No Test cricketer has scored a century in years. Several – including such immortals of the game as Wilfred Rhodes, 95, SF Barnes, 94, and Sir Donald Bradman, 92 – succumbed in the nervous nineties. So this coming Saturday will mark a major landmark: The South African medium-pace bowler of the 1930s, Norman Gordon, will celebrate his 100th birthday.
Gordon's birthday will be celebrated at a reception, sponsored by South African Breweries, at the Wanderers Cricket Stadium in Johannesburg. The 150 attendees will include former Springbok fast bowlers Neil Adcock, Peter and Shaun Pollock, Mike Procter, Fanie de Villiers and Makhaya Ntini.
"Norman has brought enormous credit to his school, to South African cricket, to our country and to the Jewish community," says former South African captain Ali Bacher, who has organised the party.
"I have known Norman since the 1950s – I used to go to his sports shop every year, and my late mother would buy my cricket bats from him.
"He has never changed – a good person who always says how fortunate he has been to meet wonderful people. I respect him as a wonderful person."
‘Walter Hammond was by far the best I’ve bowled against’
Gordon was the first openly Jewish Test cricketer. MJ Susskind, second in the South African Test batting averages on the 1924 tour of England was Jewish, says Gordon, "but didn't profess to be Jewish, didn't admit to it".
When Gordon made his Test debut, the South African Jewish community "were very proud that a Jew was playing for their country". But not everyone shared their view. Gordon recalls that when he ran up to bowl the first ball on his Test debut, he heard a heckler in the crowd shout: "Here comes the Rabbi." "Fortunately I took five wickets in that innings", Gordon notes, "and that shut him up for the rest of the tour."
Gordon's parents left Russia for Johannesburg, and changed their surname from Eisenstat, before he was born. At the Jeppe High School for Boys, Gordon developed a love of cricket – and met his wife, Mercy, to whom he was married for over 60 years until her death in 2001.
After making his debut for Transvaal in 1933/34, he took the most wickets (39) in the Currie Cup in 1937/38. The following year, Gordon forced his way into the South African team – with considerable success. Indeed, he ended up with more wickets – 20 – than any other bowler in a five-Test series against England in which the docile wickets allowed the batsmen to dominate.
Gordon's first Test victim was the England captain, Walter Hammond, whom he regards as being "by far" the best batsman he bowled against and who was a good friend. However, in the famous 10-day Timeless Test, he bowled 92.2 (eight-ball) overs for just one wicket.
Gordon's nickname was Mobil "because of the oil that he had on his hair", says former South African Cricket Union President Joe Pamensky. "Mobil used to put his hands through his hair, and if he had a bit of oil on it to set his hair, it helped him to get a bit of a shine on the ball which helped him to swing it."
Whilst many thought Gordon's bowling would thrive in English conditions, South Africa's 1940 tour of England was cancelled because of the War, and he was not picked for the 1947 tour. Why not? Many years later, Gordon says, "a friend of mine told me that he had heard from one of the tour selectors that Alan Melville had told them not to select me as there might be antisemitism and unpleasantness in England, and he thought it expedient to let me out of the tour. I am sure that my friend wouldn't have told me if it wasn't true. There was quite a bit of feeling about Jews even after the War in England."
Gordon ran a sports shop, Luggagecraft, and practised as an accountant part time until the age of 94.
He left a lasting impression on former West Indian batsman Brian Lara, who said: "Norman's appreciation for the game still reigns and his knowledge of the changes in the game since the last Test he played brought a smile to my face."
A keen golfer, he scored his second hole-in-one at the age of 87 and only gave up playing three years ago, when the Old Houghton golf course, where he used to play, closed.
For a man of his great age, Gordon remains energetic, engaged and interested in the world. He and his son, Brian, live in the same flat in Hillbrow in which he has lived for more than 55 years. He attributes his relative good health - "Fortunately health-wise I'm pretty good, except I can't hear or see very well" – to the fact that he has never drunk or smoked and was always on the move with some sort of sport – and to his friends.
"I have wonderful friends and it had made a considerable difference to my life. They have never stopped giving."