An ageing batsman gritting out a century, or for that matter any sportsman raging against the crawling sunset of his career, comprises a celebratory narrative, a perpetual triumph of will over body thread. Only that Wasim Jaffer, the protagonist here, doesn’t quite fit into the archetype of a washed-out, grumpy sportsman, on an infinite, often desperate, search for one last hurrah.
There’s an ineffable lightness about him, the flowing mendicant-like beard illuminates it, whether he’s twirling those velvet wrists over an incoming delivery or flitting about his lithe frame in the slip cordon. De-link all that you have watched, read or heard about him from your memory, and watch his unbeaten 285 against Rest of India in isolation, his batting imprints in your senses an impression that you’re seeing a still-in-prime batsman, unlocking another door towards getting a national recall. Gather the footage of his double-hundred in St John’s or the hundred in Cape Town and watch it over, you don’t feel that a decade has passed between those knocks and the colossal still-in-progress 285.
Jaffer might argue, in jest, that he’s still in his prime, and it’s the cricket-pedantic’s perception about age and performance that prompts a revision. This past season, he stacked up 595 runs at 54 for Vidarbha, shepherded the domestic minnows to their maiden Ranji Trophy title, and looked every bit a cricketer with still a lot left in him. He would clinch his argument with that perpetual sporting cliche, “age is just a number.” “See the way I drive or flick or throw around for an elusive edge, do I look the age?” he would mutter an aside.
Still, Jaffer is an exception, or rather a rarity. For, how many 40-year-olds play any form of competitive cricket? How many still can bat for nearly five sessions and remain unbeaten on 285, at a strike rate of 67, against a bowling attack led up by an off-spinner at his peak? The pitch might have been a typical Nagpur featherbed, but to achieve what Jaffer has, for the record it’s the highest score by a 40-plus Asian, requires something more primary than mere gifts or favourable variables than pitch and the quality of bowlers.
Most sportsmen would call it drive or hunger, motivation or passion. But beyond a point, especially if you’re career is largely fulfilled, as it surely must be with Jaffer (he might grouse that he played a dozen Tests fewer), even the hunger and passion wither. Jaffer, to his credit, has achieved everything a domestic cricket aspires—Ranji titles with multiple teams, 53 hundreds, 15,000-plus runs, Test cricket and even an IPL contract. Jaffer’s then could be the case of, as the great Jack Hobbs, once said, “the unbearable vacuum of not playing cricket.”
The English metronome played first-class cricket till 52 and Test cricket till 50—he, in fact, is the oldest centurion in Test cricket. But those were different times, when it was a norm than exception to see cricketers have a “jolly little time in the garden.” Back home, CK Nayudu played his last Ranji game at 60 (and scored a breezy 56 for Uttar Pradesh in his final innings). These, then, are days where there’s lot of hefty post-retirement temptations—a television pundit, or an IPL-coaching deal, or in any of those sprouting domestic leagues across the country.
Hence, a more contemporary parallel could be the West Indies legend Shivanarine Chanderpaul, six months past his 43rd birthday, still the spine of Guyana’s batting, still amassing runs by the buckets, still squeezing time to turn up for Lancashire, still revulsing the bowlers with his routines and stance. If Jaffer hadn’t moved out of Mumbai, he could have batted with his nephew Armaan Jaffer a good two years ago, as Chanderpaul routinely does with his son Tangerine. To that list of imperishables, you can squeeze in Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick too.
They offer, among other life lessons, a humbling realisation to the modern-day alpha males of cricket, that there’s much more to be cherished in a career than fame and money, adulation and attention, that there’s life after and beyond IPL and international cricket.
Another milestone beckons him on Friday—if he completes his triple hundred mark, he would beat former New Zealand opener Michael Papps to the oldest triple centurion in first-class cricket since the second World War. Jaffer, as Jaffer always does, would self-depreciate it. But someone tell Jaffer he needn’t be so modest at 40.
Brief Scores: Vidarbha 598/3 in 180 overs (Wasim Jaffer 285 batting, Ganesh Sathish 120, Faiz Fazal 89, Sanjay Ramaswamy 53, R Ashwin 1/123, Jayant Yadav 1/149, Siddarth Kaul 1/80 in 30 overs) vs Rest of India
Miles to go, milestone to scale
Wasim Jaffer might not be done breaking records yet, even if he shattered an incessant number of them en route to his unbeaten 285
In Grace’s company
The most unassuming and unsung beard in Indian cricket is on the cusp of joining the most celebrated one in the history of the game. All Wasim Jaffer needs to do is add 15 runs more to his overnight 285. Only five batsmen have scored a triple-century after turning 40 in the 200-year span of first-class cricket. The fabled list led by the mythical WG Grace, who was 48 years and 17 days old when he did so in 1896, includes other Hall of Famers Patsy Hendren (44 years 5 months), Jack Hobbs (43 years 8 months), Robert Abel (41 years 6 months) and Dave Nourse (41 years 2 months). Jaffer, who’s 40 years and 27 days, will be the first quadragenarian since Hendren in 1933—that’s 85 years ago—to record the feat. Former New Zealand opener Michael Papps became the oldest since World War II to go past 300 in October 2017 for Wellington against Auckland at the Basin Reserve. He was only 38 years and 6 months
Already one of his kind
In England and Australia it’s tradition to see batsmen rack up runs with a vengeance well past 40—Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick are warming up for yet another County season. Some in fact come into their own in their fifth decade of life like Mark Ramprakash. And of course the likes of Grace and Wilfred Rhodes plied on till they were in the mid-50s. It’s however not been the case in the subcontinent.