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The value of the old dog

Misbah-ul-Haq scored a hundred at Lord's, led Pakistan to their first opening -Test victory in England since 1996, and celebrated his ton with a few on-field press-ups in front of a packed house. And all this aged 42.

You have to go back to the mid-'90s to find an older Test cricketer than Misbah. And even then, England's John Emburey was making a comeback, while John Traicos was nearing the end of his career when Zimbabwe started playing Test cricket. Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Sachin Tendulkar were the last Test regulars over 40, and both were younger then than Misbah is now. England wicketkeeper Bob Taylor was a few days older when he played his last Test. If Misbah goes to Australia later this year, he will go past Taylor.

Taylor retired in 1984. In the decades before that, a fair few international cricketers played into their forties. In the 1920s and earlier, a handful even played into their fifties. The modern game, however, increasingly values and requires fitness and youthful exuberance. Most cricketers are thinking of retirement when they reach their mid-thirties. If they are not and their performances dip, the selectors, the media and the public start thinking about retirement for them.

Misbah, however, has shown that there's still a role for the old dog to play - as long as the old dog is good enough and fit enough. Take his runs out of the first two Tests against England and you have Pakistan scorecards that look a lot like recent West Indian efforts without Chanderpaul, or some of Sri Lanka's underwhelming performances since Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene retired. West Indies haven't won a Test since they dropped Chanderpaul last year. It's unlikely their results against Australia and India would have been different even with Chanderpaul in the side, but his solid presence in the middle order might at least have prevented some of those increasingly regular batting collapses.

Senior bowlers are just as important, although fast bowlers tend to become seniors in their early- to mid-thirties, such are the stresses and strains of that particular profession. Spinners can last a little longer, but imagine a Sri Lanka attack without Rangana Herath holding it together. Or Pakistan without the wily Yasir Shah.

"A cricket team needs thoughtful individuals. People who can step back from their own batting and bowling and think about the game as a whole" Ray Illingworth

Dale Steyn limped out of South Africa's last two series, against England and India, and South Africa lost both. The England attack was a completely different proposition in the second Test against Pakistan with James Anderson leading it - though Anderson himself only took four wickets.

Senior players, the real quality ones like Misbah, Herath and Anderson, do much more than just score runs and take wickets, though.

Former Australia batsman Gary Cosier recently told me that one of the reasons the Packer-era Australian teams he played in struggled was because there were no senior players to maintain a flow when they batted, in rotating the strike and running between the wickets.

During the 1977 Centenary Test, Cosier watched as one of those senior players, Greg Chappell, dug in for 40 from 139 balls on a bowler-friendly MCG. The pitch flattened out later in the game and both sides scored big. But Chappell's first-innings effort gave Australia a crucial 43-run lead and they ended up winning the game by 45 runs. Chappell says it's the best he ever batted in a Test.

Today, Pakistan bat around Misbah, just as Sri Lanka batted around Sangakkara and Jayawardene and West Indies did around Chanderpaul. In 2014, with Sangakkara and Jayawardene in the team, Sri Lanka beat England at Headingley. This year Sri Lanka looked as clueless as Pakistan did in 1978, when they toured England without Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad and Imran Khan, their World Series Cricket senior players. Each of the last three times Pakistan beat England away, in 1987, 1992 and 1996, their team was full of high-quality experienced players.

According to Barry Richards, who played first-class cricket and unofficial Tests until he was 38, a senior player is more likely to remain calm under pressure. "If the going gets tough, the senior player knows if he just hangs in there, the bowlers will get tired, they'll bowl a bad ball, he'll hit a four and things will change," Richards says. "If you bottle a younger player up for half an hour, sometimes they'll play an extravagant shot and get out."

Patience can indeed be a virtue when teams are full of young cricketers in a hurry. At Lord's, Misbah and Younis Khan put on a careful 57-run partnership and consolidated the innings, after which Misbah and Azhar Ali pushed ahead and put Pakistan in a winning position. In the first Test against Sri Lanka last month, 36-year-old Adam Voges held Australia's first innings together with a patient 47.

"The senior pro provides steadiness and maturity," says Ray Illingworth, who captained England when he was 37, and surrounded himself with senior pros like Geoff Boycott, John Edrich and Basil D'Oliviera. So too did his successors. Mike Denness took Fred Titmus, 42, and Colin Cowdrey, 41, to Australia in 1974-75. Tony Greig handed a debut to 33-year-old David Steele in the 1975 Ashes and recalled 45-year-old Brian Close to face West Indies a year later.

England's idea was that these hardened pros could blunt the opposition's fearsome pace attacks. Young players, it was believed, wouldn't manage against Lillee, Thomson, Roberts and Holding.

