Les Loader bowls

Les Loader bowls for the Forty Club

© The Forty Club

Feature

You're never too old for cricket

The story of a club where senior citizens prove they're better than striplings a quarter their age or less

Jon Hotten |

For Nev Kratzmann, batting is a simple thing. "You block the good ones and you hit the bad ones for four. That's what I tell the kids I coach. Then the only question becomes, 'Which ones are the bad ones?'"

We are at Blue Coats School near Reading in Berkshire. It's a long way from home for Nev, who comes from Toowoomba, Queensland. The school 1st XI, an Under-15 side, take the field. To a 15-year-old kid, their parents and teachers are unfathomably old. And Nev is old enough to be their parents' and teachers' parent. They don't seem to have taken much notice of him standing there in his whites, and so he slips on a helmet and walks out to open the batting against them.

Nev is representing the 40 Club, a team thought to be the biggest wandering side in the world and one that, as the name suggests, requires its players to be over 40. Today's team is way past that.

There's a wonderfully flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsman called Nino, a dead ringer for Omar Sharif, who arrives in an open-top sports car, dispensing one-liners that drip with charm. He's 69 but looks a decade younger. And then there is Les Loader, 82 years old, who played his first season of cricket in the fields outside of Henley in 1948.

He strokes 60 of the first 80 runs scored. Only when he takes off his helmet does he look once again like a 74-year-old man

Les is an opening bowler.

The Blue Coats attack mark out their run-ups. Their first few deliveries elicit great encouragement from wicketkeeper and slips, all in-jokes and youthful bravado. Nev, anonymous under his helmet, gets to work. Small mistakes in length and line are set upon, the field pierced, the speed of the sun-streaked outfield exploited. It becomes apparent that Nev's idea of a bad ball is most of those that the Blue Coats bowlers are sending down. The wicketkeeper and slips first go quiet and then silent. He strokes 60 of the first 80 runs scored before hitting one up in the air, conscious perhaps that everyone wants a bat today. Only when he takes off his helmet does he look once again like a 74-year-old man.

Later, Nev emerges from the dressing room in a sleeveless sweater. At its centre is embroidered the familiar kangaroo and emu crest. Underneath, in gold lettering, is "Australia Over 60s Tour Team".

For many years of his life it seemed that the chance to wear the green and gold had passed Nev Kratzmann by. Like Bradman and Tiger O'Reilly, Nev was a country boy. Back when he was a kid, there was no junior cricket out back, so his first proper games came when he was 15 or 16 and good enough to play for senior sides. By 19 he was picked for the South East Queensland regional team, and the next step would have been to move to Brisbane, but he'd met and married Anne, and soon afterwards they'd begun a family. "It had always been an ambition of mine to play for Australia," he says, "but my focus changed."

He was selected to play for a Queensland Country XI against Mike Denness' 1974-75 England tourists, but by then his sons Mark and Andrew had arrived and were showing promise in cricket and tennis. In 1984, Mark won the boys' singles at Wimbledon and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world. He went on to a successful pro career, mainly in doubles, in which he won 18 titles and reached the final of the Australian Open with Darren Cahill. Andrew turned pro too, and made the quarter-final of the Wimbledon doubles with Roger Federer. Mark went to Hong Kong to coach and ended up being selected for the Hong Kong national side at cricket, even though he was almost 40, a hint at what his father was about to achieve.

The club's logo

The club's logo © Jon Hotten

Nev returned to cricket at the age of 55, opened the batting in a Murgon CC team captained by his brother, and made a hundred in his first match back. "But then I struggled for a bit, had to work out which ones to go at. I used to drive a lot of balls, but I don't see it early enough now, so I'm more of a back-foot player."

His ambition to play for Australia, founded in his teens, came true more than 40 years later. Chosen for the Australian Over-60s team, he received a package. In it was a blazer, a tracksuit, jumpers and shirts, and best of all the baggy green - his baggy green. His eyes still have a little mist in them as he remembers the moment.

