March 11, 2014

The All-time Greatest Ancient Debutants XI

A team comprised of competent old codgers, a rant about time-wasting, a Newlands post-mortem - go on, you know you've been waiting for this
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Clarrie Grimmett: a mere 44-year-old stripling when he was dropped from the Test side
Clarrie Grimmett: a mere 44-year-old stripling when he was dropped from the Test side © Getty Images

After a denouement of shuddering brilliance in Cape Town, the 2013-14 Test season has been swallowed into the capacious guts of cricketing history. It will be remembered principally for Australia's startling revival, led by Mitchell Johnson, whose bowling was probably equal to anything in cricket's past, and unquestionably the best sustained performance by someone who had 30 wickets at 42 in his previous 11 Tests. It is amazing what a magic moustache can do. As the history of Australian pace bowling would testify.

Less than a year ago, Clarke's team was not merely on the carpet, but was wrapped up in the carpet and about to be furtively dumped in a disused canal. They were thrashed, confused and fractured in India, then thoroughly humiliated at Lord's. And yet, since November, they have played some of the greatest attacking cricket of recent decades, their achievement heightened by their individual and collective frailties over the last couple of years. Players who had failed or faded managed to demolish England into a quivering gloop, then crack South Africa with their high-risk, high-reward cricket. Who knows how long this brand-new-but-quite-old Australia will sustain this level, but their 2013-14 season is amongst the finest ever constructed by a Test match team.

Attention moves now to the delightful randomness of the World Twenty20. A two-and-a-half-week blitz is arguably the worst method of choosing a T20 champion, but unquestionably the most exciting. It is, therefore, half like the 50-over World Cup, and half very unlike the 50-over World Cup. More on this next week.

The bowel-curdlingly tense climax at Newlands was made possible not merely by the skill and resilience of the South African batsmen, or the persistent probery of the Australian bowlers on a featureless slab of a surface. It was also - perhaps primarily - a result of the far-sighted genius of the cricketing authorities in their efforts to stamp time-wasting, dawdling and general frittering into the fabric of international cricket. There were a total of 403 overs bowled in the Test, out of the 450 that should have been possible in five 90-over days. And yet, Australia clinched victory with just 4.3 overs remaining.

Day two was blighted by rain, with only 40 overs played. Extra half-hours were added to the start of each subsequent day to compensate for the lost time. Formerly, extra hours were added, but - I think because broadcasters were worried about commentators' parents giving them grief for overworking their little darlings - these were cut back to half-hours, thus helping to maximise the impact of rain on the outcome of the match.

Extra half-hours were also tagged on the end of each day, as they are to the end of almost every day of Test cricket, to compensate for the endemic slowness of the game, with its increasingly creative range of forced and unforced stoppages.

Nevertheless, on day three, only 89 out of 98 overs were bowled, and on day four, 93 of 98. Two overs had been jettisoned on day one. These overs lost to The Frittering are simply abandoned. Some of the overs lost to Mr Weather are clawed back, but not as many as would be, were the inclination present to play Tests to their prescribed length. At one point in South Africa's first innings, Faf du Plessis scuttled off the field, and was "indisposed" for around five minutes, before returning.

It did not take a rocket scientist to work out where he had been, or what he had been doing there. I am not a rocket scientist. And I have the lack of certificates to prove it. Obviously, du Plessis was concluding a highly tense eBay auction for a vintage 19th-century porcelain figurine of Florence Nightingale. Or feeding fruit jellies to his lucky iguana in the dressing room. Or watching the first few minutes of a new boxed set of his favourite TV show, Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years. A rocket scientist might, however, have suggested du Plessis was responding to a call of nature, as astronauts in rockets so often do. Perhaps, on this occasion, I will bow to the superior scientific insight of the rocket scientist.

Faf returned, and the game resumed. At the end of the day, seven overs had been lost. At least one of them, possibly two, was attributable to Faf's unscheduled "quality me-time". If South Africa had clung on to the precipice with one wicket left, it might have proved to be one of the most influential "comfort breaks" in sporting history. And in this era of scientific hyperanalysis, it would soon have become a default tactic. A batsman in a team staring down the barrel of a nasty second-innings rearguard will inevitably clutch his tummy, apologise unconvincingly to the umpire, and disappear off into the recesses of the pavilion with a tricky-looking cryptic crossword tucked under his arm.

