Essay, 2004

Fortifying the Over-Forties

Nick Mason

Alec Stewart: the 102nd player to play in a Test aged 40 or above © Getty Images

When he appeared in the first Lord's Test of 2003, Alec Stewart was already past his 40th birthday. The man who scored 100 in his 100th Test on the Queen Mother's 100th birthday might also have been expected to make himself the 100th player to play in a Test aged 40 or above.

In fact, Stewart was No. 102 - Jimmy Cook of South Africa was the 100th. Stewart might, however, be the last - at least for some time to come. For a cricketer over 40 to be selected for his country, he has always had to be pretty good; nowadays he has to be exceptional. With fielding ability and physical fitness the current watchwords, the adjective "veteran" is being applied ever more readily to sprightly 34-year-olds, and team physios these days have better things to do than strap up creaking joints just to squeeze an extra few Tests from a workhorse in decline.

That said, the statistics have shown no consistent sign that the supply of 40-year-olds is drying up. While the undoubted heyday of the aged Test player lay between 1920 and 1949 (more than half of all the quadragenarians worldwide played their relevant Tests in those three decades), the years since have conformed to no predictable pattern. The 1960s, for example, saw only three Test players in their forties: Tom Graveney and Bert Sutcliffe wound up two distinguished batting careers for England and New Zealand respectively, and Les Jackson was recalled by England for the second of his two Test matches a dozen years after his first.

Yet in the 1990s as many as eight oldies caught the selectors' eyes, from Graham Gooch, who was undroppable when he passed the 40-year milestone and went on to play a further 13 matches for England, to Gordon Greenidge, who had the distinction of completing the shortest quadragenarian Test career on record: the last day of his last Test for West Indies was his 40th birthday, and he was run out for 43 before lunch.

The great majority of the 102 players have been batsmen, whose technique, timing and experience have survived the inevitable decline in physical sharpness, eyesight and reaction speed. Fifty-eight would have been picked for their batting alone, and of the 15 genuine all-rounders in the club nearly all - Walter Hammond, Frank Woolley, Basil D'Oliveira, Warwick Armstrong, for example - were top-class batsmen who also happened to bowl very well, as opposed to the handful, like India's Lala Amarnath and Vinoo Mankad, who would have earned their place simply as bowlers.

Conversely, of the nine wicket-keepers (six Englishmen, three Australians), only Stewart was a genuine Test batsman as well. Among the bowlers ten, surprisingly, were still regularly entrusted with the new ball in their forties (Gubby Allen was probably the fastest of them, Sydney Barnes the deadliest); double that number were out-and-out spinners.

Of the 102, 52 have been Englishmen, led by James Southerton, the longserving round-arm bowler who was more than ten years older than any other player in the inaugural Melbourne Test in 1877. Sixteen Australians and a dozen South Africans make up the bulk of the rest, though a healthy challenge from the younger ranks has meant that only two Australians born in the 20th century have played a Test in their forties - Bill O'Reilly in the one-off destruction of New Zealand early in 1946 (only later recognised as a Test) and, to his and everyone else's surprise, Bobby Simpson, fully ten years into Test retirement, recalled as captain during the Packer crisis. Steve Waugh was six months short of his 39th birthday when he retired earlier this year. Neither India nor Pakistan have fielded a 40-year-old since the 1950s.

Bert Ironmonger, slow of foot and incompetent of bat, did not win his first cap until he was nearly 47 © The Cricketer International

Understandably, Test careers for quadragenarians tend to be short. More than a quarter of the total, 26 players, appeared in only a single Test in their forties, and another 13 played in only two. Against these fly-by-nights, though, there is a select gallery of 21 cricketers who have succeeded in appearing in at least ten Tests after their 40th birthday. Of them Armstrong, W. G. Grace, Ray Illingworth and Simpson were captain in all their Tests over 40, and Freddie Brown in all but one of his.

For some in this list, their latter years represented a genuine late flowering: the remarkable Bert Ironmonger, slow of foot and incompetent of bat, did not win his first cap until he was nearly 47, yet for five years his niggardly left-arm slow-medium was considered almost essential for Australia in their home Tests. And Bob Taylor, who celebrated his 40th birthday in the middle of the pivotal Headingley Test match of 1981, went on to complete another 29 as England's wicket-keeper - more than half his Test career - and a record tally of over-40 appearances that might never be beaten.

The only cricketers to come near him on that score are Patsy Hendren and Jack Hobbs, both of whom had truly enviable quadragenarian careers. (Hobbs, let us not forget, scored 98 of his 197 first-class hundreds after his 40th birthday.) Hendren averaged 48.12 in 44 innings and Hobbs, with eight Test centuries and 11 fifties, averaged an astonishing 58.10, a figure even more remarkable considering all but seven of his 27 matches were against Australia. In all, eight of these 21 men had better Test batting averages after their 40th birthday than in their Test careers as a whole, and five of the 12 who regularly bowled also improved their figures, notably Clarrie Grimmett, who took 96 Test wickets in his forties at a cost of only 21.11 each.

If one match could stand as the ultimate memorial to veterans'Test cricket, it would have to be the final, interminable Test in Kingston, Jamaica, in April 1930. England's team in that game (abandoned as a draw after nine days, two of them washed out) was the oldest ever fielded in any international contest. Wilfred Rhodes, in his 53rd year, was completing an epic Test career that had spanned five separate decades; George Gunn, too, was over 50 and three more - Nigel Haig, Ewart Astill and Hendren - were in their forties. And the man of the match - had such fripperies been on the menu in 1930 - would have been Andrew Sandham, whose 325 was then the highest Test score ever made, and who was playing his last game for England at the tender age of 39 years and nine months.

Nick Mason is a sports historian and journalist who was a long-serving executive on the sports desks of The Sunday Times and The Guardian. He is over 40.

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