He toured England last year with the Australia Over-70s side and enjoyed himself so much, he and Anne have returned this summer under their own steam to play some cricket and catch up with friends. Such is the popularity of age group cricket here, he has found himself playing several times a week.

Martin Pearse is one of those people who seem to have lived a comic-book hero's kind of life. He's been a male model, a falconer, an export agent, a property developer, and since 1996, a dealer in "depreciation-proof" supercars. His is a sporting career that has flowered late, and may prove to be among the most significant of those of which you've (probably) never heard.

Chosen for the Australian Over-60s team, Nev received a package. In it was a blazer, a tracksuit, jumpers and shirts, and best of all the baggy green - his baggy green

At first he struggled to fit sport into his life. He did well in cricket at Framlingham school, played club cricket for Leicester Ivanhoe, and "quite a lot of games for Leicestershire Club & Ground, but hit the ball in the air a bit too much to be considered for the pros… I didn't have an ambition for a first-class contract. I would have quite liked it but it was too one-dimensional and I wanted to do lots of different things."

He moved east and played nine years for Cromer, giving up at 54 because he didn't want to play league cricket any more. He had friends competing in Over-50s matches in the Midlands, and he decided he'd start up a team in Norfolk. It flourished immediately. In 2007 the Home Counties Championship disbanded and Pearse took matters in hand. An elite level squash player, he had founded England Squash Masters in 2004, so he knew what to do. He created the Seevent National Over 60 County Championship. His first season had ten counties; a year later it was 18. This season, 30 counties compete in five regional groups for the First XI Championship, another 22 have teams in the Second XI Championship, five are playing in a Third XI Championship.

The Over-70s competition features 12 counties and is contested just as fiercely (Pearse tells of a tense phone call he took when one team, facing a late drop-out, attempted to use a 68-year-old replacement - "grief on an industrial scale…"). The international game features teams from Wales and Scotland as well as Australia and New Zealand. At a time when participation rates in England are a pressing concern for the ECB, one end of the game is expanding at an unprecedented speed.

"There were, and are, an awful lot of older people who needed some guidance and some organisation to get everything up and running, and I've been very lucky," Pearse says. "It's working perfectly." His successes in squash and cricket have been noted by Sport England, who are about to work with him in launching an umbrella organisation for another 40 Masters sports. With an ageing population, age-group sport is a prime area for growth, the investment repaid by the health benefits - and its subsequent effects on NHS spending - and as a way of addressing the kind of isolation and loneliness that often comes with retirement and changing circumstances.

Cricket takes time, and older players are one of the few social groups that are no longer time-poor. Many love the game but ended their club careers because they didn't want to take up a place that might be filled by a young player. Age-group cricket relieves that burden, and offers a team full of peers to play with. For them it's a place to belong again. "The mission statement from Seevent," says Pearse, "is to give as much cricket to as many people as possible".

Martin Pearse: former model, falconer, export agent, property developer, and dealer in supercars

Martin Pearse: former model, falconer, export agent, property developer, and dealer in supercars © Martin Pearse

Pearse has been a formidable force, both on field and off. He still delights (rightly) in his achievements: with 10,000-plus runs, he has scored more than anyone else across the various age groups (his England opening partner Mike Swain just bests him as the highest in the Over-60s championship); he has racked up more than 50 years as an MCC playing member; and he has captained England to victories over Australia at Over-60 and Over-70 level.

Age-group cricket is a place for leviathan stats. Graham Massey, a 40 Club match manager who once hit Garry Sobers for four and played until he was 83, tells of members with more than 100 hundreds, and one with more than 150. John Stuck, of Essex and Sussex age-group sides, is said to have made 200 centuries across his career. Nev estimates he has made more than 50, "and you have to remember, in Australia, you'll be lucky to get ten or 15 innings a season, not like you blokes over here…"

"Older people were somewhat hard done by and it's somewhat self-inflicted sometimes," says Pearse of this desire to continue achieving in later life. "So many club players pack up because they don't want to be seen to be worse than they were. But you have to accept that as you get older, you may get beaten by people that you would have murdered in your prime. That said, a good 60s [county] team would beat most club sides. The bowling is deadly accurate."

