Nolan Clarke: 'My dream was to qualify the Dutch team for the World Cup'

The oldest man to play in a World Cup remembers his journey from Barbados to Netherlands and then to the subcontinent in 1996

Nolan Clarke (standing) watches Netherlands play in September 2015  •  Peter Della Penna/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Nolan Clarke (standing) watches Netherlands play in September 2015  •  Peter Della Penna/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

On Tuesday, Ryan Campbell set a new mark as the oldest debutant in a T20I at 44 years and 30 days when he opened the batting for Hong Kong against Zimbabwe. As remarkable as that accomplishment was, it was still well short of a similar achievement made at a World Cup in India by another opener 20 years earlier.
"If I was in England, I wouldn't be able to do it," Nolan Clarke says matter-of-factly when recalling his World Cup and ODI debut for Netherlands at age 47 against New Zealand in Vadodara. "If I was in Australia, I wouldn't be able to do it. They'd say, 'Thank you, we've got someone who might not be as good as you but we've had enough investment [in them].' I was able to do it in Holland because Holland was low in talent and needed to compete.
"Peter Cantrell, Flavian Aponso and I were three Hoofdklasse cricketers at that time. Even at that time, we were still the best. I didn't do it to inspire people, but the Indian public and Pakistan public would say: if a man at 47 years can still run around and play a bit of cricket, well, that is enough hope for people."
Born and brought up in Barbados, Clarke made his first-class debut for his home island in March 1970 at 21 and four years later struck 159 against an MCC side captained by Mike Denness during England's 1973-74 tour of the West Indies. Two years later, he was still toiling away in the Shell Shield when an offer to coach in Netherlands came up.
"There were two English pros that played in England. One was a coach here in Holland and he was in Barbados in a tournament," Clarke said. "We sat and talked and he said to me, 'Are you interested in coming to Holland?' I said, 'But I don't even think they play cricket in Holland.' He said, 'Yeah, they do play a bit of cricket.' I said okay and that's when it started.
"He arranged the contract with a guy named Dries Kost in Deventer and that's when I started, in 1976. How many people years ago knew that the Dutch really played cricket? People in England, but [people in Barbados] know Holland differently - for cheeses and stuff like that. The level at that time wasn't that bad, but you just played cricket differently. It wasn't a serious level of cricket - a bit of fun, not results."
"I should have taken the World Cup a little more serious. For some reason, I was like, 'I'm here now and I've come here to have a good time'"
Despite the lack of intensity in the Dutch domestic competition, Clarke says the lifestyle in the Netherlands grew on him. The relative anonymity of the sport allowed him the sort of freedom cricketers were unaccustomed to back in Barbados.
"Nobody knew me in Holland, and you walk the streets and nobody knew you. I liked that kind of life. In Barbados you had to be involved all the time, day and night, and it was all around you. Some people like that, but it wasn't my kind of thing. I managed to do it but I had a bit of peace when I came to Holland, and I really enjoyed that."
Clarke played just one more first-class season for Barbados in 1977 and was shuttling back and forth to Netherlands before he decided to take a break from the game altogether. In 1981 he moved to New Orleans to work for RJ Tricon, an industrial-equipment supplier, and spent two years in the USA before a chance meeting - one he tells of with a big grin on his face - brought him back to cricket.
"Call it a miracle or what have you. I was sitting at home one morning and I decided to get in the car and take a nice drive into town. When I got into town and parked, I saw a guy walking on the other side of the pavement and I looked and said, 'I know that guy.' It was Dries Kost, the same guy who got me the job in Holland when I started. He was in New Orleans! So I parked the car and got out, started to walk on the other side of the street behind the guy.
"Some people had the impression on their faces like, 'Uh oh, I think he's going to rob that guy.' You should've seen their faces. I put my hand up and when I moved, he looked and said, 'Nolan!'
"He was over there working for his company back in Holland. He said, 'Man, what are you doing down here? Don't you want to play cricket again?' I said, 'No problem.' He said, 'I've got a job for you', and in three weeks he arranged a job again and I was back in Holland.
"The timing was super. I had a reasonable life there in New Orleans, but this normal desk work wasn't for me. I came back and started at a club called Hercules, then Quick Den Haag asked me to join them. I did it for ten or 11 years, coaching at Quick. I discovered that after all, what I was doing was heaven on earth. Thank God that I had actually done that. That was a blessing. Sometimes you need a rest or a change to appreciate the things that you have."
