. These include declines in training intensity, reaction time, joint mobility, skeletal size, body fat composition, anaerobic and aerobic power supply, recovery ability, strength, endurance, and coordination.

Questions Is there a correlation between age and performance? What are the criteria that fulfills a players retirement? When a player should retire? Who will decide the exit, the board, the coach or the players themselves? What are the parameters that define performance? How to judge a players productivity in long run? Should player be given the choice to plan their future course of action?

References Brooks Robert D, Faff Robert W, Sokulsky David. An ordered response model of test cricket performance. Applied Economics. Dec 2002; Issue 18, Vol 34; pages 2353 2365. Maharam LG, Bauman PA, Kalman D, Skolnik H, Perle SM. Masters athletes: factors affecting performance. Sports Med. 1999; 28: 273-285.
http://cricketanalysis.com http://www.cricinfo.com http://www.cricbuzz.com http://www.cricketnirvana.com http://www.en.wikipedia.org