Runs in the memory, Harry Ricketts

Dawn of the Golden Weather: When Kiwi Cricketers Conquered the World
John Mehaffey
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947493653

Cricket addicts, like most sports addicts, tend to look back to a golden age. This often coincides with their own first intense love affair with the game, the larger-than-life heroes of youth and memory forever towering above the moderns, however brilliant. John Mehaffey’s title, with its half-glance to Bruce Mason’s nostalgia-drenched play, acknowledges that pull, though in fact the “golden weather” nostalgically recreated here is that of the 1980s and the dayspring of New Zealand’s rise to serious ranking as a cricketing nation.

All the sun-tinted moments are carefully preserved, celebrated and, in places, refreshed by the reminiscences of the participants. There is the last-wicket triumph over the mighty West Indies at Carisbrook in 1980 when Stephen Boock and Gary Troup scampered that crucial leg-bye and, also at Carisbrook, when Jeremy Coney and Ewan Chatfield in 1985 improbably put on 50 to defeat Pakistan. There is the 1985 demolition of Australia in Australia, when a grooved Richard Hadlee took 15 wickets at the Gabba. The two series wins over England (here in 1984 and in England in 1986), the latter after English opener Graham Gooch’s hubris-inducing quip that batting against New Zealand was like “facing a World XI at one end [ie Richard Hadlee] and the Ilford seconds at the other”. In the decade, nine series won, five drawn, six lost. And that is just the Test record.

There were squalls, too – notably, in 1980 at Lancaster Park, when West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft, running in to bowl, shoulder-charged umpire Fred Goodall. (Goodall was admittedly pretty inept, but still ….) The biggest squall was undoubtedly the 1981 under-arm incident: last ball of the one-dayer at the Melbourne Cricket Ground; six to tie (not even to win); Kiwi number eleven Brian McKechnie facing; Aussie captain Greg Chappell instructing the bowler, his own younger brother Trevor, to roll the ball along the ground. To revisit this shameful, though technically legal, action still shocks. Or it would, had recent ball-tampering and subsequent hypocrisy by the current captain and vice-captain not sunk Australia’s reputation to an even lower circle of cricketing hell.

The two New Zealand cricketing giants of the 1980s, Hadlee and Martin Crowe, are given their due. So, too, are more journeyman, but equally essential, figures, such as the reliable opening firm, John Wright and Bruce Edgar, the unflappable wicketkeeper Ian Smith, the indefatigable medium-pacer Chatfield (“the Naenae Express”), the in-swinging, big-hitting Lance Cairns, the spinners Boock, John Bracewell and Evan Gray. And not forgetting Coney, who took over as captain from Geoff Howarth midway through the decade. 

Mehaffey retells one of my favourite Coney stories about how, in 1980, the Test selector and New Zealand cricket doyen Don Neely helped the middle-order batsman prepare for the immensely tall fast bowler Joel Garner:

Neely had mown a practice strip in front of the concrete steps at the Kilbirnie club’s cricket ground … [He] threw the ball from the third step onto the strip and Coney fended it from his chest. No coaching manual, thought Coney, explained how to drive a delivery aimed at the throat.

Coney was, and remains, the thinking person’s cricketer. (As a radio commentator, his know-how, his desire to try out some pet theory, always quickens the drama taking place in the middle.) As a player, reflection regularly helped him to exceed his natural ability. I asked him once about batting against English fast bowler Bob Willis. He said he always took an off-stump guard because Willis did not swing or seam the ball much, but maintained an awkward, accurate bombardment of lifting balls on or just outside the off-stump. “Look in Wisden,” said Coney, “and see how often Willis got me out.”  (Answer: hardly ever.) 

Coney, as Mehaffey records, adopted the same off-stump tactics against the West Indies fast bowlers in 1985, though, in that case, less successfully since Garner broke his arm. Such stories, told here from the inside, are certain to please aficionados. Some of the best are by Boock and Martin Snedden, who are refreshingly less all-mates-together than several of the others.  

This is largely a feel-good account which any New Zealand cricket-lover will want to own. That said, there are enough hints – comments like Snedden’s “There were lots of tensions around, it wasn’t all sweetness and light” – to suggest that there is still room for a more nuanced, more “weathered”, version. Such a rendering might well, for instance, give Howarth a less favoured run. Here, he is rightly praised as a stylish batsman and tactically astute on-field captain. Somewhat glossed over and excused, however, is his handling of the teenage maestros Crowe and Ken Rutherford. Crowe, disastrously pitched in at 19 against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, never forgot his captain’s jibe: “Well, if the show pony is good enough to be selected he can go out and prove it.” Rutherford, also 19 (and, what is more, an opener), failed utterly in 1985 in the West Indies against Garner, Malcolm Marshal et al. Both could have been ruined as players, and Rutherford arguably was, never achieving his full potential. 

Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, a cricket addict and poet, whose latest collection, Winter Eyes, has just appeared from Victoria University Press.

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