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The timeless Norman Gordon

The oldest Test cricketer's views on the game aren't outdated at all

Sidharth Monga

January 15, 2011

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Norman Gordon at his golf club
Norman Gordon at the golf club © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
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There is only one survivor left from the famous - infamous too - timeless Test of 1938-39, which spanned 10 days and still didn't have a result. Fittingly, it is the fittest player on both sides, one who bowled 92.2 eight-ball overs in the match and was running in for another delivery when the teams decided enough was enough. Norman Gordon, a South African fast bowler of Jewish origin, is now 99 years and 161 days old, the oldest living Test cricketer, and only 65 days shy of becoming the longest-lived Test cricketer ever.

Gordon looks a bit weak, as you would expect, and his eyesight is down to 40%, but there isn't an ounce of fat on his body. He sits upright and is dressed smartly in a sleeveless sweater and shorts. He visits his favourite golf course every day, even though he stopped playing three years ago, largely due to the vision impairment. His voice is strong, similar to that of one of the most famous Jews I know of, Larry David. And there is no curbing Gordon's enthusiasm when you start talking cricket with him.

"I was crazy about cricket from the time I was about 10," he says. "I lived in Kensington, a suburb of Jo'burg. Winter or summer, we played cricket every afternoon of the year. I just lived for playing cricket. It even interfered with my schooling."

Gordon watches cricket, or listens to most of it and watches through the eyes of his son Brian. He is not a grumpy old man but can't hide his disappointment at the sledging and slogging that goes on today. "I, and hundreds of other people, don't like the way they are sledging and trying to put people off, saying to the batsman, 'You lucky bastard' and all that. To me it's not part of cricket, and I am amazed they allow it."

Surely they sledged a bit back in his day? "Never. I honestly believe if anyone would have said a word like that, they would have been sent off the field. Cricket was a way of living. You don't use that sort of language playing cricket. They don't seem to be able to stop it because they don't want to stop it."

Not even Australia and England during the Ashes? "Not to the same extent," Gordon says. "England and Australia were great enemies, but they never spoke rudely to their opposition. It was so much fun, and people used to talk to each other on the field and not say a bad word about each other. People today will never believe that cricket was such then."

 
 
"I bowled eight-ball overs, 92-odd overs, which is equal to 120 six-ball overs. Very tiring. But I never wanted to be taken off. I wanted to bowl all the time. I only got one wicket. All those overs for one wicket" Gordon on the timeless Test
 

Unlike many men younger than him, Gordon finds Twenty20 exciting and likes that cricketers can make a living playing the game. He used to get two pounds as out-of-pocket expenses for every day of Test cricket. "Fancy having to play cricket and getting paid for it," he says.

However, he doesn't like the kind of cricket being played in Twenty20. "Quite frankly I am not in favour of 20-over cricket, because it is bad if youngsters copy this 20-over cricket," he says.

"Jack Hobbs, and people like him, would turn in their graves if they saw them playing cricket like that. You can't play anything more elegant than an off-drive or a cover-drive or on-drive. There is nothing prettier to watch, but these swats… this is not cricket as we knew it. I'd be very surprised if any of the present-day youngsters become as good as the cricketers of the present day. Because they are not taught to do the right thing."

Gordon, unlike many old men stuck in their time, thinks present-day cricket is better than what it was in his age. "The batting and bowling haven't really improved much or gone worse. But you can't compare the fielding in my day with what it is today. I mean, if you dropped a catch they used to say, 'Oh bad luck.' And that was that. Here you hardly ever miss a chance. Wonderful fielding. There were good batsmen and bowlers in those days, but the fielding is unbelievable."

Gordon was unfortunate that he got to play only one Test series before World War II interrupted international cricket. The timeless Test happened to be his last. "That was something that was best for cricket," he says. "Because it made sure there would never be another timeless Test. MCC had to catch the ship back to England. Had to catch a ship in Cape Town, so they had to go from Durban by bus

"I bowled eight-ball overs, 92-odd overs, which is equal to 120 six-ball overs. Very tiring. But I never wanted to be taken off. I wanted to bowl all the time. I only got one wicket. All those overs for one wicket - although I got 20 wickets in the series."

That Test, if anything, was a tribute to Gordon's fitness. "Although I did no gymnastics, I was fantastically physically fit. I could bowl 10 to 15 overs at a stretch, at the same pace as Shaun Pollock. I never drank and I never smoked. I was just lucky that I was able to keep fit. I never meant to be that way, but I could go on forever without having a rest."

During the war he enrolled in the army and was stationed in South Africa. And to South Africa, along with the Royal Air Force, came his good friend, Wally Hammond. "Generally he wasn't a very friendly person, but he and I were very friendly," Gordon says. "On the radio he compared me with Maurice Tate. And I thought Tate was one of the greatest fast bowlers. Hammond was kind enough to say that Gordon at his best is as good as Maurice Tate, which was a tremendous compliment.

