The clash between two tennis veterans proves you should never underestimate the value of of a grey-haired sportsperson

2011-06-25 00:00

EISH, these whipper-snappers are a cheeky lot! No sooner has a grey hair been observed on a sportsman’s head than the campaign begins to send him off to his armchair with a mug of hot chocolate and a pension. Meanwhile, some youth scores a try or a stylish 30 and critics and public alike go gaga.

During the week a splendid Japanese woman of some 40 summers was pitted against Venus Williams, the elder of the distinguished sisters. It might have been expected that the contest would be portrayed as a fascinating struggle between two sophisticated and accomplished players. Not a bit of it — the papers described it as the “Zimmer frame match”! So much for giving age its due.

Needless to say, the veterans produced a wonderful exhibition of top-class tennis that held a huge crowd in thrall from start to finish. As it happened, Ms Williams prevailed, but her opponent put up a mighty fight and played a stream of crisp ground strokes. As a layperson I have no idea about the destiny of either title — though Djokovic looks a steal at 10/1— but I can guarantee that few of the matches will be as compelling as this seasoned showing.

Next came the news that Rahul Dravid was piling on the runs in the Caribbean. Apparently his place in the Indian Test team had been in jeopardy. All sorts of gilded youngsters had emerged in the recent T20 campaign. One or two of them had even passed 50 a couple of times. Never mind that he is India’s wall, and more solidly constructed than those erected by Hadrian or Stalin; in some eyes he was surplus to requirements.

As night follows day so Dravid promptly put his head down for an eternity, scoring 112 as intrepid youth fell around him and giving his team the edge in a see-saw Test match. Youth promises, age delivers. “Never underestimate a grey-haired bowler” is one of cricket’s oldest sayings. I’ll give you the tip. Never underestimate a grey-haired anything.

At least these 30-somethings are still taking part. Simon Katich has enjoyed no such luck. Australia discarded him not because he cannot score runs, but because he is 35. Apparently his lawyers told him that he had a cast-iron case for wrongful dismissal based on ageism, but wisely he desisted. Instead he vowed to keep captaining his state and doubtless intends to embarrass the selectors by scoring a stack of runs.

Ordinarily, the dumping of a respected but fading 35-year-old opener from a losing team would not have caused a rumpus. Australia was up in arms about the decision to sack the stalwart lefty — the sports minister described it as absurd and polls showed that 90% of the public agreed with him — because confidence in the selectors and administrators has collapsed. With every passing month Greg Chappell is losing what remains of his credibility while his comrades are scorned.

Nor did Katich spare the bigwigs, criticising their lack of judgment and constancy. He had a point — they flip-flop more than Jonathan Moyo, Zanu-PF’s resident comedian. Katich could, and should, have captained the side, but one day will make a tough but considerate selector.

Not that age alone is enough. Sanath Jayasuriya’s recall to the Sri Lankan ODI team ignores his long form slump and lack of match play. All the evidence indicates that his best days have been left far behind. At best his return is a short-term measure taken by selectors prepared to overlook the veteran’s poor results and clear deterioration. At worst it smacks of political interference behind the scenes. Jayasuriya is a member of parliament and sides with a government recently accused in a television documentary of widespread atrocities in the closing days of the civil war. Suspicion grows that senior ministers pushed his case.

Jayasuriya’s selection is wrong not because of his allegiances but because he is past it. Presumably it was not a romantic gesture towards an old trooper. Sentiment has no part in top sport, and anyhow reputations are better served by going a little too early and not considerably too late. Unlike the women tennis players who provided such rich entertainment and India’s foremost batsmen, the Sri Lankan dasher has passed the point of no return. Experience is valuable until the eyes slow and the mind becomes stale.

Nor is youth in itself a barrier. Rory McIlroy’s brilliant showing at the U.S. Open heralds the arrival of a truly gifted youngster, one blessed with abundant spirit and talent. Nothing is more exciting than the emergence of a champion. It’s not sensible, though, to cast aside the tried and trusted every time a shooting star appears in our skies.

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