In 1989, Clarke made his Dutch debut as a 41-year-old in style, scoring 77 in a Netherlands total of 176 that wound up being just enough for a famous three-run victory over an England XI featuring Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Derek Pringle, and captained by Peter Roebuck. A year later, he was the leading scorer at the ICC Trophy, held in the Netherlands, with 523 runs at 65.37, including two centuries. But with a single 1992 World Cup qualifying berth up for grabs, Netherlands fell short to Zimbabwe in the final, at the Hague, by six wickets.
The following ICC Trophy in 1994 was held in Kenya, but unlike in previous editions, where only the winner advanced to the World Cup, the top three finishers would now qualify to go to the subcontinent in 1996. It was a fortuitous change because Netherlands lost a semi-final to UAE, setting up a showdown with Bermuda in the third-place game. Aside from his time in Holland and the USA, Clarke had also spent some time in Bermuda and had mixed feelings about the encounter.
"All the Bermudans were my friends," Clarke said. "We'd eat, drink and go into the town together years before that. I went to the bus in the morning before we left and hugged them. I got 121 against them and we won the game. I had a feeling that I had done something wrong. That was one of the special things in my life when the Bermuda guys still came over and hugged me and said, 'Well played.'"
After working so hard with so many great performances for Netherlands over the years to get to the World Cup, Clarke finally played to his age two years later at the main event. He made 50 runs in five games, including two ducks, with a best of 32 against South Africa. Looking back, he says he was just happy to be there.
"I have to be grateful playing for Holland. I had 99 games for Holland, but it could've been no games at all. A guy coming from Barbados, coaching and playing here, they could have said, 'We don't need foreigners'"
"I should have taken the World Cup a little more serious. For some reason, I was like, 'I'm here now and I've come here to have a good time.' I did not focus and I missed something along the line, the seriousness of the World Cup. It was only afterwards that I realised I could have done a lot better in the World Cup if I had actually put my mind to it. What I enjoyed, which was my dream, was to qualify the Dutch team [for the World Cup]. I think after we qualified, everything just went flat."
In general Clarke feels it was just a reflection of the general attitude of Associate cricket at the time. Teams were talented but mostly run in amateur fashion. Even though Associate funding for countries like Netherlands remains nowhere close to an ideal amount, the differences are noticeable compared to 20 years ago.
"There wasn't that kind of money around. The competition was good. Canada was a strong team. United States, Holland, Kenya, Bermuda were strong. It was difficult because those guys never really played together until they arrived in a short tournament, but they were fantastic cricketers. If that money was around then and it was run like they do now, the standard of that cricket would've been close to top-class cricket."
After the World Cup ended, Clarke stayed active on and off in the domestic scene in Holland. After a six-year break, he came back in 2005 with club side VVV at age 56, and he finished fifth on the domestic Hoofdklasse run charts with 782 runs, not far behind Tim McIntosh, George Bailey and Neil McKenzie. He still keeps himself busy with a regular game of golf nowadays, though every so often he'll pop in to watch a local cricket match in Den Haag.
"I think that I've been blessed. First, to be born in Barbados in a tropical country to good parents who supported my cricket and my life and put me on the right path, and then from there having the right role models that you can look at, and being blessed to go into one of the best cricket clubs we had at that time in the Caribbean, Spartan CC, where all the top-class cricketers came through - Wes Hall, David Holford, Peter Lashley. When you're in a dressing room with Garry Sobers at 19 - at that time he was magic - you have a lot of people around you and just being in their presence was enough to make you a good cricketer and a good human being.
"I have to be grateful playing for Holland. I had 99 games for Holland but it could've been no games at all. They didn't have to give me a game over here. A guy coming from Barbados, coaching and playing here, they could have said, 'We don't need foreigners.' To be in the right place at the right time most of the time, travelling around and playing, you can't get it better than that. It's not possible."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna