By Suresh Menon
India’s first Test captain, C K Nayudu was 37 when he led the team out for their inaugural match at Lord’s in 1932. At 57, he led Holkar to the final of the Ranji Trophy. At 62, he scored 80 against a Rajasthan attack which included internationals G S Ramchand and Vinoo Mankad. He played his last first class match at 69. When tales of longevity in cricket are discussed, it is impossible to ignore Nayudu, although his international career lasted only four years and seven Tests.
By one of those coincidences that seem pregnant with meaning, Nayudu shared a birthday with that other iron man of India, Sardar Vallabhai Patel.
In international cricket, the Indian whose record Sachin Tendulkar broke by playing twenty years was Lala Amarnath, the country’s first Test centurion in 1933. Lala played his last Test at Eden Gardens nineteen years later. Srinivas Venkatraghavan’s last Test was even more interesting. He played it in Antigua in the company of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan who hadn’t been born 18 years earlier when Venkat made his debut against New Zealand.
Two Pakistanis, Mushtaq Mohammed and Imran Khan had a twenty-year gap between their first and last Tests; in another year Tendulkar will go past that longevity record, and also that of Garry Sobers.
Imran played 88 Tests, Sobers 93, but the significant statistic of those who lasted longer at the international level is the fact that they averaged fewer than three Test matches a year. Jack Hobbs (22 years, 61 Tests), known simply as The Master played long enough to make 197 first class centuries, still a world record, but the West Indian great George Headley’s 24 years yielded only 22 Test matches. Robertson-Glasgow wrote of Frank Woolley (25 years, 64 Tests) that he was “easy to watch, difficult to bowl to, and impossible to write about. When you bowled to him there weren’t enough fielders, when you wrote about him there weren’t enough fielders…. He will rank as the greatest of left handers seen in the game.”
Woolley finished with 58, 969 first class runs, second overall only to Hobbs, he also claimed over two thousand wickets and remains the only fielder to have taken more than one thousand catches.
When Brian Close was recalled to the England team to take on the West Indies fast bowlers in 1976, he was 44; he had made his debut 26 years earlier. But he had only 22 Tests to show for his efforts.
And that brings us to the granddaddy of them all – the oldest man to play Test cricket, the man with the most number of first class wickets, the bridge between two epochs in the game, having bowled to both W G Grace and Don Bradman – Wilfred Rhodes.
Rhodes, 21 when he made his debut against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1899, and was still good enough to tour West Indies in 1930 – a career span of 30 years and 315 days. He played 58 Tests, starting as a number eleven batsman and finishing as an opener with Hobbs with whom he put on a record 323 in a Test against Australia. His haul of 4187 wickets remains a record.
Rhodes, a Yorkshire professional (which meant that the poetry of the game was not for him; it was never “played for fun”), however, had some of the most poetic descriptions written about him. Here’s Cardus: “Flight was his secret. Flight and the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical; every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; each over in collusion with the others, part of a plot…”