January 15, 2011

The timeless Norman Gordon

The oldest Test cricketer's views on the game aren't outdated at all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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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..

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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 !

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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..

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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 !

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • on January 16, 2011, 19:36 GMT

    One of the best if not THE BEST articles I ve ever read.AWESOME. LONG LIVE Mr.Gordon

  • on January 16, 2011, 18:33 GMT

    Sidharth Monga has done some fabulous articles during the SA tour. Quite refreshing to read his stuff. Well done!

  • george204 on January 16, 2011, 17:52 GMT

    "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." Totally agree - good comment from Mr Gordon.

    @ Raw We: The "murder" comment is about the prospect of facing Gregory and McDonald on matting wickets (something I doubt many modern batsmen would have much of an appetite for!)

  • ccpsy on January 16, 2011, 17:34 GMT

    Read this article on mid day a few days back too. Fantastic stuff Sid. These are the sort of articles that we need to read from the tour of South Africa.

  • on January 16, 2011, 16:32 GMT

    Let's hope Cricket SA arranges a fitting century tribute on August 6 - we need reminders of a more gentlemanly era in cricket. Incidentally, Hammond certainly did play after the war - he captained the 1946/7 Ashes tour.

  • kumblesmen on January 16, 2011, 16:05 GMT

    Thanks Sid...lovely article. Great article. Nice to read about such a great gentleman. I hope cricinfo will be there when he turns 100. It will be great day for cricket. Really hope ICC honours such people, so that more people know about the game that was played then.

  • shivendash on January 16, 2011, 14:25 GMT

    "A fine ****ing way to start a series" is the famous line said by Wally Hammond to Bradman in 1946. I think "Hammond never played cricket" is a wrong statement in an otherwise amazing article. Love to read people who are modest and strong in character like Norman. Lara and many more. Sledging is WRONG and so as many things in this world but the problem is "the better people" are no where and the management is framing rules. Management goes by "demand and supply" and hell with culture. So they provide cheap socks for the people. Never imagined that CHEERLEADERS in semi clad clothes will cheer in cricket as if the cricketers are runnign short of aims and ambitions and need a pat always or some cheers. Anways that what people like and enjoy.

  • nzcricket174 on January 16, 2011, 13:22 GMT

    This was a great read. Thanks!

  • on January 16, 2011, 12:56 GMT

    Really nice artical, great to hear about players of the past. Would dearly love to hear simular stories about past or cricketers even though they may not have received the acolades or prominence they should have. Thank you Sidharth for brighting up my day.

  • Percy_Fender on January 16, 2011, 12:23 GMT

    Such a wonderful article on a legend who is on the treshold of reaching a century in life. Cricket for such people was different. They were committed to the game to the point of disbelief in today's generation of cricketers and followers alike. Even for a person like myself who has seen it all for some decades now,I marvel at how very much such towering institutions have this kind of enthusiasm for the game. There was virtually no money in the game those days which means it was only love for the game. And they loved meeting young people and telling them how it was in those days. I wish the present lot would see that the game was above acrimony of any kind. Just the passion to play well. I remember when the Indian Captain Tiger Pataudi met Tiger O'rielly in 1967,and addressed him'Sir', he was taken by surprise. Later on he would write what a gentleman Pataudi was. That was what the game was in those days. Not the snarling abusive form it has taken now. Long live the likes of Mr Gordon.

  • on January 16, 2011, 7:30 GMT

    Lovely article! good to read and most importantly - well, to me, at least - tells us a thing or two about what cricket used to be back then - a sport. Not to say that I'm particularly a detractor of all sledging in cricket - wow, imagine what would cricket be without the mention of niceties exchanged between Bothom-Marsh, Gatting-Miandad-Shakoor Rana, Ambrose-Waugh, Sarvan-MgGrath, Richards-rest-of-the-world, Ponting-bhajji, Nel-Sreesanth - but now you feel that it's all gone haywire with young kids trying to show off more than they actually possess.

  • shrikanthk on January 16, 2011, 6:07 GMT

    Well, Hammond did play after the war in the 1946-47 Ashes series against Australia in Australia in which he failed miserably both as a batsmen and as a captain.

    So, it is incorrect to say that Hammond never played after the war.

  • on January 16, 2011, 6:02 GMT

    Great article - I hope the CSA is planning something; it's amazing I had to found this out through CricInfo

  • on January 16, 2011, 4:19 GMT

    whats the "murder" incident about???

  • titansnights on January 16, 2011, 3:23 GMT

    I am happy to read about past era greats...how come these generations will know about legends like Gordon, without these articles..hats off to you author :)....and plz bring more articles like this and make us knowledgeable too ......and I wish this master will become the oldest cricketer alive...and what about Brian Lara's "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."..I dont understand that....is Gordon saying Lara was modest!!!

  • on January 16, 2011, 1:06 GMT

    A great article, its worth reading the penultimate paragraph

  • SurlyCynic on January 15, 2011, 23:31 GMT

    Another great article from Sidharth Monga. Really enjoying some of the insightful articles and diaries from the SA tour, which go beyond the usual stuff from the teams.

  • on January 15, 2011, 22:25 GMT

    Its a fantastic article and thanks for exposing another legend.

  • akshay4india on January 15, 2011, 22:04 GMT

    A really great article, quite surprised there was absollutely no sledging back then. How the game has changed.

  • multipack on January 15, 2011, 20:28 GMT

    really lovely article. more in a similar vein please. i'll be sure to raise a glass to norman gordon come his 100th birthday on august 6th.

  • on January 15, 2011, 20:26 GMT

    This is refreshing.. and it the sledging goes with generations.. I believe those days, if you are passing some one on the road , you would say good morning.. not brush past him in the tube as they do in London.. so I can imagine, no one sledged those days and captain was the BOSS on the field..

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  • on January 15, 2011, 20:26 GMT

    This is refreshing.. and it the sledging goes with generations.. I believe those days, if you are passing some one on the road , you would say good morning.. not brush past him in the tube as they do in London.. so I can imagine, no one sledged those days and captain was the BOSS on the field..

  • multipack on January 15, 2011, 20:28 GMT

    really lovely article. more in a similar vein please. i'll be sure to raise a glass to norman gordon come his 100th birthday on august 6th.

  • akshay4india on January 15, 2011, 22:04 GMT

    A really great article, quite surprised there was absollutely no sledging back then. How the game has changed.

  • on January 15, 2011, 22:25 GMT

    Its a fantastic article and thanks for exposing another legend.

  • SurlyCynic on January 15, 2011, 23:31 GMT

    Another great article from Sidharth Monga. Really enjoying some of the insightful articles and diaries from the SA tour, which go beyond the usual stuff from the teams.

  • on January 16, 2011, 1:06 GMT

    A great article, its worth reading the penultimate paragraph

  • titansnights on January 16, 2011, 3:23 GMT

    I am happy to read about past era greats...how come these generations will know about legends like Gordon, without these articles..hats off to you author :)....and plz bring more articles like this and make us knowledgeable too ......and I wish this master will become the oldest cricketer alive...and what about Brian Lara's "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."..I dont understand that....is Gordon saying Lara was modest!!!

  • on January 16, 2011, 4:19 GMT

    whats the "murder" incident about???

  • on January 16, 2011, 6:02 GMT

    Great article - I hope the CSA is planning something; it's amazing I had to found this out through CricInfo

  • shrikanthk on January 16, 2011, 6:07 GMT

    Well, Hammond did play after the war in the 1946-47 Ashes series against Australia in Australia in which he failed miserably both as a batsmen and as a captain.

    So, it is incorrect to say that Hammond never played after the war.