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A Tale of Two Defiant Kiwis


The biography of Bert Sutcliffe that was started by Rod Nye and later finished by Richard Boock is entitled The Last Everyday Hero. It is, as titles of such books usually are, an entirely appropriate way to describe a man who if he might have fallen short of greatness on the basis of generally accepted statistical criteria certainly does not do so on any other measure of a man or a cricketer.

As a batsman, whether as an opener or in the middle order, Sutcliffe was New Zealand’s finest for more than a decade. At the start of his career Martin Donnelly was arguably a star who shone with just a shade more brilliance, and at times his contemporary John Reid might have come close, but the stylish left hander with the blond hair and rugged good looks was a hero for the long haul. Sutcliffe was also an innately modest man, which doubtless caused the only blemish on his cricketing CV, his captaincy not impressing many. There was also a generous spirit in the man, something that militated against him making a success of the sports good business that he started in the 1950s.

Sutcliffe first made a major impression on the game at 23 in 1946/47. First of all he scored 197 and 128 for Otago against Walter Hammond’s England tourists, a fascinating contest ending as the most exciting of draws, England needing two runs for victory with one wicket to fall when time ran out. In the Test match that followed Sutcliffe contributed 58 to an opening partnership of 133 with Walter Hadlee. It was a match in which New Zealand were more than holding their own when rain intervened.

In 1949 a side led by Hadlee toured England. The ‘forty niners’ lost only once, to Warwickshire, and comfortably showed England the folly of allocating just three days to each of the Tests, comfortably drawing all four. Sutcliffe was at the forefront of a strong batting side, scoring 423 runs at 60.42 in the Tests, and on the tour as a whole 2,444 at 56.83. He was not quite so effective in home conditions for the visits of England, West Indies and South Africa in the early 1950s, but at the end of those series still had the impressive Test average of 48.94.

Prior to 1953 New Zealand’s Test cricketers had only ever toured England. In October of that year however they visited South Africa for a full tour. The tour meant the best part of five months away from home for the players, and the first five Test series the country had contested. They had six weeks to acclimatise, but lost the first Test by an innings and 58 runs. The visitors’ captain, Geoff Rabone, was at his most obdurate and made the two highest scores of his career in the match, 107 and 68. No one else achieved much. Sutcliffe opened the batting and scored 20 and 16.

The second Test was played at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The fourth Test of the series was due to be played there as well. That was to be the fifth and last Test to be played at a ground where the wicket had only been laid five years previously. When next South Africa hosted a touring team, England three years later, the New Wanderers Stadium in the city was open. The wicket for that second Test was distinctly green, not much different in colour from the rest of the square, and Rabone was not sorry to lose the toss. His team fielded four seam bowlers with just his own off breaks to provide a measure of spin. Of the seamers only 21 year old Bob Blair had any pretensions to being genuinely quick.

The match began on Christmas Eve, then had a rest day before resuming on Boxing Day. At the end of the first day South Africa were 259-8. It was not a big score by any means, but on a far from well behaved wicket seven dropped catches, five of them pretty straightforward, had blighted New Zealand’s effort.

Back in New Zealand Christmas Eve saw the worst rail disaster the country has seen. The Wellington to Auckland express was derailed. One of the piers of a bridge over the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai had been severely damaged by a lahar. The alarm was raised, but not in sufficient time for the driver to stop the train. The resultant collapse caused the engine and six carriages to leave the track. 151 people lost their lives, amongst them Bob Blair’s fiancé. The New Zealand players heard about the disaster early on Christmas morning, but it was several hours later that a telegram arrived advising of Blair’s loss. To add to his shock he had had no reason to believe his fiancé would be on that or indeed any other train.

The New Zealand side set off for Ellis Park on Boxing Day for the second day without Blair, who remained in the team’s hotel with the manager. The flags at the ground were at half mast. By the end of the day there were around 23,000 people in the ground. The first thing they witnessed was the close of the South African innings. A dozen runs were added before Dave Ironside and then Neil Adcock were both removed at 271.

The South African attack was more varied than New Zealand’s. The great off spinner Hugh Tayfield, leg spinner Clive Van Ryneveld and the slow medium Anton Murray were joined by the two quicker bowlers. The red haired Ironside, to date the only Test cricketer to have been born in Mozambique, was an effective swing bowler, but with no great pace. The same could not be said of his opening partner. Adcock was 6’ 3’’ in height, distinctly sharp, and not noted for showing any fondness towards batsmen.

Having opened in the first Test Sutcliffe was at four at Ellis Park, but his entrance was not long delayed and at 9-2 he walked out to the wicket. He did not need to lay a bat on the first three deliveries he faced from Adcock. The fourth was short and Sutcliffe shaped to hook. The ball was, however, on him more quickly than he expected and as he instinctively turned his head he was struck on the left ear. He went down immediately and skipper Rabone and two first aiders with a stretcher ran to his assistance. With help Sutcliffe got to his feet and the stretcher wasn’t needed, but he had to leave the field, a towel pressed against the left side of his head to staunch the bleeding from a cut to the ear. He went straight to hospital where he passed out twice, but x-rays revealed no fracture.