"I know that results show that Bradman must have been the best player ever, but Hammond and Tendulkar and Sobers sit just next to him as great cricketers. Hammond took about 90 wickets as well, and he was a great slip fielder. I never saw him miss a catch. Those were exceptions, but a lot of fielding in our day was poor."

Together Gordon, Hammond and others tried to keep cricket going during the war. "Very nice games during the war. I played a game where Hammond was their captain and I was the captain of South Africa. Just a friendly. Tried to keep cricket alive while the war was on."

Ironically, after the war Hammond didn't play at all, and Gordon wasn't picked by South Africa. Some say underlying anti-Jewish feeling was behind it, but Gordon prefers not to talk about it. "Then they will say he is grumbling."


Norman Gordon bowling in the nets at Durban, South Africa v England, 5th Test, Durban, March 8, 1939
Gordon bowling in the nets in 1939 © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
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Five weeks ago Brian Lara met Gordon at the clubhouse of the golf course. "He sat in the same chair you are sitting in," Gordon says. "And didn't say anything, and asked, 'Do you know who I am?' I said, 'Of course, you are Brian Lara.' The most modest guy I have ever known in my life. Doesn't put on that he is one of the greatest batsmen of all time." Before he left, Lara wrote on a piece of paper, "I have finally met the master."

Apart from Tendulkar and Lara, Gordon has a few other favourites. "[Hashim] Amla. Improved so much. There was a time when I used to wonder how this guy got into the team. Through sheer practice he has become as good as any of the batsmen who are playing. Correct shots, and his off-drives and on-drives are worth seeing. Kallis is a great bat, but I have got a feeling he won't play too long because he is getting crocked too often. I hope he does carry on. Steyn. The best fast bowler in the world. Although the Indians and Asians have got very good, skilled bowlers too."

It's golf, cricket and his son that keep Gordon going. He has had, he says, a very happy life. After his wife died 10 years ago, Brian has been his "doctor, driver, chef". And his eyes, because he describes the cricket to his father.

Gordon has seen much more, though, than what Brian can describe. Gregory and McDonald bowling on matting wickets, "murder", Test cricket in the timeless era, the war, apartheid, isolation, readmission, transformation, the introduction of one-day cricket, helmets, floodlights, Twenty20 cricket.

On August 6, he will turn 100. That's uncharted territory for Test cricketers. Fitting that the first person there should be a man from the longest Test ever.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by landl47 on (January 17, 2011, 19:17 GMT)

A very nice article. I thought I had seen many changes in my 63 years, but they are nothing compared to what Norman Gordon has seen. I agree absolutely with his comments on T20- just look at some of the young batsmen now. Their technique will never stand up to test cricket. I'm glad, though, that players have now got the ability to make a good living from the game. Players like Norman Gordon had to work at regular jobs as well as play cricket and in England many professional cricketers died in poverty through having nothing to fall back on after their playing days were over. Thanks to Sidharth Monga- but you must be embarrassed over that Wally Hammond blooper!

Posted by   on (January 17, 2011, 11:58 GMT)

it was great reading this especilly the part on lara was superb and wish him a 1oo years and njoy the cricket

Posted by tikna on (January 17, 2011, 10:02 GMT)

Good read this. Nice to know about cricketers from yester years and their thoughts on game today.

Posted by   on (January 17, 2011, 4:58 GMT)

Wish Gordon to hit century...great reading...never read about the endless test. For person to have that kind of physical strength it's amazing..

Posted by PratapP on (January 17, 2011, 4:09 GMT)

it feels good to read such an interesting article about the veteran. Hope you enjoy the WORLD CUP Mr. Jordan

Posted by Gastrolobium on (January 17, 2011, 4:05 GMT)

Awesome article - hope Mr Gordon goes a lot longer and offers more insight into our game. So much wisdom is out there that we just can't get enought, and should never stop trying to get more!

Posted by JohnSilva on (January 17, 2011, 3:29 GMT)

Great article Sid ! About sledging some current and former cricketers claim it is required to give fighting spirit and win games. But it really looks ugly on the screen and a very very bad influence on our kids (and men !). It is time ICC clamped down on it. Just look at ashes, while the Aussies were sledging England were winning !

Posted by MiddleStump on (January 17, 2011, 2:00 GMT)

Good interview. Gordon is spot on about sledging. Todays players are highly paid professionals but their language is appalling. Imagine using such foul langauge on the job in any other profession. By not rooting out this practice the ICC has only brought shame to the game.

Posted by Silverbails on (January 17, 2011, 0:39 GMT)

Great article about a true "gentlemen's" sport in those far - off days! I hope that Norman makes it to the magical 100. I agree that sledging really ought not to be tolerated, as it's not - and never really will be in my humble opinion!! - part of the true game of skill of bat vs. ball which is cricket. And, I also agree with other readers' who would like to see more articles like this about the remaining venerable cricketers' from eras past. Keep them coming, Sidharth!

Posted by   on (January 16, 2011, 22:41 GMT)

Lovely read. Thanks! I hope that Norman makes it to a 100. His son must be what... 70 himself?

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