February 17, 2015

Let's embrace all of cricket's ages

Peter Willey and George Sharp's dispute with the ECB highlights how we tend to look at what people can't do after a certain age rather than what they can do better

Peter Willey and George Sharp are two men not ready to let go of the game they have invested so much in just because they are now of a certain age © PA Photos

One of the best opening spells I faced last season came from a 56-year-old seamer who bowled 14 overs off the reel, a spell that featured only one really loose ball. As he came in from his favourite end on a wicket that he had been playing on for decades, age had given him almost as much as it had taken away. The pace of his youth might have gone, but there were compensations in the way that he presented the seam on the perfect length for the pitch; how he created pressure from repetition and endurance. His run-up was easy, his action grooved. It all just worked.

Two years before, I encountered an even more remarkable player. He was a man of considerable achievement in his professional life as a documentary-maker, and after a lifetime of cricket was still playing at the age of 72. On a dank day of low cloud and grey light he bowled unchanged for ten overs, no longer quick but still with a quick bowler's mind and attitude - he scowled at anyone trying to hoick him and kept the field in line with a gimlet eye. His approach to the wicket beat with a rhythm carved out over season upon season, through overs in their thousands. He finished with a couple of wickets for not that many.

There are many moments of transition in a cricketing life, but I think the most significant is the move from being one of the younger players in a team to one of the older ones. Things about the game that once seemed important aren't so much any more, and others take on a new significance. Sometimes it's just enough to be out there.

It is one of the great beauties of cricket that it can turn a different face towards you and offer a new view of something utterly familiar. It's a sport that can accompany you through change. It's what makes the ongoing employment tribunal case to do with umpires Peter Willey and George Sharp so melancholy.

Legally it may be about the rights of the ECB to terminate employment at a particular age, but at its heart, it is about two men who feel deeply invested in the game, who know and understand and love it and don't feel ready to let it go.

There are a finite number of first-class and List A games, and there is a need to offer new umpires a pathway into their futures, but there is also a reflection of our ageing society, our ageing world. Sixty-five may have once been old but those boundaries have moved back. Willey still looks sturdy enough to take up that squared-on stance and repel West Indies (and he'd probably do all right against the current lot).

Physical capabilities no more expire at a specific age than does desire die out just because you want it to.

I don't envy the decision-makers, yet there is a wider point to whatever they rule. If Willey and Sharp can no longer umpire, then it behoves the game to turn another face towards them and use the abiding qualities and talents that they have.

There's a tendency with age to look at what people can no longer do, rather than what they can now do better or differently. At the professional playing level, cricket is binary: you do it until you can't. But beyond that, the horizons are hazier, perhaps limitless. Those old(er) bowlers were inspiring in their way; their message is that hope springs eternal, as does the love. Cricket is there for as long as you want it to be, and we should embrace all of its ages.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

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