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Spinners who found the fountain of youth

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3rd September, 2020

When Pravin Tambe was selected to play for the Trinbago Knight Riders in the Caribbean Premier League last week, he became the first Indian to play in the T20 competition. Even more remarkable is the fact that the leg-spinning father of two turns 49 next month.

He continues a rich tradition, dating back to the birth of Test cricket, of international spin bowlers who have played well past normal retirement age.

Here’s one for the trivia buffs. Who was the first Test cricketer to be born, the first to die, and is still the oldest Test debutant? This English spin bowler played in the first-ever Test in Melbourne in 1877 at age 49 and 139 days. (*Answer at the end of the article).

The oldest Test player was also a left-arm spinner. Wilfred Rhodes was 52 when he made his last appearance for England in South Africa in 1930. 31 years before, he had made his debut in WG Grace’s last Test, a match which also was Victor Trumper’s first.

In 1928, Australia’s selection of two 46 -year-old spinners born two days apart seems hardly credible. Victorians Bert Ironmonger and Don Blackie were chosen against JWHT Douglas’s Englishmen. Blackie remains the oldest Test debutant for Australia. Ironmonger was still playing Tests when he was 50.

Rockley Wilson remains England’s second oldest Test debutant. At age 41, he was an unlikely inclusion on the 1920-21 tour to Australia where he played his only Test, taking three wickets. He bowled right arm and spun the ball both ways.


Wilson is better known for his shrewd appraisal of Douglas Jardine, a pupil at Winchester College during Wilson’s 43-year tenure as a schoolmaster – “He might well win the Ashes, but he might lose us a Dominion.”

Rustomji Jamshedji was a diminutive left-arm spinner who played a single Test for India. He made his debut at the age of 41 years and 27 days and is still the oldest Indian Test debutant. In the Test against England in 1933-34, he took three wickets.

Clarrie Grimmett was a late developer, but the first bowler to take 200 Test wickets. When he was controversially omitted from the 1938 touring squad to England, he was considered past his best at age 44. Yet in Sheffield Shield in 1938-39, Grimmett took 73 first-class wickets, lifting his Shield total to a record 513.

Clarrie Grimmett

Clarrie Grimmett. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Pakistani off-spinner Miran Bakhsh (known as Miran Bux when playing) was the second-oldest debutant in Test history. In 1954-55, while playing his last season of first-class cricket, he was called up to play India at Lahore, at the age of 47 years and 275 days. He took only two wickets in his two Test – but Miran finished with a first-class bowling average of 19 when he retired aged 51.

When former England captain, Ray Illingworth, retired at the end of 1978 he was already 46, but four seasons later, frustrated with trying to coach a struggling Yorkshire team from the sidelines, he returned as captain. He struggled with both bat and ball in 1982, but the following year, his off-spinners took 32 wickets at 29.71 and he led Yorkshire to the Sunday-league title.

Surely, times have changed and Tambe is a complete rarity in the modern game. Not quite. Adam Collins has recently written of 48-year-old Sri Lankan left-arm orthodox spinner, Suwanji Madanayake, whose ongoing first-class career started in 1991 and whose resume includes 14 first-class or List A teams in Sri Lanka.

Madanayake seems determined to play on and become the oldest Sri Lankan to have played first-class cricket. The current holder of that title is leg spinner, DS De Silva, his country’s oldest Test debutant at age 39. He was 52 when he played his final first-class match.


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All these examples make Brad Hogg, who last played in the BBL as a 46-year-old, seem like a spring chicken. Former English off-spinner Gareth Batty is still playing for Surrey, but at 42 is a mere child. Tambe has joined leg spinners Imran Tahir, 40 years old, Fawad Ahmed, 38, and Amit Mishra, 37, in the CPL – all barely out of nappies.

How is Tambe the first Indian to play in the CPL? As per BCCI rules, he had to retire from all forms of Indian cricket to be eligible to play in such a league.

At this point in the CPL, Tambe has played just one game and bowled one over. After 15 runs were taken from the first five balls of that over, he must have been relieved to induce a false stroke from his wrong-un, leading to a catch.


This is a man who began playing in the ’90s for the Parsee Cyclists in the D division of the Mumbai domestic league, and played tennis ball cricket as a medium pacer. A man who made his IPL debut at 41, and has taken a hat trick in a Champions League game. Such a man as Tambe can probably afford to be philosophical. And who is going to bet that he has really retired?

*Answer: James Southerton, the slow left-arm bowler, who was born in 1827 and died at age 51.