For much of the last 15 years, in which time television money has made cricket truly professional rather than just a means to make a living, there has been an increasingly small stage for the ‘old-timer.’
South African cricket has always been ageist and remains the biased organisation in the world when it comes to a preference between youth and ability. We’ll take a mediocre kid any day ahead of an experienced 30-year-old.
But worldwide there has been a semi-automatic assumption that cricketers reaching their mid-30s simply cannot fit into or cope physically with the demands of professional cricket. Indeed, there have even been suggestions that those who attempt to ‘hang on’ too long are merely being selfish, greedy and disruptive to the growth and development of the next generation.
But that has changed, or is changing. Men like Sanath Jayasuriya and Matthew Hayden are proving all over again that fitness and desire, allied to results, can make a mockery of any assumptions about age.
Another old-timer, and one whose achievements are even more impressive given that he is a fast bowler, is England’s New Zealand born seamer Andy Caddick who toiled away for scant reward on the flattest batting wicket in the country for Somerset against South Africa in Taunton during the first week of the tour.
The conditions were hardly a surprise to him given that the 39-year-old has completed almost two decades of first-class cricket there. What was a surprise was that South Africa were playing there at all.
“Why the hell do we have to make it so easy for them?” he said on radio after the game. “Welcome to England, if anyone is out of form or hasn’t played in a while, don’t worry, we’ve done everything we can to make sure you get into form as soon as possible,” said Caddick, tongue firmly in cheek.
“It’s nonsense, it really is. We should be making life as hard as possible for touring teams. As a matter of principle they should start their tour on the most difficult pitch in the country. We’ve been getting it wrong throughout my career. We go to Australia and they send us from Hobart to Brisbane via a five-hour flight and completely different conditions, useless as preparation for the Test match. Here we virtually offer a massage between games,” Caddick said.
And it must be said, he’s right.
“Things could not have started better,” beamed Mickey Arthur. “I couldn’t have scripted our warm-up games any better. Everyone’s got runs, the bowlers have had just enough overs and we’re all feeling confident about acclimatising and preparing for the series,” Arthur said.
All of which has contributed to a typically English attitude of sporting pessimism which is making South Africa favourites to win the series. Three times the Proteas have taken the lead on these shores only to stumble, once to defeat and twice to a share of the series.
The English tend to ‘find a way’ at home. They may be outgunned in the pace department and particularly brittle in the top order, but just when it’s needed, an individual digs deep enough to find the performance to define his career. And they do it more often against South Africa than any other nation.
Michael Atherton, Devon Malcolm, Robert Croft, Alec Stewart, Marcus Trescothick, Jack Russell, Graham Thorpe, Matthew Hoggard and, of course, Javed Akhtar have all produced match-winning or match-saving performances to hugely influence the outcome of the last three series on these shores.
It won’t be Dale Steyn’s or Morne Morkel’s wickets, or Jacques Kallis’ runs or Graeme Smith’s captaincy which will win this series, it will be the team’s collective ability to recognise the look in the eye of whichever Englishman is calling upon his last reserves of determination and strength. And then to overcome him.
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