Previously, I had often been irritated by the needlessly dilatory pace of the game and the consequent shortening of the match, facilitated by official indifference, technological creep, somnolent umpiring and a general ambivalence about paying spectators. However, without the decisions made by administrators to allow and encourage the needless loss of overs from Test matches, the Newlands finale would not have happened. Australia would probably have wrapped victory up with well over an hour to spare. Evidently, playing conditions are not a time-waster's charter, as cynics might suggest. They are visionary generators of sporting drama.

* Ryan Harris, as highlighted in last week's blog, was on course to become the first pace bowler to take 100 Test wickets having made his debut over the age of 30. He duly did so, and earned an unarguable place in the All-Time Greatest Test Cricketers Who Were Not Selected Until Their 4th Decade on Earth XI.

(A couple of qualifying criteria: players whose debuts were delayed by one or other World War are disqualified [commiserations to any disappointed Vijay Hazare and Ernie Toshack fans out there]; as are those who were unable to play Test cricket until their 30s due to the inconvenience of their country not yet being a Test nation [such as WG Grace and David Houghton], or, in the case of post-reintegration South Africans, due to their government's naughty politics. This is a team for players who could have been selected before turning 30, but were not.)

1. Chris Rogers (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2007-08): 14 Tests, 1030 runs, average 38.1
Not only did Rogers make a belated debut shortly after his 30th birthday, but he then immediately took a five-year non-voluntary sabbatical. He returned for his second Test - effectively, a re-debut - last English summer, aged 35, since when he has scored four hundreds and more than a thousand runs against two of the leading attacks in the world game.

Obviously, du Plessis was concluding a highly tense eBay auction for a vintage 19th-century porcelain figurine of Florence Nightingale. Or feeding fruit jellies to his lucky iguana in the dressing room. Or watching the first few minutes of a new boxed set of his favourite TV show, Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years

2. John Holt (West Indies, debut aged 30 in 1953-54): 17 Tests, 1066 runs, average 36.7
Scored heavily against a potent England line-up after finally breaking into the West Indies XI. Holt was skilful and elegant - so skilful and elegant that there was a near-riot when he was triggered for 94 on his Test debut.

3. David Steele (England, debut aged 33 in 1975): 8 Tests, 673 runs, average 42.0
The silver-haired poster boy of late debuts. Steele's Test career was brief but impressive, and played entirely against the fire-breathing pre-helmet pace barrages that England faced in the mid-1970s. Selected for this team not merely for his 365 runs in three Tests against Lillee, Thomson and Walker (with a lowest score of 39 in six innings) in 1975, nor solely for his hundred against the 1976 West Indians, but also for looking like he was a good ten-to-15 years older than he was. Which was already very old for a Test debutant.

4. Mike Hussey (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2005-06): 79 Tests, 6235 runs, average 51.5
By recklessly giving birth to him in 1975, Hussey's parents condemned him to years of patient Testlessness, as Australia's golden generation of batting megaliths relentlessly pounded out the hundreds. When the Baggy Greens finally unleashed Mr Cricket, he went on a number-bending two-year run-spree - eight hundreds and an average of 84 in his first 20 Tests. His form dipped, then recovered, and he proved himself one of the most complete Test batsmen of the modern era.

5. Mike Brearley (England, captain, debut aged 34 in 1976): 39 Tests, 1442 runs, average 22.8
Selected not for his runs, which he plinked in less than abacus-melting quantities, but for his impact on the game through his legendary powers of leadership. Rumour has it that in a previous life he once captained a team of fat, injured zebras to victory over a Coliseum full of extremely peckish lions. Brearley graduated to the England team 15 years after his maiden first-class appearance, but still managed to be perhaps the only 34-year-old debutant to constitute something of a "youth policy" - he was the youngest member of England's top four against West Indies, batting alongside John Edrich (aged nearly 39), Steele (34¾) and Brian Close (never you mind), as England sought to fight fire with age. Without a great deal of success. Five years later, Brearley masterminded England's 1981 Ashes miracle. Would he have managed it without Botham? Definitely not. But would Botham have managed it without Brearley? Almost definitely not.

