Cricket: Still fit for my gentle battle of the bulge

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ENGLAND'S FORMER cricket coach David Lloyd, bless him, told me on the eve of the first Test in Johannesburg that the English batsmen, while suspect against spin-bowling, could handle South Africa's pace attack. He also singled out the batting of Daryll Cullinan, explaining that England knew how to exploit his defensive frailties.

Well, in a way, Lloyd - "Bumble" to his friends - was proved right. Against pace, England gamely mustered two whole runs for the loss of only four prized wickets. And Andrew Caddick duly outwitted Cullinan just as Lloyd had predicted, albeit after Cullinan had scored a dashing century.

Mind you, I do think that Lloyd should be commended, not belittled, for his optimism. Really, I recall his words only to reinforce what Mark Twain or someone once said, that there are no certainties in life except death and taxes. And England batting collapses, he might have added. But then England do sometimes reach 400 - although I can't think of the last time they did so - and some devious folk do manage to nutmeg the taxman. So really there is only one certainty in life and that is death, or at any rate the relentless march of age.

A few weeks ago I turned 38, and in an idle moment mused that if I were a politician I would be considered positively youthful, whereas if I were a professional footballer I would be considered ancient. For example, the Conservative leader William Hague and the Everton defender Richard Gough are both the same age as me, give or take a few months. Yet Hague is thought of as young, although much older than his years, while Gough is thought old, but much younger than his years. On Match of the Day recently, Alan Hansen picked out Gough as one of the players of the season so far. For we 38-year-olds, this was hugely encouraging. Don't tell us we're over the hill. We could still be making an impact in the Premiership.

Instead of which, we're feebly clutching at straws. For instance, another good thing about turning 38 is that my age has once again pulled marginally ahead of my waist measurement. They have been at roughly level-pegging ever since I gave up playing squash twice a week. Now I play a weekly game of tennis. It is pretty sedate stuff. I have been known to serve and volley, but only in the same way that Pete Sampras has been known to land a lob in a back garden 30 yards behind the baseline. If memory serves, I've done that too.

My regular opponent, as he cruelly likes to remind me, is a grandfather with only one eye in tip-top working order. He has taken to wearing a watch-like contraption on his wrist which somehow measures how much useful heart exercise he is getting. Last week we played two sets. After more than an hour we strolled off court, not exactly exhausted, but, following one or two elegant baseline rallies, slightly out of puff. Peter looked at his wrist monitor. Our match had yielded only 13 seconds worth of decent heart exercise. He could have got that by loading his toaster at a slightly quicker rate than usual.

Still, at least I'm keeping slightly fitter than some of my university buddies, who have thrown in the towel, exercise-wise, not to mention the shorts and the Ralgex. But not James Henderson, who contacted me the other day, out of the blue, to tell me about his passion for adventure racing, a sport which began about 15 years ago in New Zealand. It makes the triathlon sound as sedentary as a game of Battleships. This Wednesday, for instance, a race called the Eco-challenge gets underway in Patagonia. Fifty-two teams from all over the world, each comprising at least one woman, will complete a 500 kilometre (308 mile) course by riding, canoeing, and walking across glaciers, day and night. When you sleep, you lose ground. Once, in the Australian outback, James fell asleep while he was walking, and woke up only by keeling over.

He has taken part in four races, and completed three - unlike Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who in two attempts has failed to last the distance. Last year James' team finished fifth, which meant they were in the money - in Patagonia, $100,000 (pounds 63,000) will be divided between the first five teams.

This was a tribute not only to their stamina, but also their ability to navigate in the dark. Former Olympic athletes take part, but they won't win if they can't use a compass. Nevertheless, fitness is paramount. James has been training for three hours a day for the last three months and is in formidably good shape. But then, as a young man of 37, he jolly well ought to be.