Column | When 'old was gold' in cricket

Brian Close & Michael Holding
Brian Close was at the receiving end of a hostile spell by Michael Holding & Co. in the 1976 Manchester Test. File photo: Yorkshire Cricket Club/AFP/ Simon Wilkinson

Virat Kohli celebrated his 500th appearance in an international match by striking a superb century against the West Indies in the second Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad. While doing so, Kohli became the fourth Indian cricketer after Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni to achieve the distinction of turning out for the country in 500 matches.

The stadium at the Queens Park Oval, which has been a favourite of Indian cricketers right from the time they first toured West Indies in 1952, thus got to see the champion batsman of the present generation in full flow. This was Kohli’s 29th Test century and 76th hundred in international cricket. Though the law of diminishing returns is slowly catching up with this master batsman, he showed that there is quite a lot of cricket and plenty of grit left in him to continue playing the game at the highest level for some more years.It is not surprising that Tendulkar leads the list of cricketers who have played highest number of international matches, with 664 games to his credit.

The sheer longevity of his career, spread over 24 years, coupled with the fact that he entered the international arena at a time when One-Day Internationals (ODIs) were overtaking Test matches, both in number and popularity, helped him to achieve this humungous figure. He played in 200 Tests and 463 ODIs but turned out for India only in a solitary T20 International against South Africa in 2006. Had he chosen to play in more T20 matches, the final figure would have been definitely higher.

Mahela Jayawardene, who figures just below Tendulkar in this list with 652 matches to his credit, was helped by the fact that he played in 55 T20 Internationals during his 18-year long career in international cricket. He turned out for Sri Lanka in 149 Tests and 448 ODIs during this period. Obviously the effort was higher and strain greater on the part of Tendulkar as he played in 52 more Tests. Though it was not Jayawardene' fault that he got more opportunities to play in T20Is, it does look prime facie unfair that he comes so close to Tendulkar in total number of matches played, despite playing for much lesser years at the international level.

Dravid too played only one T20I, while Dhoni and Kohli have played 98 and 115 T20Is respectively. Dravid, on the other hand played 164 Tests as against 90 by Dhoni and 111 by Kohli. The increased focus on limited overs cricket, and in particular on the shortest version of the game, during the recent years has contributed substantially to Dhoni and Kohli reaching the landmark of 500 international matches, despite playing fewer years at this level. Hence this piece of statistics can be listed as one of those instances in cricket where sheer numbers and figures do not tell the full story! 

When it comes to longevity at the highest level, no one can come close to beating the record of Wilfred Rhodes of England, who played international cricket (all Test matches) for close to 31 years. He played in 58 Tests, the last of which took place when he was 52 years old, and scored 2,325 runs, besides picking up 127 wickets. During this journey, he also became the first England player to complete the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in Tests. The more remarkable aspect of his career was his record of playing 1,110 first-class matches, which will be a difficult one to beat, as will be his tally of 4,204 wickets! Interestingly, the list of cricketers who have played more than 600 first-class matches consists entirely of Englishmen and last occasion when a member of his club played a game was during the 1980s! This honour belongs to Keith Fletcher, former England captain, who retired in 1988 after playing in 730 first-class matches spread over 26 years. 

However, despite playing first class-cricket well into his fifties, Rhodes is not the oldest cricketer to play at this level. This honour belongs to Raja Maharaj Singh, who took the field as captain of the Bombay Governor’s team against a visiting Commonwealth side in 1950 at the ripe “young” age of 72 years and 194 days! The fact that he was the Governor of Bombay at that point of time would certainly have helped his selection and appointment as captain of this side! Incidentally, this was also his foray into game at this level, which made him the oldest cricketer to make his debut in first-class cricket. He did not play any match after this outing. For the record, he scored four runs in his only venture to the crease and did not bowl.

However, followers of the game in India can take heart from the fact that the second oldest person to play first-class cricket also hails from our country and he was not a “one- match wonder” like Raja Maharaj. C K Nayudu was the captain when India played their first ever Test match at Lord’s in 1932. Though he did not play Test matches after 1936, he continued playing first-class cricket till the close of 1963-64 season, by which time he was close to 60 years of age! Nayudu served in various capacities as administrator and selector during the 1950s but continued playing first-class cricket throughout this period. He always demanded that bowlers should not show any consideration for his age and seniority and displayed extraordinary guts as could be seen from the episode detailed below.

In the Ranji Trophy finals of 1952, Nayudu turned out for Holkar, who took on Bombay. Dattu Phadkar was a fast bowler who used to open the bowling for India at that time. When Nayudu came out to bat, Vinoo Mankad, who had no love lost for the former India skipper, coaxed Phadkar to bowl a bouncer. Nayudu was surprised by the pace of the delivery, which struck him on his mouth. Complete silence reigned on the ground as Nayudu spat out blood and took out his kerchief, wiped blood off his mouth and picked up a tooth that had fallen on the ground. No Bombay player dared to come near him even as Nayudu marked his guard again and got ready to face the next delivery after keeping the kerchief with the tooth in his pocket,. Phadkar was upset and bowled a slow full toss which Nayudu hit to the boundary, after which he chastised the bowler for going soft on him! 

Another instance of an “old” cricketer exhibiting immense physical courage took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, in 1976 when England played the West Indies. By some strange logic, England selectors decided that the 45 year old Brian Close was best suited to handle the thunderbolts sent down by Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel and recalled him to the side. Close bravely took blows on his body without flinching in a torrid session on the third day, when bouncers flew thick and fast. Those were the days before helmets and other protective equipment had made their advent. There was no restriction on intimidatory bowling and Roberts and company let it rip. But Close, armed with only a bat, gloves, pads, abdomen guard and a towel tucked around his hip, survived that session without getting dismissed. The picture of Close showing the bruises, of colours ranging from red to dark blue, on his torso, while having a rub down at the end of play on that day made newspaper headlines. Close was dropped from the side after this Test, thus ending his truncated international career, which incidentally began in 1948! But he played county cricket for nine more years, before announcing his retirement at the age of 55.

What could have prompted players like Rhodes, Nayudu and Close to keep playing the game well into their sixth decade in life? It was only the intense love for the game and the immense joy that playing cricket gave which spurred them to remain fit and take on the stress and strain of playing three-day matches with hardly a break during the season.  They did not do it for money or fame as both were in short supply during those days; further, among the three, only Close came near to being called a professional. However, difficulties and privations did not deter them and they strove manfully braving risks of injuries and even ridicule by turning out for their sides, year after year, in whites. It is to their credit that they never allowed themselves to become a liability on the field; on the other hand, their presence invariably boosted the morale of the team, while youngsters could learn from their expertise and experience. 

While we cheer Kohli for reaching this landmark, let us also doff our caps to players of the yore who served the game manfully by playing first-class cricket for more than three decades with dignity and glory. Though cricket has become more of a young man’s game after limited overs version gained popularity, let us not forget that, not too long ago, 'old was gold' in this sport too.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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