28th August 2014
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
On Tuesday night on the ‘Mason & Guests’ show (the weekly Caribbean cricket talk show), a caller rang in demanding the removal of Shiv Chanderpaul from the West Indies Test team. Shiv turned 40 earlier this month:
“We are going nowhere with old men like Chanderpaul – we must blood new players!”
While I sympathise with the perception that old, dead wood often blocks the progress of rising saplings, we are talking here about a great oak that is still flourishing. His fruit may only be acorns which provide West Indies with a subsistent form of sustenance in these famished times for Caribbean cricket, but it is still the most dependable form of nutrition the team gets – and there are so many hungry mouths to feed. While frustrated West Indian supporters pine for a return of the days of all-conquering XIs, many pour scorn upon Chanderpaul’s offerings as mere ‘conkers’.
Why? Well, his batting is admittedly ugly, and his runs are accumulated unaesthetically at a monotonously regular tempo. The predictability of his steady dot, dot, dot, single, dot, single, two, dot, … approach is much less the comforting pleasure of the satisfying tick, tock, tick, tock of your grandfather’s clock that reassured you in your childhood, but far more the tortuous drip, drip, drip of a leaky bathroom tap.
No-one, surely, actually enjoys watching Chanderpaul bat – whether teammates, opposition, spectators or insomniacs – but he is usually still there. A crab-like entity scuttling along while his colleagues flounder on the rocks once again, leaving him adrift, alone, marooned – 81 not out.
So why the opprobrium? Some accuse him of selfishness. This may have some validity. Certainly, he surrenders the strike to expose the tailenders he’s invariably left with too often. Bat him higher up the order, then? Apparently he refuses to budge from his customary no. 5 slot. He’s comfortable there. Why shouldn’t a 40-year-old have a favourite spot in which to settle and get cosy? But many want to go a step further and give him his pipe and slippers too, and pension off their senior citizen because he’s entered his fifth decade.
Why is sport so ageist? In another time, Grace, Rhodes and Hobbs were still masters at 50. We’re told that at 40 they each entered their prime. Well, that’s not strictly true either. Before he was 30, Grace stood as tall above his contemporaries as Bradman did to his. No other batsman in any era can point to a batting average 40 or 50 runs higher than their nearest rival. But Grace was still good enough, though not great, to play for England when 50. Likewise, Rhodes. The received wisdom is that slow bowlers improve with age – well, Rhodes was never as great a slow-left-armer than in his first few seasons with Yorkshire – but he was still good enough to spin England to Ashes victory aged 48. And Hobbs famously scored a hundred hundreds after he was 40. Well, no he didn’t. Memory tells me it was 98. The finest English batsman for a decade after World War I, he still walks into an all-time world team – to walk out and open the innings. But Hobbs himself reckoned he was a better player in his youth before the Great War, and wished people would remember him as the dashing attacking batsman he’d been, rather than the great accumulator of later years.
All in the distant past? Not so long ago, Graham Gooch emerged initially as a destructive, hard-hitting opener. His first Test hundred at Lord’s v West Indies in 1980 being particularly savage on Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. But his masterpiece, perhaps The Masterpiece was his undefeated century off Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Patterson on a cloud-covered, responsive Headingley pitch in 1991. Both umpires, Dickie Bird and David Shepherd declared this the finest Test ton they ever witnessed. It was a hundred of totally dedicated craft and batsmanship – a truly mature innings. Gooch was not quite 38. His last Test century was 4 years later, when he was almost 41 – 210 v New Zealand (adding 263 with Mike Atherton). And then age caught up with him, his form deserted him and he retired.
The greatest modern day batsman, Sachin Tendulkar saw his form gradually wither away with the onset of age. He retired aged 40. Chanderpaul by contrast shows no sign of withering just yet. When his eyes weaken, his reactions slow, and his hunger for runs diminishes he’ll either retire himself, or be dropped. But until then let him go on. If his body allows him to keep churning out scores until he’s 45 or 50 years old then marvelous, let him carry on. Too many players, like Atherton, are forced to hang up their inners and thigh pad too early because of injury. Why penalise a player because his body doesn’t deteriorate?
In an office environment, if we suggested someone should be ‘laid off’ because s/he’s turned 40 we’d be up before an industrial tribunal. For goodness sake let’s not countenance dropping a player because he’s deemed to be ‘old’ – that’s sillier than leaving him out because he wasn’t born on the right island, or didn’t go to the right school, or he doesn’t meet your quota system, or he’s unpopular in the dressing room. Shouldn’t it be quite simple? You’re not picked because you’re not good enough.
David Oram is the resident ‘statto’, and sometime presenter of ‘Mason & Guests’ – Voice of Barbados’ weekly cricket talk show, the leading cricket radio show in the West Indies – hosted by the Caribbean’s principal radio commentator, Andrew Mason. You can tweet me at DavidOram@colblimp1983.