June 6, 2001

Is MJ Gopalan the oldest living Test cricketer?

Who is the oldest living Test cricketer? On the face of it, this may seem an unlikely question to ask, except at quiz time. But a clearer picture will emerge when I point out that this question is being asked on a former Test cricketer's 95th birthday. But is he, at this age, the oldest Test cricketer alive?

The doubt arises because Wisden cricketers' almanack lists Alf Gover as the oldest Test cricketer alive. Gover, a right arm fast medium bowler, played for England in four Tests in the 1930s and 1940s. He made his Test debut against India in 1936, toured this country with Lord Tennyson's side in 1937-38 and played his last Test against India on his home ground at the Oval in 1946. Wisden lists his date of birth as February 29, 1908. Interestingly enough, just a few entries above Gover is the name of MJ Gopalan. The former Indian cricketer's date of birth is given as June 6, 1909.

This was the accepted entry till a few years ago till members of his family clarified that he was born on June 6, 1906. Since then it is accepted in certain cricketing circles that Gopalan is the world's oldest living Test cricketer.

Not that these contradictions mean anything to Morappakam Joysam Gopalan. For him, today was just another day. A recent hip injury has restricted his movements and so a visit to the temple, regretfully, was not possible. But there was time for a puja at home, followed by a few visitors and a generally quiet day spent at home with family members.

When this writer rang him up to wish him, Gopalan himself picked up the phone. Blessed with a strong physique and good memory, the former double international - he also represented the country in hockey as a contemporary of the peerless Dhyan Chand - spoke in calm and clear tones. Asked whether he looked forward to his 100th birthday, Gopalan exclaimed "My God, is living 95 years not enough. I am also not in very good physical shape these days with age having caught up and with this injury I have."

Asked pointedly whether he was born in 1906 or 1909, Gopalan clarified the correct year of birth was the former. "I don't know how the school where I studied listed my year of birth as 1909 but that stuck. It's so long ago that I don't know how it happened. But I can confirm that I am 95 today," he asserted.

Gopalan is well known in India even though his international cricket credentials, on the face of it, may be modest. He played just one Test - against England at Calcutta in 1933-34, scoring 11 not out and 7, taking one wicket (James Langridge) with his medium pacers and holding three catches. He also toured England in 1936 but, not unexpectedly, does not wish to recall the events of that unhappy tour.

In fact, Gopalan with the benefit of hindsight, probably made the wrong decision. Having toured New Zealand as a member of the Indian hockey team under Dhyan Chand in 1935, he was an automatic choice for the Indian team that was certain to retain their gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Faced with the choice between cricket and hockey, Gopalan opted for the former, thus denying himself a gold medal which the Indian team, predictably enough, won.

If Gopalan is well known in India, he is a living legend in Chennai. He played with distinction for the state in the Ranji Trophy and against visiting sides. To him goes the honour of bowling the first ball in the national competition, on November 4, 1934. The all rounder led Madras for many years, and after his playing career was over, was a member of the national selection committee for three years in the late fifties and early sixties.

Having retired from active public life for many years now, Gopalan is still a highly respected figure in sports circles. Whenever he attends a function, he is the cynosure for both young and old. Sunil Gavaskar for one, always bends down to touch the feet of the doyen whenever the two come together at a public gathering. With a toothy smile and a firm handshake, MJ as he is popularly known, greets everyone with childlike enthusiasm.

Gopalan can never be cynical. In frequent conversations with him, I have never heard him say, "you know, in my day...", that rather irritating phrase so common to cricketers of yesteryears. He enjoys the modern game, has a kind word or two about the present day cricketers and eschews, like the plague, the controversial and seamier side of the game. He watches the game on TV and is ready for a pleasant discussion on any aspect of cricket.

It really does not matter whether Gopalan is 92 or 95, or whether he is the oldest living Test cricketer in the world or not. He is the father figure of Indian cricket, a man who lives and breathes sport. No Test cricketer has lived to be a hundred. We all hope and pray that this gentleman cricketer will be the first to reach the `century.'

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