Old, not over the hill

Kunal Diwan
Kunal Diwan

Over the years, middle-aged debutants in ODI cricket have fallen conveniently into distinct categories. There have been those whose careers were on the wind in the early to mid 1970s – the dawning of ODIs – and that reduced their haul of limited-overs cricket to a handful of games after a belated, ill-adjusted inauguration.

Then there are the second-generation citizens of ICC’s Associate Members - the minnows, if you like - whose delayed entry into the eleven, mostly at an age northward of 40, is almost ritualized every four years come the World Cup. Thus you have a Nolan Clarke turning out in Dutch colours for the first time, in the 1996 World Cup, after having completed almost half-a-century on planet Earth; or a 43-year-old Rahul Sharma debuting for Hong Kong – as captain, no less – in the 2004 Asia Cup.

Playing in his first ODI this past week, Sri Lanka left-arm spinner Sajeewa Weerakoon fits in another group entirely. Neither is his age of breaking in – 34 – comparable to the debuting dinosaurs of yesteryear. Destined to be almost forever overshadowed by a surfeit of spinning talent (Muttiah Muralitharan, Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis), Weerakorn gave his inglorious fate a slip when selectors handed him a cap for the third ODI against Pakistan.

The tall left-armer gained as the Lankan think-tank chose to rest Herath ahead of the test series, keeping in mind that the first-choice bowler had undergone knee surgery in March and had appeared to struggle with his fitness in the second ODI. Thus, 17 First Class seasons and almost 700 wickets later, Weerakoon realized his “dream” of representing Sri Lanka, albeit in a washed out encounter.

The end of a prolonged and painful wait meant that Weerakoon became the second-oldest debutant in his country’s ODI history, after being selected to the 2005 Tour of India where he did not get a game. But in the general ranking of geriatric debutants, he languishes somewhere at the bottom of the pile, with several other, ‘senior’ names vying for top honours.

England’s Norman Gifford, also a left-armer, had the most of his career curtailed by Tony Lock and Derek Underwood in the 1960s and played his first ODI 21 years after making his Test debut. Gifford was almost 45 when he led England, on debut, in two ODIs at Sharjah in 1985, wrapping up his ODI stint with a couple of losses.

Clive Rice, a name more familiar in these parts, was doomed to cohabit the same time and space as South Africa’s apartheid-induced isolation from international cricket. Rice spent 21 productive years as a hard-hitting all-rounder with Transvaal and Nottinghamshire (and also a couple of seasons raking in the cash with the Packer series) as his country was cut off from the mainstream.

He finally debuted in ODIs, and in international cricket, at 42 in 1991, when South Africa returned to the international fold against India in a widely-followed three-match series.

The case of John Traicos was curioser still. This tall, morose-looking off-spinner played for South Africa in their last series before isolation (versus Australia in 1970) and was next seen debuting for Zimbabwe in ODIs in the Prudential World Cup as a ripe 36-year-old. When Zimbabwe gained Test status in 1992, Traicos, dour as ever, was still the best off-spinner in the land and proved his worth with a five-wicket haul in a draw against India.

Speaking of which, the oldest ODI debutant yet for India has been the slick Farrokh Engineer. The wicketkeeper-bat entered the shortened arena at 36, at the fag end of his career, and competed in just five games in a format that would have been well-suited to his flamboyance. In recent times, only a rare few on the wrong side of 30 have debuted internationally, an indication perhaps of the increasing professional and physical precocity of the modern player, making Weerakoon's a truly isolated example.