At Blue Coats School, Les Loader takes the new ball. Behind him, no more than a 50-yard bunt away, is a sightscreen, and behind it the access road that winds through the property. He is defending the shortest boundary on the ground. His run is a remembered thing, deep in the muscle memory. He worked it out bowling up against a wicket chalked on a barn wall, when England was just free of the Second World War and a life like today's was almost unimaginable. The ball arcs down rather than arrows, wobbling a little in the humid air, but it lands in the same spot it always has, the traditional good length.

His run is a remembered thing, deep in the muscle memory. He worked it out bowling up against a wicket chalked on a barn wall, when England was just free of the Second World War

"I was never a sort of six-feet-four type that was going to bowl at express pace," he says, "so I learned that there was a 12-inch margin on the right line. I learned to think about the batsman and what his strengths were."

The strength of the modern player - or one of them at least - is hitting length, and the young man facing Les pings a couple into the road. For a while it seems unfair, this crossing of generations, but Les sends down a few dot balls and then coaxes a wild heave that skews from the outside half of the bat and into the hands of a deep-ish mid-off, carefully placed. He has struck once again, an old fox causing havoc in the hen house.

It all began for him when a man called Brigadier SSH Lewis bought the local pub and turned the field behind it into a cricket ground. "Back in the '30s he'd scored a double-hundred and played a few minor counties games for Berkshire. He was well-connected at Hampshire, with [Colin] Ingleby-Mackenzie and so on," Les says. "He brought some good players down. We had the great-grandson of the famous [Wilfred] Rhodes, I remember."

Les had talent, but not quite enough for the professional game - although his late cousin Peter Loader would play 13 times for England and achieve the first post-War Test hat-trick, against West Indies at Headingley. Instead, Les made a career in accountancy and embarked on what would become, in its quiet way, an epic life in cricket. He has never been a stats man, "and I'm what I'd call a support player. I'm not the star of the team. If I scored 40 with the bat when we really needed it, or took some wickets in a spell, then I've been happy. Ninety per cent of my wickets have come from the top five. What I feel is, I've always tested the batsman."

Les and Nev:

Les and Nev: "The other players may know how old you are, but the ball doesn't" © Jon Hotten

Nonetheless thousands of runs and wickets have flowed as naturally as the seasons, which he has passed in Hampshire, Kent, London, Oxfordshire and now Dorset (24 years and counting at Sherborne Town CC).

"Maybe 15 years ago, I played at Oratory school against [Dan] Housego, who went on to a professional career, and I put a ball through him - the wicketkeeper missed the stumping, and he didn't give another chance... So all I think is, 'Can I produce that ball that's going to make a difference?' The other players may know how old you are, but the ball doesn't."

He knows, though, how it is to be looked at differently by other players, who see not Les the bowler but Les the old guy with the slow walk and the silver hair. Such judgement is a common experience. "I've had some pretty good sledges," Nev says. "I can pretty much take it in my stride. Are they surprised? I'm sure they are. 'How can this old fella be hitting my best ball for four?' I've had young kids come in and try and bowl bouncers to me, but they're bowling into my strength."

We are a society obsessed by youth, and by not ageing. Forty is the new 30. Fifty is the new 40. Retirement, once an uncomfortable five years between ending work and death, days of rheumatism and Guinness, now stretches out like a decades-long playground, a second childhood for the baby-boomer generation. Getting older no longer signals a retreat from the world; in fact, the opposite. Enjoying life propagates life, extends life, enriches life. The young may be uncomfortable with the thought, but "old" is no longer easily defined. And cricket contains multitudes. On the fields of Blue Coats school, the students are overcome by a 74-year-old batsman and an 82-year-old bowler, subsiding gently to men who have forgotten more about everything than they yet know. That's part of the genius of the game. It's governed by its stats, and there, age can be just another number.

Jon Hotten's blog is The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman

 

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