Most of today's international debutants are youngsters, players who selectors believe might forge long and distinguished careers at the highest level. Sometimes, however, selectors still go for the stop-gap solution.

"I look at my Somerset team-mate Marcus Trescothick and I'm in awe. His pure love for the game is infectious and leaves others in wonder and makes them want to rise to his standards" Chris Rogers

Australia picked Voges and Chris Rogers for two challenging Ashes tours, believing that their younger players weren't quite ready and that the two thirtysomethings' county experience might prove invaluable in England. They were right. Rogers proved to be a solid addition for a couple of years. Voges didn't get many Ashes runs, but he has done so well since that he's currently averaging almost as much as Don Bradman.

What Sri Lanka and West Indies have also lost recently, and what Pakistan will lose when Misbah and Younis retire, are cricketers who know their own game inside out, and their role in the team just as well. They are not always the most talented players in the team, although Sangakkara and Jayawardene undoubtedly were. But because they know their limits and play within them, often they are the most consistent and reliable.

The senior player doesn't just enhance a team through his own performances. It's his influence on team-mates and the side as a whole that also makes his contribution invaluable. "A cricket team needs thoughtful individuals. People who can step back from their own batting and bowling and think about the game as a whole," Illingworth says.

Richards adds that a senior player tends to play for the entirety of a game, tries to predict what will happen next, and has a wider appreciation of who does what and what the pitch is going to play like. "When you're young, it's all about the moment," he says.

He also believes that senior players feel under less pressure to maintain their place in the side than their younger team-mates, who need to look after their stats to stay in the reckoning and to get the big T20 contracts. In parts of the world, like Pakistan and India, where public and media scrutiny is particularly intense, an older player, with maturity, nerve and knowledge might better handle the pressure of captaining the side than a younger, more impulsive, less secure player.

Many cricketers look back fondly at how an older head helped them during their formative years. Whether that was by advising during difficult times, taking the pressure off during a game by facing the brunt of the opposition's best bowler during a partnership, or by setting a general example about how to be a successful international cricketer.

Today, some of this mentoring role is performed by a coach. But according to one of the most highly regarded modern coaches, Yorkshire's Jason Gillespie, players still learn best from other players. "A coach can't go on the field with the team," Gillespie says. "There's a reason we're called support staff."

As captain (though maybe not as coach), Illingworth preferred players to learn from senior players who had done it at the highest level than coaches who hadn't.

Rogers, still playing first-class cricket at 38, thinks younger players need more than one example to look up to. "A young guy in the Australian set-up, when I played, might have resonated more with Brad Haddin or myself than [with] Michael Clarke, or vice versa," he says. "If you only have one leader then it can be a little one-dimensional.

"I look at my Somerset team-mate Marcus Trescothick and I'm in awe. His pure love for the game is infectious and leaves others in wonder and makes them want to rise to his standards."

Gillespie remembers, when he first played for Australia at 21, admiring the way Ian Healy went about his work. "Healy had played 100 Test matches for Australia, yet he was first at practice, looking to improve his wicketkeeping. As a young player coming through, seeing that drive and desire is an inspiration."

But Illingworth and Richards, even Gillespie, played during times when players, if they were good enough, could get away with being less than super-fit.

Even great players like MS Dhoni and Curtly Ambrose were criticised for their lack of fitness and poor fielding towards the end of their Test careers and their place in the side was questioned. When he was captain, Dhoni himself once said that playing Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Tendulkar in the same one-day international would cost India 20 runs in the field. Misbah at least looks lean and fit enough to play the modern game even if his fielding isn't always the best.

Of course, not all senior players retain the necessary qualities and attitudes to make a difference to their teams. Some become jaded and unreceptive to new ideas and more concerned with protecting their own position in the team. Others operate out of ego and insecurity, determined to prove that they can still be the team's gun player.

For these players, when performance or fitness levels drop, it's easy to fall back on past glories and status to justify their inclusion. There are plenty of very good and even great cricketers who believe they were shunted off into retirement too early but who had long stopped giving their team what they needed.

Gillespie says senior players must continually strive to be the best they can be and look for ways to be better players and team-mates. Illingworth agrees. "You can't offer advice, encouragement or ask for a bit of extra effort when things are not going well if you're not doing it yourself," he says.

Misbah ticks all the boxes. He's calm under pressure, fit enough, and has the drive to make his team better and to win games for his country. He might be a bit conservative as a captain, but then so is Alastair Cook. And while Misbah is still scoring runs and Pakistan are winning, the selectors, media and public will probably overlook a few misfields and the occasional second-ball dismissal slogging the spinner to deep midwicket.