They are back again, and like creaking terminators, to borrow Rahul Dravid's words from the Bradman oration. Over the last couple of seasons, you might have thought many times that you had seen the last of them. But the 'oldies' are not ready yet to give up on the fun and games that the IPL is.
That they could beat younger men in their own game was proved in the first edition. A genius, who goes around by the name of Shane Warne, rose like a phoenix from the ashes of retirement and led a bunch of no-hopers to the IPL triumph, underlining the epithet, "The best captain Australia never had" in the process. Unfortunately, he won't be around this time, neither will his glamorous actress girlfriend Liz Hurley. For many, that's going to make Warne's absence even more conspicuous and poignant!
Nevertheless, Adam Gilchrist, pushing 41, Muttiah Muralitharan, touching 40, and India's own troika of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, all closing in on 40, are set to strut their stuff one more time.
They may not have someone like Hurley in tow, won't be adventurous enough to take a swig of beer during the match or practice with a cigarette in hand, or have the impetuosity to brawl with powerful officials, but they all can play as well as that maverick Australian. So cheer up, that's no small consolation.
These elderly gentlemen have undoubtedly held their own in the slam-bang league, but it has required them to dig deep into their reserves. Adapting to the demands of the fast-paced format was a matter of minor adjustment for them; the bigger challenge was to hold their creaking bodies together in the intense eight-week tournament that requires non-stop travelling during the peak summer months.
"It's not easy to deal with injuries and at my age it becomes even more difficult," observed Tendulkar a few days back. It's indeed not easy, especially for someone like him who spends pre-match and match-day evenings on the masseur's table.
The physiotherapists can't agree more. "Once you are pushing 40, you become prone to some specific injuries affecting tendons and joints, which need to be looked after. The recovery time will definitely be longer than the younger players," said Kings XI physio Patrick Farhat.
The situation for the retired players is as tricky. For them, the challenge is to kick off the rust from their yearlong idleness and get into top shape just for two months... and it's not easy.
The just-retired Dravid spoke at his felicitation ceremony on how tough it has suddenly become to find motivation to hit the gym.
Then, there is the immense pressure to handle. It may seem all fun and games from the outside, but for the players, it's as intense as any international game, or maybe more if one goes by what Virender Sehwag has to say.
"I think there's more pressure when playing in the IPL, as here you have owners to answer to," he had once said in his inimitable style about the franchise league. Add to it the ignominy of being pushed around by the franchise owners. While VVS Laxman was cold-shouldered by all in the last auction, players like Ganguly, Dravid and Gilchrist too have had their share of tiffs with team owners. They enjoyed a demi-god status when they played for their national teams, but have been brought down to earth in the cold, commerce-driven cricket league.
In this backdrop, it's tough not to wonder what keeps them going. What is their motivation? The much touted love for the game or big money? And just to put the money angle into perspective, here's a loose yet telling stat.
In his career spanning over 16 years, which included 164 Test matches and 344 ODIs, Rahul Dravid earned more or less the same amount through match fees as the likes of Yusuf Pathan, Robin Uthappa and Ravindra Jadeja have pocketed from the IPL in eight weeks. So it's next to impossible — perhaps foolish too — to say no to that kind of money as long as you have a chance to earn it.
Says Kings XI Punjab skipper Gilchrist: "Everybody knows that this is a lucrative league. I am also surprised a bit to find myself still playing cricket four years after my retirement. But this (IPL) fits into my plan."
Matthew Hayden, Gilchrist's former teammate, had put forward the other side of the story.
"International cricket, with its year-long engagements and constant travelling, could become a drag after a point of time. So many players quit with much still left in the tank. The IPL, in contrast, is just an eight-week tournament and offers good money. So it opens up an alternative."
Whatever the reason for their continued presence, there are no two opinions about the value they add to the league.
They are still the crowd pullers, and a chance to observe them from up close for two months could shape many young careers.
"Senior players have a lot of experience and they draw upon it when they need to take a call. I love interacting with young players and passing on to them whatever I have learned from the game," said Gilchrist.