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Over-50s World Cup Gives Older Cricketers a Chance to Shine at International Level

You won’t find any mention of it in Wisden, but a landmark international cricket match took place at Newport, Wales, in July of 2017. Local kids formed a guard of honour as the players trotted out onto the field, before the Australian side presented its players with baggy green caps and the Australian and Welsh national anthems were played.

The Aussies posted a competitive 201/9 off 50 overs in tricky conditions, and the home side were struggling at 129/7 as former Australian under-19 spinner Greg Briggs – now aged 56 – grabbed 4/31 with his left-arm darts. Lee Williams fought back with 62, but with two overs to go, 19 runs were still required, with a solitary wicket in hand. This became 14 from the last over, but the Welsh number-10 batsman, Steve Powell, hit the final ball of the innings to the boundary to grab a thrilling victory.

This was the first ever Over-50s International.

These days, most top cricketers seem to wind down their playing days in their mid-to-late thirties, before gliding into a gentle retirement. Thoughts may then turn coaching, commentary or administration, or perhaps family commitments, golf and careers outside cricket. A few turn out in the odd charity match or continue playing club cricket for a few seasons. Not many continue playing seriously into their forties, let alone fifties … but the number that do is growing year on year. For those guys, the competitive edge never disappears and cannot be quenched solely by a few “golden oldies”, festival-style matches here and there.

It is for those competitive 50-plus players that the inaugural Over-50s World Cup was conceived, and the concept is about to become a reality as eight nations gather in Sydney in November.

The Australian Over-50s’ match against Wales was one of 17 matches they played on a gruelling month-long tour of the UK. In a format reminiscent of the long, old-school tours that countries used to take, the team played over a dozen county over-50s sides, plus a one-day international against Wales and two against England for the “Platinum Ashes”. During the tour, excitement started to build regarding the prospect of a World Cup that would involve not just these three countries but the very best 50-plus cricketers from other countries too.

Fast forward 15 months and hosts Australia, plus England, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Wales and Canada are all sending 16-man squads for the round-robin tournament, which will involve 34 games played on the top first-grade ovals of Sydney and the surrounding area.

The tournament is not a celebrity event and teams are largely self-funded, but it will feature a smattering of ex-Test and ODI players, plus several ex-first-class players. Perhaps the best-known of these is Ijaz Ahmed, who played 60 Tests and 250 ODIs for Pakistan, mainly in the 1990s.

Other internationals include Rohan Jayasekera, who played in one of Sri Lanka’s first ever Tests and is now representing Canada; Richard Petrie, who turned out in 12 ODIs for New Zealand; Marlon von Hagt from Sri Lanka; and the Pakistan trio of Ghulam Ali, Shahid Anwar and Sajid Ali, all of whom played ODIs in the 1990s.

Based on the pedigree of its players, Pakistan looks like one of the stronger teams. Indeed, over-age cricket is strong in that country, with the Pakistan Veterans Cricket Association celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. There are 120 teams of 40-plus cricketers in Pakistan across 70 towns and cities, ranging from “seniors” (over-40s) to “veterans” (over-50s) and even “super-veterans” (over-60s).

This stands in stark contrast to their neighbours and traditional rivals, India, which has no organised veterans cricket competitions and was unable to even enter a side into the World Cup. World Cup Tournament Director Stirling Hamman said, “We searched high and low for over-50s teams in India, and contacted the BCCI several times, but they couldn’t find anyone prepared to assemble an Indian national side.

This is a shame and we hope they will rectify this for future editions of the tournament.” Similarly, West Indies were unable to put a side together, even though high-ranking members of the WICB were personally invited to do so. “This is largely because there simply aren’t any veterans cricket organisations there [in India and the West Indies],” Hamman added. “You need someone to get the ball rolling – just start a team or an association – and you’d be amazed at what can happen.”

The two other countries where over-50s cricket is already well-established are the old foes, England and Australia. The county championship in England is an organised league that runs throughout the English season, featuring around 40 county sides. This year’s grand final was won by Yorkshire for the third time in four years. In total, there are more than 100 over-50s sides in the UK. With the luxury of many teams and players to choose from, backed up by a raft of meticulously recorded player statistics, England has picked a true all-star team for Sydney.

Among the top players are long-time Essex wicket-keeper Neil Burns, and Stephen Foster, whose 25 List-A wickets came at an average of only 10.24 and has also scored over 100 centuries in his club career. Another is Raja Hayat, a transplanted Pakistani who represented his native country at the Hong Kong Sixes and has a career-best score of 293. Left-arm spinner Mo Fayyaz still plays top-level open-age-group cricket for Wanstead CC, which won the national club championship in 2017, while opening bowling Sean Cooper recently made his debut for the full Suffolk men’s representative team – aged 48!

Australia has a large and enthusiastic veterans cricket community. Following the success of the over-50s’ UK tour, the Australian Over-70s side undertook a similar tour this year. Each state holds club tournaments (or “carnivals” as they are known there) to select a representative over-50s side that then competes at the national carnival. Competition for places is stiff and the games themselves are played in typically tough Australian style. The well-travelled national side also toured New Zealand in early 2018, playing two ODIs against the newly formed New Zealand Over-50s in Nelson.

