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Johnson column: So Colly, can you defy time like Close and Illingworth?

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Martin Johnson

When Stan McCabe was scoring his 232 for Australia against England at Trent Bridge in 1938, Don Bradman is reputed to have ordered his team-mates out onto the dressing room balcony with the words: “Come and look at this. You will never see its like again.”

It would come as no surprise to me to discover that much the same instruction has been issued inside the Durham dressing room over the past 22 years, with various new boys invited onto the balcony on the grounds that Paul Collingwood going through his entire repertoire of nudges, nicks and nurdles is indeed something they may never see again.

In some cases – if someone has broken a curfew perhaps, or been caught slacking in training – a player might have been ordered to watch by way of a punishment. You wouldn’t call it pretty, and it’s just as well Colly chose cricket ahead of, say, ice-skating.

He’d be sitting next to his coach, blowing kisses to the camera after getting the full set of sixes for technical merit, only to end up sobbing uncontrollably onto his teddy bear when the marks for artistic impression come through. 0.1, 0.2, 0.1……

There used to be a programme on the telly called Faking It, in which some electrician or plumber would have a few days coaching on how to conduct an orchestra, or drive a Formula One car, and fool a panel of experts into believing that’s what he or she really does.

But after watching Colly having a net for five minutes, the suggestion that he’d scored Test centuries for England, and once represented a “World XI” (presumably someone got the invitations mixed up) would have brought the response: “I believe you. Oh, and by the way. I’m Father Christmas.”

However, cricket being a game that’s as much about ticker as talent, Colly’s achievements over the past two and a bit decades make him a natural treasure. He should be a protected species, like a Grade II listed building. And Durham’s 2017 player of the year, batsman of the year, and players’ player of the year, is still going strong a few weeks away from a birthday cake with 42 candles on it.

Good on him. It’s the same age as Graeme Hick in his final summer for Worcestershire, and only a year older than Colin Cowdrey when he flew to Australia to take on Lillee and Thomson, but it’s becoming more and more unusual for cricketers to go on into their 40s.

Maybe it’s the workload, as in eras gone by anyone still playing at Colly’s age had a chance of being regarded as a promising youngster.

There must be something about Yorkshire, maybe the ale or the fish and chips, that promotes sporting longevity, as Brian Close and Raymond Illingworth both played to a high standard until well into their 50s.

Although no-one was more amazed than Illy that Close was still alive at 55, never mind playing for Yorkshire.

Illingworth’s first journey to an away match as a passenger in Close’s car was also his last, having been scared witless by a driver who mounted pavements at 70mph whilst simultaneously lighting a fag and studying The Sporting Life.

Close was 45 when he was battered and bruised by the West Indies quicks in his final Test appearance in 1976, was 55 when he played his last first-class match for his own DB Close XI, and had just celebrated his 70th birthday when he turned out on a cricket field for the last time, for Yorkshire seconds.

(Photo: Getty Images)

He must have thought Illingworth a bit of a wimp for retiring at the age of 46 in 1978, but as Yorkshire coach Illy decided that his team was a bit lacking in the off-spin and captaincy department, and picked himself. He wasn’t a bad judge either, taking 32 wickets at 29.71 in the 1983 season, and leading Yorkshire to the Sunday League title before finally packing it in aged 53.

The Australian Bert Ironmonger was the same age when he retired in 1936, but as he didn’t play first-class cricket until he was 33, had a lot less miles on his clock. Jack Hobbs went on until 54, becoming the oldest batsman (at 46) to make a Test century, and, remarkably, scoring 100 of his 199 first-class hundreds after his 40th birthday.

We can only assume he was simply too knackered not to hang around to have a go for century No 200.

WG Grace went on playing first-class cricket until he was 60, and captained England until he was 51. He retired in 1908, but his last innings of any kind was in July 1914, the year before he died from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 67, when he reportedly made 69 not out.

There are a number of oddities on the old codger list, among them someone called the Rev Reginald Moss, who didn’t make his debut for Worcestershire (v Glos) until the age of 57 in 1925. However, this was also his first and last appearance for them, having not played a first-class match since 1893, when he turned out for Oxford University against the touring Australians. His Worcester debut/swansong was not, unsurprisingly, a great triumph. He didn’t bowl, and made 2 and 0.

The oldest man ever to play first-class cricket, however, was an Indian by the name of Raja Maharaj Singh, first and final game was one and the same. As captain of Bombay Governor’s XI versus a Commonwealth XI in1950. Things could have gone better for him.

Bowled for 4 by Jim Laker in the first innings, he returned to his residence in an apparent sulk at getting out to a man 44 years his junior, and declined to take any further part in the match – going down in the scorebook as “retired ill” in the second innings.

Who knows what he might have gone on to achieve if he hadn’t thrown it all away at the tender age of 75? Which is, of course, no age at all in this era of living longer. Just think. It might make the purists shudder, but if he looks after himself, Colly could still have another 34 years to go.

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