Ben Gardner picks out a world Test XI of those aged 35 or over.
It’s a truism that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and it’s one that should cut both ways. Just as there’s no reason to exclude the teenager ready for the step up, so to should we be wary of trying to move on the experienced elder statesman while they are still as good as ever.
But so much of the discussion is about the next thing, the exciting young players who will dominate the game for years to come. Very little is devoted to those still doing it day in, day out, as they have done for years.
To put that right, here’s an XI to celebrate those closer to 40 than 30 still excelling in a young man’s game. Not all are still playing Tests, but you’d fancy any of them to do a job if they were to give it another go.
161 Tests, 12,472 runs @ 45.35, 33 100s, HS: 294
The run-hungry left-hander might have packed in his Test career over two years ago, but his prolific county exploits since then show he has very much still got it. Indeed, his fluent 172 in the Bob Willis Trophy final, against a high-class attack in a high-pressure situation is evidence to suggest he might still get into a world Test XI with no age cut-off.
Azhar Ali (c)
81 Tests, 6,129 runs @ 42.86, 17 100s, HS: 302*
Slightly makeshift as an opener, but the Pakistan captain’s unbeaten 141 in the third Test against England, having come in at 6-1 in the third over, show he’s more than capable of blunting the new ball. With a triple century, and average of 43, and 17 Test hundreds to his name, Azhar has already had quite the career. But he’s still young in captaincy terms, and that return-to-form ton against England suggests there’s plenty of life in him yet.
Faf du Plessis
65 Tests, 3,901 runs @ 39.80, 9 100s, HS: 137
OK, Faf’s been on the wane for a while, averaging 29 in Tests since the start of 2018. There have been, in that time, heartening home victories over India and Australia, Test cricket’s current cream of the crop. But there’s also been demoralising defeats to Sri Lanka and England, the latter of which saw him make a top score of 36 in eight innings and give up the captaincy at the end of it. But he’s stated his desire to carry on, giving his all for South Africa even if he’s not at the helm, and there’s enough credit in the bank from the highs of his first five years in Tests to earn him his place in this side.
101 Tests, 7,238 runs @ 46.10, 19 100s, HS: 290
The freakish thing about Ross Taylor is he might be getting better. Since the end of the 2015 World Cup, he has the second best average of any player in the world with more than 1,000 runs, behind you know who. And before you protest that this is a Test XI, he’s pretty good against the red ball too, with an average of 55 in 2019, including a series-sealing century against England, demonstrating his enduring class.
3 Tests, 258 runs @ 51.60, 1 100, HS: 118
He’s only played three Tests, but that glorious hundred on Ireland’s debut is the kind of high very few players experience. Despite their elevation to full member status, the Boys in Green still only get a few chances at the top level, but his impressive limited-overs form is enough to show the hand-eye isn’t dimmed.
70 Tests, 3,658 runs @ 38.50, 8 100s, HS: 205
There is, perhaps surprisingly considering the toil 450 squats a day must take on your body, a surfeit of wicketkeepers vying for conclusion in this XI. Australia captain Tim Paine can’t get a gig even with Bradley-John included as a specialist bat. You don’t play a part in two world-record sixth-wicket stands, less than a year apart and spookily at the same ground, without being pretty hand it with the willow.
He’s done it before to good effect, carving a series-salvaging 120 at Headingley in 2015 when unburdened by the gloves. His marathon double century against the same opposition last year might be his career-defining knock, so he’s still as good as ever.
Wriddhiman Saha (wk)
37 Tests, 1,238 runs @ 30.19, 3 100s, HS: 117
Quite possibly the best gloveman in the world; indeed, he’s good enough behind the sticks to keep an upstart as precocious as Rishabh Pant out of India’s Test team. And forget the IPL sluggishness, Saha is a decent bat too, with his best knock a century away from home in the Caribbean to build a match-winning score having come in at 87-4.
64 Tests, 224 wickets @ 22.32, 13 five-fors, BBI: 6-21
Big Vern is supposedly done with Test cricket, but since that Kolpak deal with Somerset never materialised, and with that route closed off to South African players after the UK leaves the EU next year, maybe he could make a comeback. Certainly he was never less than metronomic even as England secured a 3-1 win earlier this year, with his first Test efforts – 4-16 in 14.2 in the first, 0-35 in 20 in the second, and scores of 35 and 46 too – demonstrating his continued excellence.
41 Tests, 156 wickets @ 35.33, 8 five-fors, BBI: 6-32
For a discipline that you’d think would take comparatively little out of your body, there are very few aging spinners to choose from. When Yasir Shah enters his 36th year in 2021, he’ll be a shoo-in, but for now we’ll have to make do with Dilruwan. Up until the end of Sri Lanka’s home Test series against England in 2018, it looked like the office might be a worth successor to Rangana Herath. But since then, in seven Tests, his nine wickets have come at 98 runs apiece. There were signs of form in Sri Lanka’s 2020 domestic season though, so that’s stopped us from opting for an all-seam attack.
67 Tests, 221 wickets @ 30.66, 8 five-fors, BBI: 6-54
It’s with a very heavy heart that we’ve gone against Dale Steyn here, but even though those flowing lockdown locks show he remains young at heart, exposing that creaking body to the five-day format would be a recipe for disaster. With Peter Siddle, fitness is of no concern, with the vegan quick training for a triathlon after retiring from international cricket. He’s been just as good as he always has been in the Sheffield Shield since then too, earning an overseas gig with high-flying Essex in county cricket for his efforts.
156 Tests, 600 wickets @ 26.79, 29 five-fors, BBI: 7-42
Really, this is the James Anderson XI. Having just become the first fast bowler to take 600 Test wickets, even at the age of 38 he’s far from satisfied, with his sights firmly set on the 2021/22 Ashes, over a year away. You’d be a fool to say he won’t make it.