At other age levels, Wales are generally subsumed under the ECB, meaning that players like Matthew Maynard, Robert Croft and Simon Jones have all qualified to represent England. At over-50s level, cricket in Wales is strong, keen and well supported, with a first XI that competes in the English over-50s County Championship and a second XI that plays in the Southern Counties league. Welsh stalwart Paul Donovan said, “We are normally grouped in a very strong southern England group in the early stages, but find ourselves able to compete, which enables us to progress to the next round on a pretty regular basis”. The victory against Australia at Newport showed that Wales can certainly match up with the traditional cricketing heavyweights.

For the other teams, the tournament is more about developing over-50s cricket, given that there is no organised league in those countries. Over-50s cricket did not exist to any degree in New Zealand until September of 2017, when a side was hastily cobbled together to face the touring Australian side. The New Zealand team managed to take a game off the favoured Aussies as the series was tied 1–1 (with one rain-out). This encouraging result has led to strong interest in over-50s cricket there, with New Zealand Cricket officially endorsing the side. New Zealand’s captain, Nigel Fletcher, saw the potential for the idea in that country. “If we can continue to raise awareness of over-50s cricket in New Zealand, it would be great to see a national over-50s provincial championship to rival the over-50s state competition in Australia and the over-50s county championship in England.”

Kiwi off-spinner Martin Pennefather added, “A lot of guys are still pretty handy at 50; it’s just whether they’re playing regularly. There’s a lot of guys with good skill – really good cricketers – but it’s about fitness when you get to this age.” Fellow spinner Andrew Nuttall was man of the series against Australia, taking seven wickets for 29 in the two matches. At 61, Nuttall is the oldest member of the New Zealand side and has already played for the national over-60s team. He agreed with Pennefather, saying, “I’m looking forward to the development of a NZ Over-50s tournament as this will help keep some 40-year-olds in the game.”

Perhaps no side has embraced their invitation to compete with more enthusiasm than Canada. While the Canadian Seniors Cricket Association (CSCA) has existed for several years, it was almost entirely comprised of ex-pat Pakistanis and was open to various age groups. The prospect of a World Cup led the CSCA to spread their net and hold open trials to select a multi-cultural squad. Featuring the likes of Jayasekera, along with several other first-class players originally from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies, the Canadians are an eclectic and unpredictable side that will be hoping to spring a few surprises in Sydney. A Toronto television station has already run several features and interviews with players and the Canadians have played several warm-up matches during the northern summer in preparation.

The Sri Lankan side is made up primarily of Australian-based Sri Lankans and will be captained by former international Marlon Von Hagt, who played an ODI against Australia during the 1984/85 Benson & Hedges World Series.

Despite the absence of any organised over-50s league in South Africa, the South African Rhinos have over a dozen former first-class and provincial representatives in their 16-man squad. Assembling a side was a challenge for Team Manager Roger Moult, largely due to the weak state of the rand and the fact that all of the tourists are self-funding their trips. Opening bowler Riaan van de Rheede recently took to a crowdsourcing website to help fund his trip, feeling that the chance of playing in a World Cup was too good to pass up. “This opportunity is a life-long dream for me and I can’t wait to meet great cricketers from all over the world.” The side’s nickname comes from its support for the Boucher Legacy, a charity headed by former Test wicket-keeper March Boucher that seeks to protect the endangered rhinos in South Africa.

Moult is enthusiastic about over-50s cricket and there have already been suggestions that the next edition of the Over-50s World Cup will be played in Cape Town, perhaps as early as 2020. Hamman acknowledged that the tournament’s format may change in the future: “If you look at the men’s World Cup, the first one in 1975 was a 60-over event, played all in whites, and had sides like East Africa in it, so you can see that these things do change with the times.”

Matches in the 2018 tournament are being played on most of the best first-grade grounds in Sydney, such as Hurstville Oval, Bankstown Oval, Joe McAleer Oval, Glenn McGrath Oval, Allan Border Oval and Old Kings Oval, with the final to be held at Drummoyne Oval on December 5. There is also an “Out-to-the-Country” round, where teams get to see some of the countryside and play on grounds such as the Bradman Oval in Bowral.

Unlike most golden oldies or vintage-style cricket, the World Cup is going to be fully competitive. “There is nothing wrong with those more social events – they can be great fun – but this tournament is for the top 50-plus cricketers who want to prove they can still play and compete with the best in the world,” said Hamman. “That is what makes this tournament different. The games are going to be tough – 45 overs a-side with no mandatory retirements for batsmen – and each team plays up to nine of these games within a 14-day period.” Teams will be wearing coloured clothing and playing with pink balls.

The passion and pride of the players involved reflects how seriously they are taking their preparation. Welsh opening batsman Paul Donovan said, “For many of us this is the pinnacle of our amateur cricketing careers and we are not only proud to be representing Wales but to be part of a tournament such as this”.

Hamman has high hopes that this tournament will become a regular event and that over-50s cricket will become increasingly popular around the world. Teams like India and West Indies will be invited again and the concept will be reinforced in all of the countries that are participating. For now, Hamman is focusing on making the Sydney tournament a success. A team of volunteers will be running the operations on a shoe-string budget, and Hamman added that “Cricket Australia are thoroughly endorsing the World Cup.”

It’s a long way from Newport, South Wales to Sydney, New South Wales, but for the 128 men who will represent their countries in just over a month’s time, their pride and competitiveness will have never been stronger. As Nigel Fletcher put it, “A World Cup is a World Cup – it doesn’t matter how old you are”.

© Cricket World 2018