The American cartoonist Charles M. Schultz once said: “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.” The brow of the hill, of course, being a variable point depending on the person.
In the case of Kent all-rounder Darren Stevens, that brow may be behind him, but at the age of 45, his foot is still firmly and effectively on the accelerator. When he struck a ton against Northants in April, he became the oldest active first-class cricketer to score a County Championship century in almost 35 years since Chris Balderstone, one of the last of the “footballer/cricketers” achieved that milestone for Leicestershire against Sussex in 1986.
This week, the ageless Stevens has been at it again, smashing 190 runs off 149 balls for Kent against Glamorgan, with fifteen fours and fifteen sixes. As well as breaking his own “oldest ton-scoring player” record, he created another too, for dominating a first-class partnership of more than 100. Miguel Cummins at the other end was in full Jack Leach mode amassing just a single as his share of that partnership.
Clearly not exhausted by his exertions, Stevens also bagged the wicket of Marnus Labuschagne, something England’s finest Test attack have found none too easy in the recent past.
If the flesh is as willing as the spirit, age really can be just a number, though the relentless march of time will catch up with everyone eventually. But some manage to stay a few strides ahead of it well past 40. As I write this, golfer Phil Mickelson, aged 50 and with the aid of healthy living and meditation, is taking a one-shot lead into the final round of the US PGA. Granted, golf may be less physically demanding than cricket, but we can still count that as one up for the oldies.
Look back over Test cricket history and you will find that England’s Wilfred Rhodes, George Gunn and indeed the great doctor himself, WG Grace, along with Australia’s Bert Ironmonger, all their played final Tests when aged 50 or over, Rhodes the oldest at 52. He managed two not outs with the bat and took a cheap wicket in both innings against the West Indies on his farewell performance at Sabina Park, so there may even have been a few drops left in the tank when he called it a day.
WG Grace, always an imposing figure, was distinctly portly and grey-bearded at aged 50 when he faced Australia for the final time at Trent Bridge. He made a respectable 28, though, in the first innings before edging behind off Monty Noble. However, the single in the second innings before being bowled by Bill Howell and twenty-two wicketless, if economical, overs with the ball, called time on his England career.
Here are five of the finest Test performances by over 40s, holding back the march of time and delivering some of their best cricket. Starting with the oldest first at the time of the match:
WG Grace, 66 for England vs Australia, Lord’s 1896, aged 47 years 340 days
Twenty-five days short of his 48th birthday, The Doctor decided to pull a special innings out of his hat against his old foes at the Home of Cricket. After Tom Richardson bowled out Australia for 53, Grace strode out to open against Ernie Jones and George Giffen and on a wretched Lord’ s pitch, scored a gutsy 66, adding 105 for the second wicket with Bobby Abel. The eye and the reflexes still true for WG. Australia never recovered from the partnership (succumbing again to Richardson) and despite their fourth-wicket putting on a double-hundred partnership as the wicket improved, England eased to a six-wicket victory.
Jack Hobbs, 142 and 65 for England vs Australia, Melbourne 1928-29, aged 46 years, 82 days
Even after turning 46 Hobbs’ appetite for runs had not declined. After Jack White won the toss, Hobbs opened with Douglas Jardine then and added 64, 82, and 89 for the first three wickets, scoring a staggering 142 out of the 235 scored during his tenure at the crease. Not done, by any means, he top-scoring again in the second innings with 65. However, despite his heroics, Australia won the Test by five wickets.
Jack Hobbs (again) 49 for England vs Australia, Melbourne 1928-29, aged 46 years, 13 days
England, set to chase 332 on a wet, treacherous Melbourne wicket against Grimmett, sent out the greatest opening pair of all time in Hobbs and Sutcliffe, the masters of the “sticky wicket”. As the sun came out on the uncovered pitch, it began to dry, and batting became virtually impossible. However, Hobbs and Sutcliffe batted on, and when Hobbs eventually fell after a superlative display of technique, concentration, and determination for 49, the spectators stood up in universal acknowledgement. Many feeling this was Hobbs’ greatest innings ever. Before being dismissed, Hobbs sent a message (while asking for fresh gloves) to Percy Chapman, asking him to promote Douglas Jardine, a better batsman in such conditions than Walter Hammond. Jardine added 94 with Sutcliffe, and the great Yorkshireman guided England to a three-wicket triumph.
Brian Close, 60 and 46 for England vs West Indies, Lord’s 1976, aged 45 years, 114 days
With Andy Roberts and Michael Holding lethally wound up in the famous “grovel” series, the English selectors brought back Brian Close to try and stiffen their resistance to the onslaught. Close gutsed it out, top-scoring with 60 in the first innings. Coming out to bat at 29 for two (with Barry Wood also retired hurt), Close defied Roberts and Holding, often taking blows on his body, adding 83 with David Steele, and almost leading England to an improbable victory.
Jack Hobbs, 100 for England vs Australia, The Oval 1926, aged 43 years, 241 days
Coming out to bat 22 runs in arrears, Hobbs and Sutcliffe pulled off what can easily be classified as one of the best displays of batting on a sticky gluepot against bowlers of the calibre of Mailey and Clarrie Grimmett. The two great spinners sent down over after over, but the legendary duo remained intact. Sutcliffe carried on even after Hobbs fell for a round 100; the senior partner had dominated the 172-run partnership and England went on to win the Test by 289 runs.