The recall of Ashish Nehra, aged 38 years and 162 days (as on October 8, 2017), to the national T20 squad for the three-match series at home against Australia raised quite a few eyebrows, especially since the players moving out of the team were much younger. This decision also invited a fair share of caustic comments from the 'trollers' on social media. However, the selection committee was clear in their mind that their task was to choose the best set of players and that age was not a factor that could be held against anyone, so long as he was able to perform on the field.
To be fair to the selectors, Nehra has been performing consistently in the shortest version of the game and retains the levels of fitness required to play at the highest level. The main reason behind the surprise expressed by the critics is the fact that Indian selectors have generally shied away from picking older players and dropping youngsters. When this aspect was studied, an interesting fact that caught one’s attention was the fact that very few Indian cricketers have played the game at the highest level past the age of 40. Even today, despite the generally increased fitness levels among players, the oldest member of Test squad is Amit Mishra, who is not yet 35.
A study into the details of oldest 11 members who have represented India in international cricket, other than Nehra, threw up the following names.
1. Vinoo Mankad
One of the greatest all-rounders in the history of the game, Mankad played his last Test (against the West Indies at Delhi in 1959) when he was 41 years and 305 days old, making him the oldest cricketer to don Indian colors in an international match. Mankad was a match-winning left-arm spinner and a batsman who could bat anywhere in the order, besides being a safe fielder. He also held the record of the fastest double (100 runs and 100 wickets) in Test cricket before Ian Botham broke it in 1979 and was involved in the world record for first wicket partnership in Tests, which stood unconquered for almost five decades.
2. Jamshedji Rustomji
The oldest Test debutant for India at the age of 41 years and 27 days, Jamshedji played in only one Test, against England at Mumbai in 1933. He performed creditably picking up three wickets with his slow left-arm spin, conceding 137 runs. However, he did not get another opportunity in Tests.
3. C.K. Nayudu
India's first Test captain, Nayudu was a larger than life figure, whose exploits on the field are not reflected in the figures churned out by statisticians. He played his last Test, against England at Oval in 1936, when he was 40 years and 292 days old. He was felled by a bouncer from Gubby Allen that struck him on his chest during his last innings, but he refused assistance and stepped out and pulled the next ball from the bowler majestically through mid wicket fence for a boundary! Nayudu played first class cricket till the age of 60, retaining his no nonsense approach and fearless streak till the very end.
4. Sachin Tendulkar
Starting out as the youngest cricketer to play for India in Test matches in November, 1989, Tendulkar went on to break almost all the important batting records of the game by the time he bid adieu to international cricket at the age of 40 years and 206 days. By far the most popular cricketer of his generation, there is nothing about Tendulkar - the person or cricketer - that has not appeared in public domain. The fact that he could play cricket at the highest level for 24 years is a tribute not only to his cricketing genius, but also to his physical fitness, mental strength and disciplined lifestyle.
5. Mohinder Amarnath
One of the bravest players ever to step into a cricket field, Mohinder had a long career that started against touring Australians in 1969 and ended only in October 1989, against West Indies at the age of 39 years and 36 days. He started his career as a medium-pacer but subsequently his batting improved so much that he manned the critical No.3 spot in the Indian batting line-up for many years. He was also the man of the match in the semifinals and finals of 1983 World Cup that India won.
6. Rahul Dravid
One of the most successful and technically proficient batsmen of his generation, Dravid hung his boots at the age of 39 years and 16 days, at the end of the Adelaide Test in January, 2012. He was the proverbial 'great wall' of national team, helping the side in times of crises, even donning the wicketkeeper’s gloves in limited overs cricket to help the side get the required balance.
7. E.A.S. Prasanna
A master of flight and guile, Prasanna played his last Test match against Pakistan in November, 1978, at the age of 38 years and 161 days. He had made his debut as a 21-year-old in 1962 and during a career that saw three comebacks to the national side, he picked up 189 wickets from 49 Test. He was an attacking bowler who possessed a big heart and bowled like a millionaire, luring batsmen to their doom.
8. S. Venkataraghavan
A contemporary of Prasanna and an off spinner with an high arm action, Venkat was a tough and stingy customer, preferring to keep runs under check and getting wickets through bounce and turn. He played international cricket till the age of 38 years and 160 days, with his last Test being the Jalandhar Test against the visiting Pakistanis in 1983. After his playing days, he took to umpiring and earned a well deserved reputation as one of the best in international circuit.
9. Farokh Engineer
A flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsman hailing from Mumbai, he served the country of his birth from 1961 onwards till the first World Cup in 1975. He was 38 years and 110 days old when he last played for India. He was an attacking batsman, who could bat in the middle order as well as open the innings, and a stumper par excellence with lightning reflexes that he demonstrated while keeping wickets for the famed spin quartet. He settled down in England, where he had played county cricket for Lancashire, after his playing days were over.
10. Salim Durani
One of the most popular and romantic personages who played for the country, Durani had a long international career that started in 1960 and ended in 1973, at the age of 38 years and 62 days. He was a gifted all-rounder who could single-handedly win matches by destroying bowling attacks and running through opposing batting line-up when in form. Unfortunately, he was a temperamental genius and Indian cricket could not help him realize his potential.
11. Shute Banerjee
Despite touring England in 1936 and 1946, Shute Banerjee was destined to represent India only once, and that too at home, against the West Indies, in the last Test of the series at Mumbai in 1949, at the age of 37 years and 128 days. He was a fast bowler who incidentally entered the record books for a double century last-wicket partnership against Surrey in 1946, when he scored a hundred, batting at No. 11. He performed well in the only Test match that he played, taking four wickets in the second innings, but unfortunately for him, the next match took place after two years, by which time he was out of the reckoning.
When one considers these 11 names along with that of Nehra, the contours of a top class playing 11 becomes visible.
I would choose the following batting order for this side.
1. Vinoo Mankad
2. Farokh Engineer
3. Rahul Dravid
4. Sachin Tendulkar
5. Mohinder Amarnath
6. Salim Durani
7. C. K. Nayudu
8. S. Venkataraghavan
9. Shute Banerjee
10. E. A. S. Prasanna
11. Ashish Nehra
In this galaxy of super performers Jamshedji Rustomji would find place only as the 12th man!
Thus, this team would be a balanced one comprising seven top class batsmen, two excellent all-rounders both of who are left-arm spinners as well, two all-time great off spin bowlers, a fast bowling attack having left-right combination and a brilliant wicketkeeper.
The batting department would boast of the presence of some of the most explosive batsmen of all time, capable of giving the spectators the thrill of having 'sixers' on demand. The presence of technically proficient 'grafters' gives the batting a unique depth.
On the bowling side, there is an abundance of riches and all that is lacking is one practitioner of the art of leg spin and googly. It is also worthwhile to note that all the 11 players are outstanding fielders. One cannot hope for a better combination of equilibrium and variety in any set of eleven cricketers.
Selecting a captain from among this 11 would pose a problem as five skippers figure in this line-up. My choice for leading this side would be Nayudu, from the point of his cricketing acumen, stature, commanding presence and, of course, seniority.
I present my 11 of 'golden oldies' to the lovers of the game in this country for their suggestions and recommendations.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)