6. Basil d'Oliveira (England, debut aged 34 in 1966): 44 Tests, 2484 runs, average 40.0; 47 wickets, average 39.5
An outstanding cricketer denied the chance to represent the land of his birth, he played first-class cricket for the first time when already well into his 30s, and carved himself a long, successful and influential England career despite making his Test debut when significantly older than Graeme Smith is today.

7. Brad Haddin (Australia, wicketkeeper, debut aged 30 in 2008): 57 Tests, 3033 runs, average 35.2, 228 catches, five stumpings
One of several leading Australian glovemen who have entered the Test arena with their twenties already both (a) done and (b) dusted, Haddin proved himself a high-class cricketer after his Gilchrist-delayed debut, and touched greatness in this winter's Ashes. Edges out lesser batsmen, such as Wally Grout and Don Tallon, as well as a range of spectacularly named thirtysomething debutant stumpers from cricket's bygone days, including Barlow Carkeek, Arthur Dolphin and Mordecai Sherwin.

8. Ryan Harris (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2009-10): 24 Tests, 103 wickets, average 22.5
Thank you very much for not playing at Trent Bridge. And for playing in Cape Town. Yours sincerely, English cricket.

9. Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan, debut aged 31 in 2009): 33 Tests, 169 wickets, average 27.4
Pakistan had one debutant over the age of 30 in 54 years, between 1955 and 2009 (the one-Test 32-year-old Shakeel Ahmed, against Australia, in 1997-98). Since then, seven thirtysomethings have played their first Test for Pakistan, beginning with Ajmal and Abdur Rauf (aged 30) in the Galle Test against Sri Lanka in 2009. The former spiritual home of the teenage prodigy now hoards late-flowering cricketers, led by the Faisalabad Befuddler. He did not so much tie England's batsmen in knots in Pakistan's 2012 whitewash in the UAE, as turn them into a hammock and settle them down in them for a relaxing afternoon kip.

10. Clarrie Grimmett (Australia, debut aged 33 in 1924-25): 37 Tests, 216 wickets, average 24.2
The greatest Test wicket-taker of the inter-war years, by a massive margin. By the age at which Grimmett first played for Australia, Shane Warne had already bagged over 400 Test wickets. Even more impressively, Grimmett had a dog that could count to six. Apparently. He was so good (Grimmett, not the dog) (who was also, evidently, a bit special) (and helped Grimmett in training) (the canine Terry Jenner) (good doggie) that, when he was dropped for the 1936-37 Ashes, most considered he had been discarded by Australia at far too young an age. He was 44.

11. Stuart Clark (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2005-06): 24 Tests, 94 wickets, average 23.8
Harris prototype. But taller, and different. Also instrumental in an Ashes whitewash, but, unlike Harris, never bowled out two batsmen in three balls to win a Test with minutes to spare whilst hobbling around on a knee made of poppadoms.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on March 13, 2014, 1:39 GMT

    Andy, you are - without any doubt - the finest cricket writer on the planet.

    Every article is erudite, insightful and hilarious. And Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years is a greatly under-rated dramatic work.

  • Mel-waas on March 12, 2014, 19:32 GMT

    @Shehzad K. Ghani where is your sense of Humor Shehzad. Broke your funny bone lately. Andy is hilarious!!

  • on March 12, 2014, 19:14 GMT

    the first name which came to my mind after reading the title was misbah. and only he isnt there. strange

  • DalviDaDhaba on March 12, 2014, 19:10 GMT

    I would have Dilip Doshi in place of Stuart Clark. Stuart Clark did great when we was the 'weak link' in a great Aussie attack, but could not hold on even on home pitches once the greats retired. Doshi had to play in a relatively weak indian team and did quite well even overseas.

  • on March 12, 2014, 18:42 GMT

    Andy, why do you have to be so long windedly boring everytime!

