February 28, 2011

The vet and the kid

The oldest and youngest players in this World Cup come from the same team: the man who made the tournament's fastest hundred eight years ago and a seven-year-old who watched him do so

The contrast is startling: one is a veteran allrounder with greying hair and stubble and a deep baritone amplifying his age. Sitting an arm's length from him is a slender, soft-skinned teenager, the jet black hair standing up in a mohawk on his head. At 40 and 16 years respectively, John Davison and Nitish Kumar are the oldest and youngest players in cricket's tenth World Cup. Both, unlike some of their team-mates, were born in Canada, the country they play for.

"I could be his dad," Davison says, looking at Kumar, who smiles back. Davison, who was brought up in Australia and lives in Brisbane, has a daughter who is four and a son a couple of years younger. He says he is still one of the boys. "Playing with these young guys I feel just as young as them and sometimes I carry on like them too and behave like them. I certainly don't feel 40, and it is a bit surprising to me that I am the oldest."

Both men could do with a little more sleep on Sunday, but they have had to wake up for the team breakfast at 7am, part of the exercise of getting into match mode the next day. We meet an hour later. Kumar is fiddling with his phone. Davison sits happy, gadget-free.

"We did not have computers, internet…" he says. "I think actually this generation is at disadvantage because the kids are playing more video games and parents don't tend to let their kids out of the house that much. I see that as a disadvantage for Gen Y." Kumar says the only time he plays video games is when he is at friends' homes. "I get tired after 10 minutes."

Though Canadian, the best part of Davison's cricketing life was spent at the Australian Cricket Academy, where he learned and sharpened his skills alongside Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath, with Rodney Marsh as coach. "I grew up in Australia. We had facilities. We could play outdoors all year and we had good coaching. I definitely had more opportunities than Nitish."

What does he miss about being 16? "The enthusiasm. Having a body that doesn't hurt, good reflexes, ability to sleep anywhere at any time," Davison says, laughing and poking Kumar in the shoulder on the last point. "We have had two pretty hairy flights [on this trip] and I don't think he has woken up on either one. One was leaving Chittagong where we had an aborted take-off. The second time was when the flight was about to land in Mumbai but took off again, and he slept through that as well. The second one is news to Kumar. "Did that happen?" he asks, rolling his eyes. "See, he doesn't even know." Davison says.

It was Davison who volunteered to bring Kumar along for the chat. He first saw the boy at the Toronto Cricket Club 10 years ago. "As a six- or seven-year-old with helmet on, batting against his father, who would bowl off a long run. He was playing hook shots. He was a precocious talent at that age. I always knew he would play for Canada. There was a no doubt about that. He was as standout talent. I always followed his progress and asked after him. I sort of hoped I would play with him."

The feeling is mutual. "I always hoped I would play with him at some point," Kumar says of Davison, "but did not think it would be so soon." As a seven-year-old he watched Davison make his record-breaking century against West Indies in the 2003 World Cup sitting in his living room with his dad and uncles at 4am. "I don't remember what happened but everyone was happy that he was playing for Canada and had got a century in 67 balls," Kumar says.

Davison can never forget the day. He also met his hero then. "I loved watching Viv Richards play. He was at the ground at Centurion that day. When I came back to the dressing room and was taking my pads off, suddenly there was a pat on my back and someone said in an Antiguan accent, 'Great innings, man.' I turned around and Viv was there. It was a really surreal moment. I couldn't have wished for a more perfect finish to a perfect sort of innings.

"At an individual level definitely to score a hundred in that time on a world stage is something I had never dreamed of. At a team level our win against Bangladesh was more satisfying."

What does Davison miss about being 16? "The enthusiasm. Having a body that doesn't hurt, good reflexes, ability to sleep anywhere at any time"

At the start of the 2011 World Cup campaign Davison spoke to the squad about that century and the support he got from Shane Warne before he played that innings. Warne had singled Davison out in his newspaper column as one to watch. Davison was inspired. Today he wants to evoke that self-belief in his team-mates. "I was trying to share how I was feeling - the self doubts I had, and the doubts everybody has. And somehow we have to overcome them and have some belief and try and enjoy the experience and take the opportunities when they present."

Davison says such motivation is important for players from a country like Canada, where it snows and rains for all but four months in a year. The likes of Kumar are left with no choice but to practise indoors on concrete pitches, which he says is "too easy" compared to the real thing. Even a bowling machine does not help after a while. To stay fit Kumar resorts to volleyball, his second favourite sport, which he plays for Woborn School in Scarborough. "It is quite competitive at the senior level and allows me to stay in shape during the winters."

The fact that Kumar is playing for his country is in itself the biggest positive, Davison thinks. "For him to be 16 and get exposed to this level of cricket is unbelievable for his development. There are not many people who get that opportunity at such a young age to test their skills. I will be very surprised if his cricket does not improve two-fold just from competing at this World Cup." For his part Kumar cannot wait to make his World Cup debut.

Learning to balance his cricket ambitions with his studies is a subject he cringes about. "School is strict. There are two types: non-semester, which is for six months, and semester, which lasts for a year. The principal helps me out a little bit," Kumar says.

While the rest of the men and boys will let their hair down after a day's play, Kumar has to make do, at times, with the company of his schoolbooks. "I am sort of doing assignments during the World Cup," he says, admitting he gets fewer of those compared to his friends back home. "I keep reminding him to get them done," Davison teases.

Like millions, Kumar is a fan of Sachin Tendulkar. Davison reckons Kumar has modelled his batting on cricket's best batsman this generation. "It was quite obvious in his technique. The way he was balanced at the crease and the shots he played indicated he had watched Tendulkar a lot," Davison says.

"I watch him on TV a lot," Kumar says. And the thing that impresses him about Tendulkar? "How simple he is in the way he bats, doesn't complicate things. His balance and feet movement are the best. But I would not imitate him as we are different."

I ask them both what is the one thing they would like to take back home from this World Cup. Kumar jokes about not falling sick. One thing he would not mind is meeting Tendulkar. "But I don't think that might happen," he smiles. Davison for his part would like bow out with another team victory. "We beat Bangladesh in 2003 and I would like to help Canada do the same this time. We have Zimbabwe and Kenya…"

In the meanwhile they're having fun talking about life, shared likes and dislikes. They have found one thing neither enjoyed at school: neither had a musical bone in their body. "I was shit at clarinet," Davison confesses. "Oh, I just used to pretend," Kumar says, looking at Davison, who replies, "I did the same."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo