Memoir

The ball still swings

Cricketers in their seventies

‘IT’S JUST LIKE the game we used to play,’ a teammate observed, ‘only in slow motion.’ He was talking about over-­sixties cricket. The slow bowlers bowl with as much guile as ever, but those of us who used to be fast are now a gentle medium pace. We do not hit the ball as hard as we once did, and sometimes in the field, instead of getting our hands down to ground level, we stick out a foot in desperation. Most of our throwing arms are decidedly fragile and we no longer move as fast, which means special consideration must be taken with field placings. Running between wickets requires fine judgment. The game, in short, is as much a challenge as it was fifty years ago – possibly even more so, now that we know more about it.

Over-­sixties cricket is a recent phenomenon. It is only in the last couple of decades that enough men have still been playing cricket in the second half of their lives to make it practical to organise fixtures. Before that, cricket was generally seen as a young person’s game. Only the young and silly, it was thought, could possibly consider that it might be fun to stand out in the hot sun for several hours, let alone to charge in and bowl or to strap on bulky padding. This wasn’t true, of course. Brian Close was playing for England in the 1970s at forty-­five, almost twenty-­seven years after his first Test. In earlier times, three Englishmen and one Australian, left-­arm spinner Bert ‘Dainty’ Ironmonger, played Test cricket in their fifties. But when I was growing up in the country, most men gave up cricket when they got married or became fathers. Those who continued to play sport usually moved on to more sedate pursuits, such as golf or bowls.

Some didn’t. Among the stalwarts of my local cricket club at Tahmoor were two men who had sons my age. Keith ‘Creamy’ Moore, the local dairyman, lost his son in a road accident, but Chris Evers was still playing when his lads Ray and Brian became old enough to play alongside him. He must have been almost forty. He seemed ancient to me, a sixteen-­year-­old getting the occasional game when the team was short.

I played serious cricket in the country, then in Sydney while I was studying, in England for a decade and in Brisbane after I returned to Australia, including twenty years playing for Griffith University. When I left Brisbane and moved to the Sunshine Coast fifteen years ago, I thought my cricket days were over – there wouldn’t be many clubs keen to recruit a seam bowler in their sixties! Besides, I had reached the point of lacking enthusiasm about the prospect of being in the field all afternoon. Then I found a local club, Sunshine Coast Antiquarians, formed to cater for cricketers no longer in the first flush of youth. It played one-­day games against other over-­forties clubs, such as Bundaberg Veterans. I could still play the occasional game, and the limited-­overs format meant it was not too physically demanding.

Now, there are Golden Oldies and Vintage Cricket carnivals for older cricketers. On my sixty-­fourth birthday, I had the pleasure of opening the bowling in Barbados on a typical West Indian ground, lush and green but small by our standards, so that anything pitched short was sent sailing into adjoining backyards for six. Long delays ensued as ageing fieldsmen clambered over fences and braved yapping dogs to retrieve the ball.

That was the third Vintage Cricket Carnival; I had also taken part in the first two, in Adelaide and Perth. At the Perth event, we met a combined XI starring West Indies Test legend Joel Garner, bowling off a short run at a gentle pace in a suburban park. He produced a bottle of Barbados rum after the game and insisted we share it with him. Our next match was against Troupy’s Troopers, led by former New Zealand seamer Gary Troup, clearly enjoying his cricket at our sedate level.

While Vintage Cricket and Golden Oldies carnivals are a lot of fun, the backbone of senior cricket is the regular round of matches between local clubs. Sunshine Coast Antiquarians play about twenty games a year – but mainly in the cooler months from April to October.

 

THINGS BECAME MORE serious when a few older cricketers in Victoria organised an interstate carnival for teams of over-­sixties players. In 2009, a local enthusiast rang around and found fourteen players who were prepared to form the first Queensland team to participate in that year’s event in Launceston. We didn’t start well because we hadn’t met one another before and the captain was unaware of our strongest eleven, but we finished reasonably well. The following year, we won the carnival in Canberra. At the final dinner, 250 cricketers from eighteen teams sat down with umpires, scorers, wives and girlfriends to hear the selection panel announce the names of those who would form the first Australian over-­sixties team to tour England. Our guest of honour, Keith Stackpole – the former Test opening batsman – described us as the last generation of players who love cricket. He was reflecting that modern cricket is more professional and better paid, but the young players don’t seem to enjoy themselves as much as we had at their age. Stackpole said he was delighted to see us batting in caps rather than helmets; to see fieldsmen wearing cream trousers and shirts without advertisements; to see real cricket boots rather than funny multicoloured shoes. Pads with velcro, rather than buckles, represented the one significant concession made by senior cricketers to the ‘improvements’ of the modern game, although there has now been an order from Cricket Australia, hotly contested, that batsmen should wear helmets. I was among the older players who thought we should be able to judge for ourselves whether the bowling was fast enough to justify protection, just as some Test cricketers opt to take off their helmet and bat in a cap against slow bowlers. But the hyper-­cautious old men running cricket have directed umpires to insist on helmets.

Local enthusiasm for the interstate format was growing, and by the 2011 Adelaide event we were able to field two teams in the two divisions. Since then, the speed of change has been truly breathtaking. An over-­seventies division now caters for players who are even older, and the event has become too large for one venue. In 2019, the over-­sixties carnival was held in Adelaide, and the over-­seventies event in Albury-­Wodonga. A regional competition in Queensland allows selectors to make informed judgments about the strongest teams. Also in 2019, four Queensland teams took part in the over-­sixties division and two in the over-­seventies. Altogether, these carnivals featured fifty teams of senior cricketers, more than 600 players in total. And this growth has prompted a move for more change. Recognising that thirty-­two teams is about the maximum for any venue, one state has proposed creating two divisions: over-­sixties and over-­sixty-­sevens. That move would allow another 150 players to participate in two carnivals of thirty-­two teams.

 

THERE’S A NOTICEABLY different ethos in senior cricket. Teams still play to win, but the spirit of the game is at least as important as the winning. In test, state and grade cricket, winning comes close to being the sole aim. Sharp practice, sledging and gamesmanship are all justified by the need to win. In club cricket, I once played a final against a team who admitted afterwards that they’d planned in advance their confident and jubilant appeal to convince a dozy umpire that our star batsman had edged the ball. They were quite unashamed about it: they felt their premiership victory vindicated their behaviour.

That is not the way in senior cricket. Fieldsmen readily acknowledge when a ball has not carried to them, whereas grade or shield players are likely to throw it triumphantly into the air and claim the catch. Fielding captains have been known to call back a batsman wrongfully given out. And players are expected to walk if they know they have edged the ball, rather than looking innocent and hoping the umpire didn’t notice the deflection.

I have now toured the South Island of New Zealand fourteen times with a team of senior cricketers called the Honest Trundlers. Over the course of a tour, the responsibilities of opening the batting, keeping wicket and leading the attack are shared around. Some Trundlers are, like me, dedicated cricketers who have never stopped playing. Others were lured back to the game after many years away. At least two hadn’t played since leaving school and were persuaded by a friend or relative to give senior cricket a go. We always look the part, with a coloured uniform for day-­night matches, as well as our whites, and every player’s unique number on their shirt, cap and sweater. We all agree we would much rather lose a close game than win a lopsided one.

I have thought about why some players persist with the game, despite their slowly fading powers, while most others give cricket away when they can no longer perform the way they once did. Queensland squads at recent senior carnivals have included former test player Geoff Dymock, four former Sheffield Shield players, one player who represented Queensland Country against England, and a bunch of others with years of serious club cricket behind them. As with the Honest Trundlers and Antiquarians, some retired from cricket long ago and have been inspired by the seniors’ movement to make a comeback. Others, like me, never stopped. Playing senior cricket, I have met again players I remember from the 1960s. What unites us all is our love of the game, and our joy in joining others who get as much fun out of it as we do. Geoff Dymock now bowls off only a few paces but still keeps a tidy line, still moves the ball both ways and is still a test for any unwary batsman. As he says: ‘It’s fantastic to play cricket at any level.’

We will probably keep coming back so long as we feel like we can contribute and aren’t a liability to our mates. In the words of the last verse of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Honest Trundlers’ (traditionally sung at our end-­of-­tour team dinner): ‘If our bodies still hold up, we’ll be back here next year.’

I’ve been saying something like that each year since I turned forty. We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. At the Golden Oldies Carnival in Queenstown, the Antiquarians were helped out in our last game by a sprightly eighty-­five-­year-­old Kiwi called Wilf. We’d met him three years before when he played against us for the bucolic and aptly named Central Otago Wanderers. At that earlier carnival’s final dinner, the organisers were so impressed with the performance of this man in his eighties that they chose Wilf as their player of the carnival. Called on stage to accept his award, Wilf brought the crowd to its feet when he whipped out a mouth organ and played a cheerful solo. One teammate commented: ‘I’ve got thirty years to learn to play the harmonica!’

The phenomenon of senior cricket is just one demonstration of the statistical fact that we are now living much longer and healthier lives. I am still alive, playing cricket and writing about it at an age not reached by any of my direct male ancestors. In 1900, only 4 per cent of Australia’s population was over the age of sixty-­five. By 2010, that figure had grown to 13.5 per cent, with demographers projecting that nearly a quarter of the population will be over sixty-­five by the middle of this century. This has led to uninformed alarmism about consequences for the healthcare budget. The speculation is incorrect because the basic reason we are living longer is that we are healthier, as demonstrated in part by the phenomenal growth of over-­sixties cricket from a few teams fifteen years ago to about 600 of us playing interstate cricket today. While it’s true that the average cost of medical attention increases with age, it’s also literally true that seventy is the new fifty; the average seventy-­year-­old today has the health characteristics and mental awareness that used to be typical of someone a couple of decades younger.

All the evidence suggests that continuing to be physically and mentally active creates a virtuous circle; by remaining active, we are more likely to retain the capacity to be active. I was selected in the first Australian over-­seventies team to tour England in 2013, but – now quite a few years older – was only in the Queensland Second XI for the 2019 carnival.

I’m holding out hope that there might soon be an over-­eighties team.

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