  • GrindAR on March 12, 2014, 18:36 GMT

    I would say, among modern day late debutants, Mike Hussey is the one to stand out as an example of victim of extreme favorism in Cricket. He was not given a go even though they found him capable long time before his debut. Chris Rogers came as a team building effort when options ran out. Mike Hussey is an impact player, who won key matches for Aussies.Not trying to compare, I feel CA is the example of extreme favorism when they threw well equiped players like Bevan, Katich, Symonds, Slater, Damien Martyn, for what? to favour their close knits to have their names in the record books? Like India did the for SRT?

    Seriously T20 is a must to stay for the sake of giving respect to the capable talents and have their name known to the world. There is no world wide clubs compete in a test championship, so T20 is the way to go.

    If ICC demolish country structures to compete, and replace or add championships (ODIs/Tests) played by world wide clubs, they really create a ecosystem.

  • GrindAR on March 12, 2014, 18:13 GMT

    Eng a world leading attack? Then Where you keep Pak? If a player does not face Pak attack, then it is only one world leading attack faced if they did so with SA. Eng is a third class attack. The world leading attack for Aus are SA and Pak, Eng come after SL, for that even after WI.

  • on March 12, 2014, 16:07 GMT

    Even though Brearley was a wonderful leader, his batting is a handicap here (my opinion). Like Ian Chappell said, I would rather play a team of 11 and not 10 players and 1 captain. So Misbah doesn't qualify (he made his debut at 26) and Ken Mackay can't find a place as we already have Dolly as the all-rounder. I would say the best option would be Brian Luckhurst. Made his Eng debut at 31. Averaged 36 from 21 Tests with 4 hundreds!

  • on March 12, 2014, 13:04 GMT

    Brilliant as ever, Andy, although I think I'd go with the majority here and take Misbah over Brearley.

  • Rooboy on March 12, 2014, 8:18 GMT

    This writer is a classic. Andy's way with words is hilarious ... love it, as always

  • on March 13, 2014, 1:39 GMT

    Andy, you are - without any doubt - the finest cricket writer on the planet.

    Every article is erudite, insightful and hilarious. And Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years is a greatly under-rated dramatic work.

  • Mel-waas on March 12, 2014, 19:32 GMT

    @Shehzad K. Ghani where is your sense of Humor Shehzad. Broke your funny bone lately. Andy is hilarious!!

  • on March 12, 2014, 19:14 GMT

    the first name which came to my mind after reading the title was misbah. and only he isnt there. strange

  • DalviDaDhaba on March 12, 2014, 19:10 GMT

    I would have Dilip Doshi in place of Stuart Clark. Stuart Clark did great when we was the 'weak link' in a great Aussie attack, but could not hold on even on home pitches once the greats retired. Doshi had to play in a relatively weak indian team and did quite well even overseas.

  • on March 12, 2014, 18:42 GMT

    Andy, why do you have to be so long windedly boring everytime!

  • GrindAR on March 12, 2014, 18:36 GMT

    I would say, among modern day late debutants, Mike Hussey is the one to stand out as an example of victim of extreme favorism in Cricket. He was not given a go even though they found him capable long time before his debut. Chris Rogers came as a team building effort when options ran out. Mike Hussey is an impact player, who won key matches for Aussies.Not trying to compare, I feel CA is the example of extreme favorism when they threw well equiped players like Bevan, Katich, Symonds, Slater, Damien Martyn, for what? to favour their close knits to have their names in the record books? Like India did the for SRT?

    Seriously T20 is a must to stay for the sake of giving respect to the capable talents and have their name known to the world. There is no world wide clubs compete in a test championship, so T20 is the way to go.

    If ICC demolish country structures to compete, and replace or add championships (ODIs/Tests) played by world wide clubs, they really create a ecosystem.

  • GrindAR on March 12, 2014, 18:13 GMT

    Eng a world leading attack? Then Where you keep Pak? If a player does not face Pak attack, then it is only one world leading attack faced if they did so with SA. Eng is a third class attack. The world leading attack for Aus are SA and Pak, Eng come after SL, for that even after WI.

  • on March 12, 2014, 16:07 GMT

    Even though Brearley was a wonderful leader, his batting is a handicap here (my opinion). Like Ian Chappell said, I would rather play a team of 11 and not 10 players and 1 captain. So Misbah doesn't qualify (he made his debut at 26) and Ken Mackay can't find a place as we already have Dolly as the all-rounder. I would say the best option would be Brian Luckhurst. Made his Eng debut at 31. Averaged 36 from 21 Tests with 4 hundreds!

