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It takes a rare cricketer to reach a century, not just make one

Jack Laver The Examiner

There is scoring a century, and there is reaching a century. Tom Pritchard never scored a century, not in a first-class career spanning 200 matches. Neither did Jack Laver, who played only 13 first-class games himself. But in a delightful coincidence, both men have now, at long last, reached centuries within a day of each other.

Pritchard is New Zealand's oldest living first-class cricketer; Laver Australia's. In Tasmania on Thursday, Laver celebrated his 100th birthday; across the Tasman on Friday, Pritchard enjoyed his 100th. Two days, two countries, two tons, two messages from the Queen.

"It's just one after 99," Laver said this week, in an interview with Launceston newspaper the Examiner.

Laver's flippancy aside, his and Pritchard's achievement is phenomenally rare, considering that more than 33,000 men have played first-class cricket. Of those, more than 8000 are known to have scored centuries, but only 20 are known to have reached centuries - though it is necessary to include a caveat that such a list may not be exhaustive.

The first cricketing centenarian was George Deane, whose entire first-class career consisted of one match for Hampshire that occurred so long ago that he was bowled by John Wisden - yes, the John Wisden. The year was 1848 and Deane made a duck in both innings, but later created history by living until 1929 and the age of 100.

The latest cricketing centenarian can boast a much more prolific career. Pritchard claimed 818 wickets and was considered one of the fastest bowlers of the 1940s. In fact, after he took 4 for 46 for Warwickshire against the touring Indians in 1946, India captain Vijay Merchant wrote a letter of thanks to the county, in which he called Pritchard "the fastest bowler in England at the time".

Why was Pritchard, a New Zealander who had earlier played for Wellington, in England playing for Warwickshire? Because he served in the armed forces in Europe during World War II, married an Englishwoman, and set up home there after the war.

In an interview this week with Andrew Alderson of the New Zealand Herald, Pritchard told of how in the post-war era he would have "at least two beers before I went out at lunchtime, some at afternoon tea and a couple afterwards. All with the magnificent people we played against."

Pritchard bowled fast outswinging offcutters - the change of direction made him a particularly difficult customer for batsmen to face - but playing in England for much of his career limited his opportunities to play for New Zealand. He represented his country only once, in a match against Sir Julien Cahn's XI in Wellington in 1939.

Like Pritchard, Laver served in World War II, though in New Guinea. He was born in Melbourne into a sporting family - he is the second cousin of tennis legend Rod Laver, who sent Jack a card for his 100th birthday, and the nephew of cricketer Frank Laver, who played 15 Tests for Australia.

Laver moved to Launceston after the war and played first-class cicket for Tasmania - they were not yet part of the Sheffield Shield competition - including three games as captain. After retirement, he went on to serve as a state selector.

"In those days, the NTCA [Northern Tasmania Cricket Association] had all the visiting countries come, and I played against all the countries, two Australian sides, two English sides, one West Indies side and one Indian side," Laver told the Examiner this week.

Laver and Pritchard are not the only living centenarians among former first-class cricketers: John Manners, who played 21 matches for Hampshire from 1936 to 1953, is 102. Manners is the only living man to have played first-class cricket in England before World War II, and was the subject of a fine piece in last year's Wisden Almanack.

The remainder of first-class cricket's late centenarians form a fascinating bunch.

There was the Australian Ted Martin, who upon turning 100 in 2002 - the year after Don Bradman's death aged 92 - quipped that "it's nice to have beaten Bradman at something".

There was the Irishman Harry Forsyth, whose entire first-class career consisted of one game for Dublin University in 1926, and whose team-mate in that match was the future Nobel Laureate playwright Samuel Beckett.

There was Alan Finlayson, the South African who doubled the age of his brother Charles, who also played first-class cricket but died at 50.

There was DB Deodhar, once known as the Grand Old Man of Indian Cricket, who was one of very few people to play first-class cricket both before World War I and after World War II, and whose name lives on in the Deodhar Trophy.

There was the 19th-century cricketer Charles Braithwaite, unique in this list in that his entire first-class career of four matches occurred in Philadelphia, USA.

There was Fred Gibson, who was born in rural Jamaica, stayed on in England after serving in the RAF during World War II, played for Leicestershire, worked for Rolls-Royce (sometimes surprising opponents by arriving in one of the company's cars) and served as a Labour councillor.

There was Cyril Perkins, the left-arm spinner who made his first-class debut for Northamptonshire in 1934 and, remarkably, made his List A debut for Suffolk at the age of 54 in 1966, and died in 2013 at the age of 102.

"Eileen Ash turned 105 last year. She played seven Tests for England either side of World War II, worked for 11 years with intelligence agency MI6, still drives a yellow Mini, and doesn't look or sound a day over 80"

And there have been others, though none who have lived longer than Jim Hutchinson, who began working in a coal mine at the age of 14. A decade later he was spotted while playing for the colliery XI, and a week after that, he was making his first-class debut for Derbyshire. Hutchinson went on to play 256 first-class matches and lived to 104, claiming that his longevity was due to a diet of "pork chops and onion rings".

If Hutchinson is the first-class cricketer with the longest lifespan, the South African Norman Gordon is the Test cricketer who has lived the longest. A fast bowler who played in the famous ten-day timeless Test against England in Durban in 1939, Gordon died at the age of 103 in 2014. He is the only Test cricketer to have reached a century.

Actually, that statement must be clarified: the only male Test cricketer to have reached a century. For there is one person who surpasses all of these men not only for longevity, but for the remarkable nature of the long life still being lived.

Eileen Ash (nee Whelan) turned 105 last year. She played seven Tests for England either side of World War II, worked for 11 years with intelligence agency MI6, still drives a yellow Mini, and doesn't look or sound a day over 80. She puts down her longevity to the fact that she still practises yoga once a week - see for yourself - and enjoys two glasses of red wine a day.

She is so fit that she has not only reached a century but jokes about one day reaching a double-century. "I'd like to know when I'm going to be old," she said in a BBC interview last year, shortly before her latest birthday. "Do you think it will be when I'm 105?"