The Last Everyday Hero: The Bert Sutcliffe Story
Cricket addicts like myself love games like “Who was the greatest New Zealand batsman?” Most shortlists usually boil down to Martin Donnelly, Bert Sutcliffe, Glenn Turner and Martin Crowe, with someone holding out for the inclusion of Stewie Dempster, John Reid or Stephen Fleming. Personally, I always vote for Sutcliffe because, as with Crowe and Fleming, it was not just the sheer weight of runs he made but the stylish manner in which he made them.
A biography of Sutcliffe has long been overdue, and Richard Boock’s The Last Everyday Hero more than fills the gap. As he acknowledges, the idea originated with Rod Nye (Donnelly’s biographer). Before his death in 2004, Nye had amassed most of the raw research, including spools of taped interviews with Sutcliffe’s friends, family and former team mates. Boock, who took over the project with Nye’s blessing, pays handsome tribute to the latter’s knowledge, hard work and good nature in a touching epilogue.
Boock does Sutcliffe the cricketer full justice. First, there is the schoolboy prodigy at Takapuna Grammar in the late 1930s. Then the young virtuoso who performed such legendary feats against other service teams in North Africa and Italy at the tail-end of WWII that word of his prowess was soon being passed around the English county scene. Next comes the established master, stroking centuries in each innings of the Otago match against Hammond’s 1946-7 MCC side, charming a record aggregate of 2627 runs on the 1949 tour of England and becoming for a decade the lynchpin of the Test team. Finally, in 1964-5, in his early 40s, there is the emergence from retirement of the old hand to tour India, Pakistan and England in one final, broken hurrah. Boock’s summary of Sutcliffe’s Test career is eminently fair: “Without any substantial or consistent support within the New Zealand batting line-up, the side’s fortunes would more or less swing on his own individual performance.”
The biography opens with Sutcliffe’s and Blair’s heroics against South Africa on Boxing Day, 1953. This familiar story – recently brought to life on stage by Jonny Brugh’s engaging one-hander The Second Test – gets the book off to a brisk and moving start. Sutcliffe, his “head a cartoon of bandages” after being hit by speedster Neil Adcock, was joined at the wicket by last man Blair, who early that morning had heard of the death of his fiancée Nerissa in the Tangiwai disaster and been told not to come to the ground. What followed – Boock wisely quotes at length from Dick Brittenden’s classic eyewitness account in Silver Fern on the Veldt – still brings a lump to the throat. When Blair appeared from the pavilion, fumbling with his gloves, Sutcliffe went to meet him. The vast South African crowd suddenly fell silent, and the rest of the New Zealand team openly wept. Then, to wild cheering, the pair hit sixes all round the ground, putting on 33 in 10 minutes before Blair was stumped, and the two left the wicket with their arms about each other.
Here, as throughout the book, Sutcliffe emerges as brave, supportive, friendly, understated: the epitome of the good Kiwi joker. All of which is highly creditable to Sutcliffe himself (he was also extremely modest, thoughtful and egalitarian), but it highlights a problem for his biographer: Sutcliffe’s unfailing niceness makes it hard for the reader to gain a vivid sense of his life outside cricket. We do learn something of his origins and upbringing: his Lancastrian, working-class parents emigrated here after WWI, had four children and never much money. We learn that, while a natural left-hander, he was, like many at the time, made to write right-handed. We learn that he played guitar and piano by ear and was always the first to lead a singalong in bus, pub or home. We learn that he was a devoted husband and father, and at various times was a phys ed teacher, a cricket coach and a rep for Rothman’s. But amongst all this Sutcliffe himself remains rather a blank, and more should surely have been made of the fact that, after a decade at the top, New Zealand’s premier batsman had to retire from Test cricket (for five years) because with a family to support he simply couldn’t make ends meet.
By way of compensation the interviews with former team mates tell us a good deal about the inside world of New Zealand cricket in the 1940s, 50s and 60s – much of it fairly shonky. So the real reason wicketkeeper-batsman George Mills wasn’t picked for the 1949 tour was his “lack of social graces”, not, as officially claimed, his “varicose veins”. Similarly, the medical and hygiene horrors of the 1955-6 tour of Pakistan and India are pungently, biliously, evoked. Several of the best stories come from Noel McGregor, as effervescent with the anecdote as he was with the bat. In one, he recalls the management-style of Henry Cooper, headmaster of Auckland Grammar, who was manager on that difficult 1955-6 sub-continent tour: “He’d be calling us ‘boys’ and telling us when to go to bed, when to get up and what we should be doing … . Many of us were married and had our own children … .” We sometimes complain about the oddities of current selection policy but, compared to some of the shockers of the 1950s, Boock shows us that we don’t know how lucky we are.
While these oral sources are an undoubted strength of the biography, there are (despite Nye’s industry) some notable omissions. One is the lack of any reference to Indian and Pakistani newspaper accounts of Sutcliffe’s two tours to the sub-continent. Another is the absence of anything by John Arlott. The great English commentator and cricket writer admired Sutcliffe immensely and wrote memorably about him on several occasions – for instance, in his Cricket Journal of the 1958 tour of England and later in 100 Greatest Batsmen.
Boock has a stylistic mannerism of using “would” instead of the straightforward past tense: “he would tell the Otago Daily Times”, for instance, instead of “he told the Otago Daily Times”. Once noticed, this becomes irritating. Also annoying is his habit of summarising an innings or match before providing the details. This tends to dilute the dramatic impact of the subsequent description. On a different level, I should very much have liked to read a considered discussion of the two occasions when Sutcliffe was badly hit on the head: firstly, by Adcock in that Boxing Day Test in 1953, and secondly, by Trueman at Edgbaston in 1965, the blow which finally put a stop to his illustrious Test career. Sutcliffe himself characteristically downplayed the significance of the two events (saying, for instance, that Trueman was “about as past it as I was”) but I’d like to know whether Boock, a shrewd reader of the game, really agrees.
Those reservations aside, The Last Everyday Hero offers many pleasures. Any reader interested in New Zealand cricket will relish Boock’s account of our greatest batsman and be grateful for the way in which he recreates innings after innings of Sutcliffe’s magical stroke-play.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books and author of How to Catch a Cricket Match.