  • on March 12, 2014, 13:04 GMT

    Brilliant as ever, Andy, although I think I'd go with the majority here and take Misbah over Brearley.

  • Rooboy on March 12, 2014, 8:18 GMT

    This writer is a classic. Andy's way with words is hilarious ... love it, as always

  • on March 12, 2014, 7:47 GMT

    No Misbah? Other than Mike Hussey he has a better record than all the batsmen mentioned

  • mondotv on March 12, 2014, 7:11 GMT

    Brearley has to go. Surely we can find an actual batsman and make Haddin Captain.

  • Ozcricketwriter on March 11, 2014, 23:35 GMT

    Mike Brearley doesn't belong. Do we really need a professional captain who averages just 22 with the bat and doesn't bowl? Even George Bailey did a better job (and he was aged 30+ when he made his test debut this summer) than Mike Brearley. But Misbah ul Haq is probably the man you want in the old man number 5 spot. While he did make his debut at the spritely age of 27, he played all of 5 tests before his 30th birthday, during which he had a woeful top score of just 28 in scoring just 120 in 9 completed innings, at an average of just 13. Since then, he has added a further 41 tests, scored an additional 3098 runs and now has a test batting average of very nearly 50. And, as he nears 40, there is no sign of him quitting anytime soon. I think that Misbah should be your number 5.

  • ThePieChucker on March 11, 2014, 18:48 GMT

    @Jitender Singh: Did you even bother reading the article?

    Here's an excerpt: "(A couple of qualifying criteria: players whose debuts were delayed by one or other World War are disqualified [commiserations to any disappointed VIJAY HAZARE and Ernie Toshack fans out there];"

    People like you who ask "Where is Player X?" would do well to read the article first.

  • on March 11, 2014, 13:30 GMT

    Dutchy Holland... 38 on debut, averaged about 38.

  • Hrolf on March 11, 2014, 12:05 GMT

    Definitely should have made a spot for Bert Ironmonger. Debuted in 1928 aged 45. Took 74 wickets at less than 18 runs each.

  • on March 11, 2014, 9:47 GMT

    Where is Great Vijay S Hazare ..? Because of the Second World War, Vijay Hazare didn't play his first Test until he was 31, at Lord's in 1946. After a difficult start he announced himself with two centuries in the fourth Test, in Adelaide in 1947-48, and a year later started a run of three centuries in consecutive innings against England - but because of India's spartan fixture list, the third didn't come until December 1951. India won only three of Hazare's 30 Tests: for him to average 47 under such circumstances shows just how good he was. He could look a little ungainly but had all the shots, and his first-class average was 58. That included an astonishing performance for The Rest against Hindus in 1943-44. Hazare made 309 not out... in a total of only 387. The next-highest score was 21, and in the first innings Hazare top-scored with 59, with only one other player reaching double figures. Oh, and he took 60% of the wickets to fall (admittedly there were only five).

  • StevieS on March 11, 2014, 9:38 GMT

    Wasn't Mark Richardson in his 30's when he played his first test? He was certainly better than Chris Rodgers.

  • on March 11, 2014, 8:26 GMT

    There are some people who have to try hard to make people laugh. Andy, you are NOT one of those people. This is gold.

    "but, unlike Harris, never bowled out two batsmen in three balls to win a Test with minutes to spare whilst hobbling around on a knee made of poppadoms." Classic. Hopefully after today's surgery those poppadoms are repaired and we see plenty more of Ryno.

  • PrasPunter on March 11, 2014, 7:29 GMT

    @Shankar Athreya, he is Bryce McGain who played his one and only against SA.

  • Robertito on March 11, 2014, 7:05 GMT

    Next time I'm forging a Charles Dickens nove and I'm short of character names, I'll have to remember to check out the list of mature-aged debutant Australian wicketkeepers.

  • Markdal on March 11, 2014, 6:59 GMT

    Also Bruce Yardley. Debuted as a pace bowler for Western Australia in 1966-7, was selected as a batsman for WA in 1974-5, was selected as a spinner for WA in 1976-7, and finally made his Test debut aged 30 in 1977-8, going on to take 126 wickets in 33 Tests! Similar to Trevor Hohns - Qld debut as a batsman aged 18 in 1972-3, recalled to Qld as a spinner in 1976-7, finally made his Test debut aged 34 in 1988-9, playing 7 Tests before suddenly deciding to retire from Test cricket at the end of the 1989 Ashes tour!

  • on March 11, 2014, 6:56 GMT

    Bruce Yardley would be a worthy inclusion as well.

  • on March 11, 2014, 6:28 GMT

    could have added Dilp Doshi. He made his debut at 32 and played for more than 30 tests..

    ..what about the famous Aussie leggie, who made his debut at 36 in 2009 in ZA, which was his solitary test. Kallis and Mckinsey literally drove him out of test cricket

  • jw76 on March 11, 2014, 5:45 GMT

    For Basil D'Oliveira, debut aged 37 is probably more likely! A great man who deserved every bit of his belated career.

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  • jw76 on March 11, 2014, 5:45 GMT

    For Basil D'Oliveira, debut aged 37 is probably more likely! A great man who deserved every bit of his belated career.

  • on March 11, 2014, 6:28 GMT

    could have added Dilp Doshi. He made his debut at 32 and played for more than 30 tests..

    ..what about the famous Aussie leggie, who made his debut at 36 in 2009 in ZA, which was his solitary test. Kallis and Mckinsey literally drove him out of test cricket

  • on March 11, 2014, 6:56 GMT

    Bruce Yardley would be a worthy inclusion as well.

  • Markdal on March 11, 2014, 6:59 GMT

    Also Bruce Yardley. Debuted as a pace bowler for Western Australia in 1966-7, was selected as a batsman for WA in 1974-5, was selected as a spinner for WA in 1976-7, and finally made his Test debut aged 30 in 1977-8, going on to take 126 wickets in 33 Tests! Similar to Trevor Hohns - Qld debut as a batsman aged 18 in 1972-3, recalled to Qld as a spinner in 1976-7, finally made his Test debut aged 34 in 1988-9, playing 7 Tests before suddenly deciding to retire from Test cricket at the end of the 1989 Ashes tour!

  • Robertito on March 11, 2014, 7:05 GMT

    Next time I'm forging a Charles Dickens nove and I'm short of character names, I'll have to remember to check out the list of mature-aged debutant Australian wicketkeepers.

  • PrasPunter on March 11, 2014, 7:29 GMT

    @Shankar Athreya, he is Bryce McGain who played his one and only against SA.

  • on March 11, 2014, 8:26 GMT

    There are some people who have to try hard to make people laugh. Andy, you are NOT one of those people. This is gold.

    "but, unlike Harris, never bowled out two batsmen in three balls to win a Test with minutes to spare whilst hobbling around on a knee made of poppadoms." Classic. Hopefully after today's surgery those poppadoms are repaired and we see plenty more of Ryno.

  • StevieS on March 11, 2014, 9:38 GMT

    Wasn't Mark Richardson in his 30's when he played his first test? He was certainly better than Chris Rodgers.

  • on March 11, 2014, 9:47 GMT

    Where is Great Vijay S Hazare ..? Because of the Second World War, Vijay Hazare didn't play his first Test until he was 31, at Lord's in 1946. After a difficult start he announced himself with two centuries in the fourth Test, in Adelaide in 1947-48, and a year later started a run of three centuries in consecutive innings against England - but because of India's spartan fixture list, the third didn't come until December 1951. India won only three of Hazare's 30 Tests: for him to average 47 under such circumstances shows just how good he was. He could look a little ungainly but had all the shots, and his first-class average was 58. That included an astonishing performance for The Rest against Hindus in 1943-44. Hazare made 309 not out... in a total of only 387. The next-highest score was 21, and in the first innings Hazare top-scored with 59, with only one other player reaching double figures. Oh, and he took 60% of the wickets to fall (admittedly there were only five).

  • Hrolf on March 11, 2014, 12:05 GMT

    Definitely should have made a spot for Bert Ironmonger. Debuted in 1928 aged 45. Took 74 wickets at less than 18 runs each.