I turn 40 this week. Don’t worry, this isn’t a Brian Johnston style appeal for cake. I won’t suddenly be sending out “thank yous” to Mrs. Cholmondeley in Upper Piddle for delivering a rather nice chocolate sponge with strawberries on top.
But cake or no cake, these type of milestones do tend to focus the mind – firstly on where the last 20 years have gone and more critically on where the next 20 are going. I suppose there is an upside. For example, reaching 40 must be infinitely better than being 60 or 80. But, I guess in theory any age is preferable to the Grim Reaper alternative.
I was talking to my 9 year old this morning on the drive to school. He told me that when he grows up he wants to be an international cricketer in the summer (some extra pocket money is coming his way!) and a footballer in the winter (less impressive, but at least it’s a good earner). I explained that the term for this was a “double international” but they rarely emerge in elite sport anymore – mostly due to the fact that the football season never seems to end while T20 competitions go on all year round.
I regaled him with stories of Willie Watson and Arthur Milton; century on debut and all. But, just as I was about to launch into the “Boys Own” tale of C.B. Fry, I could see that he had long since glazed over and retreated into his Pokemon cards. The greatest sporting and academic all-rounder of the Victorian and Edwardian era was obviously irrelevant compared to a cute yellow rodent named Pikachu.
As a result of this conversation I experienced a small dose of melancholia. It reminded me of that time long ago when I had the same dreams and, just like my boy, I considered them infinitely sensible and accessible. I’m not sure exactly when I lost faith but assume it happened around the time when increased knowledge and experience collided, and a dull, practical and adult view of the world set in.
As a 12 year old in 1989 my dreams were still alive – especially when big Gus Fraser docked into port at Edgbaston for his Test debut. As a big boned, slow moving and not particularly fashionable kid, I had immediately found my perfect hero. Gus was proof to my young eyes that you could still be an elite sportsman – outside the inactive realms of Darts or Snooker – whilst also being singularly un-athletic and exuding a perpetual air of sweaty fatigue. The fact that he also bowled classical English seam-up was manna to my romanticised, ultra-orthodox view of the game.
Fraser’s Test career ended relatively abruptly at the end of the 90’s. There it lies undisturbed along with my own unfulfilled dreams of cricket stardom. He took his final Test bow in the Boxing Day Ashes Test of 1998 – a mere peripheral figure, bowling a couple of expensive overs, as Dean Headley ripped through the Aussies to bring about a famous victory.
It is a sad day when you realise that your dreams are nothing more tangible than illusions. When you understand, like a line out of those old American movies, that you don’t “have the moxie” or the talent to make it. For those of us that were not even close to having the requisite ability it is substantially easier. It’s altogether better, I am sure, than being kicked out of a county 2nd team or an academy side, just as the spoils appear there for the taking.
My impending 40th makes these feelings appear even more distant. These days sportsman are barely hanging in there at 35 and by 40 have long since retired to coaching or TV studios. The days of watching Lancashire’s “Flat” Jack Simmons trundle in on Sunday Grandstand, until close to his 50th birthday, now feel only marginally less remote than the aforementioned C.B. Fry.
The absence of 40-somehtings at the top table of cricket, just sends out another clear and depressing signal: that the body has reached its peak and is now engaged on a one-paced descent. To convince myself that I am not past it, and still have what it takes, I have to seek out and locate newer and more mature heroes.
Pakistan’s Misbah-Ul-Haq is one. He will be 43 at the end of the month and is currently averaging 105 in the ongoing Test series against West Indies. However, much to my disgust, he has decided to call it a day at the conclusion of the current rubber. To add insult to injury, his teammate, the comparatively youthful Younis Khan (39, since you ask) has also decided to wheel himself into retirement.
With the impending retreat of these international heavyweights I’ll be forced to look closer to home for heroes. The County Championship holds a few – although nowhere remotely close to the numbers of yesteryear.
If I had my way, 41 year old Marcus Trescothick would play forever. His strengths, abilities and triumphs are so obvious that they needn’t be repeated here. “Banger” is currently playing the senior pro role at Somerset in supporting young skipper Tom Abell. I close my eyes and prey that Trescothick makes some runs in 2017 and returns next season.
Trescothick’s old England team-mate Paul Collingwood will also turn 41 at the end of this month. An altogether flintier character, Colly continues to lead Durham in the championship. His presence and leadership will be critical as they face up to enforced relegation, a substantial points deduction and the player exodus that ensued.
However, Tresco and Colly are both mere striplings compared to the crabby old West Indian Shiv Chanderpaul. The great Shiv will be 43 this year. He’s so ancient that he has actually played first-class cricket with his son! Although Chanderpaul’s technique is rather unlovely, his unquenchable appetite for runs endures: he’s already hit one ton for Lancashire this season despite limited appearances. One wonders whether he sees old Father Time gently scything the outfield as bowlers half his age run in.
Unfortunately though, all these ex-internationals would have to admit that their best days are behind them. Indeed, the only player age apparently cannot wither is Kent’s Darren Stevens (41), who seems to get better season by season. Once again he’s been collecting 5 wicket hauls liberally as well as amassing useful runs.
At this rate Stevens should be reaching his peak around the year 2020. Would that be too late for a long overdue England call up? I’m counting on you Stevo. As are a whole generation of balding, desperate, middle-aged dreamers.