Back at Ellis Park John Reid replaced Sutcliffe. Adcock gave him a torrid time and removed him at 23. With his very next delivery Adcock then struck number six Laurie Miller on the chest. Miller lost some blood from his mouth He bravely stayed on the field but soon afterwards was persuaded to leave the field when more blood appeared. The fourth wicket fell at 35, Matt Poore bowled off his chest by Adcock for 15. A few minutes later lunch brought the not out batsmen some relief.

After lunch the 19 year old John Beck, who had not played so much as a single First Class match prior to his selection for the tour, and wicketkeeper Frank Mooney took the score to 57 before the miserly Murray induced an edge from the youngster. No one these days remembers Murray, but he did not like conceding runs and has the eighth best economy rate of all time, fifteen places ahead of teammate Tayfield, a man whose reputation as one of the most parsimonious of the great bowlers still resonates today.

During lunch Rabone had told the assembled press that Miller and Sutcliffe would not be resuming their innings, and Blair wasn’t even on the ground so Mooney, affectionately known as ‘Starlight’ because he came to life at night, expected Tony MacGibbon to join him. In fact however it was Miller who came out to a roar of support from the South African crowd.

As Miller and Mooney resumed the battle Sutcliffe arrived back in the dressing room. Rabone protested when he started to buckle his pads on, but soon saw the futility of trying to persuade Sutcliffe not to resume and relented. The team’s liason man was asked to go and find some whisky, which he came back with shortly afterwards. There was time for Sutcliffe to have more than one slug before, at 81-6, Ironside bowled Miller.

If Miller had caused a reaction from the crowd the way they greeted Sutcliffe was even more enthusiastic. Sutcliffe’s head was swathed in bandages, the very definition of walking wounded. He did not intend to defend. The second delivery he faced from Ironside was deposited over square leg for six, quite a way to get off the mark.

Test cricket has never been a place for too much sentiment and as Mooney and Sutcliffe took the score past the hundred South African skipper Jack Cheetham brought on his two best bowlers, the dangerous Adcock and Tayfield. The New Zealanders needed to get to 122 to avoid the follow on.

At the end of Adcock’s first over, which included a square cut from him for four, Sutcliffe needed attention on his bandages. His cap went and the bandages were refixed with more sticking plaster, and soon afterwards the iconic photograph that accompanies this feature and has appeared so often in books and magazines was taken.

It was a delivery from Tayfield that saw the first target reached. Sutcliffe drove it high over long on for a second six. He blocked the following delivery, but the next flew over long off. Five quiet overs before tea then calmed the game down. It was a break that New Zealand reached on 138-6.

His concentration broken by the interval Mooney was bowled by Ironside for 35 from the second delivery he faced after tea. Four overs later and the same bowler had MacGibbon caught at slip by Russell Endean. The man who all assumed was to be the last man was Guy Overton. There was just time for Sutcliffe to hit one more six from Tayfield before Overton too fell, without scoring, to Ironside.

By the time the tea interval had arrived Blair, understandably deciding he would rather be with his teammates than in the team hotel with just the team manager and his thoughts for company, was at the ground. With the fall of Overton Sutcliffe had started to walk off too but was stopped in his tracks, stunned into silence as was just about everyone else in the ground by the sudden appearance of Blair making his way out to the middle.

What are you doing out here? Sutcliffe is said to have asked his partner. The response he got was simply; We’re in trouble so I’m out here. Blair did not need to play at the last two deliveries of Ironside’s over.

If there had been moments of circumspection from Sutcliffe earlier there was nothing of the sort in Tayfield’s next over. The first delivery was deposited over midwicket for six, the second over long on and the fourth straight back over Tayfield’s head. An eye on the next Ironside over Sutcliffe then took a single. Blair blocked his first delivery from Tayfield, and the feeling of the ball hitting his bat clearly inspired him to greater things. The penultimate delivery of the over went high over midwicket for the biggest six of the day. The pair’s record of 25 runs in a Test match over was not to be beaten in the twentieth century.

His appetite sated Blair did not attempt to repeat his feat from the final ball of the over. Sutcliffe then managed a single boundary in Ironside’s next over but he couldn’t get off strike. From the second delivery of his next over Tayfield was able to lure Blair down the wicket, beat his bat and provide John Waite with a stumping. New Zealand were 187 all out. The level of applause from the crowd, and indeed the South African team, as Blair and Sutcliffe left the field was a fitting tribute to them and a complete contrast to the near silence that had accompanied Blair to the crease.

Although both Sutcliffe and Blair wanted to go out to field in the South African second innings this time they did obey the instruction to stay in the dressing room, the two men apparently sitting on their chairs in the shower with the remains of the bottle of whisky that had earlier been found for Sutcliffe. Out on the park their teammates had a short but satisfactory session, reducing the home side to 35-3.

Unusually another rest day followed, and on the third day the New Zealanders bowled the South Africans out for 148. Blair bowled just five wicketless overs. By the close Sutcliffe’s Test was over, dismissed for ten as New Zealand reached 68-3 in pursuit of 233. The task was never going to be an easy one, and the fourth morning saw a tame finish as the remaining seven New Zealand wickets fell for the addition of only another 32 but the result mattered not. As one South African newspaper put it; All the glory was with the vanquished.

Blair played Test cricket for another decade, and appeared in 19 Tests altogether. He took 43 wickets at 35.23, so a modest success. His figures at First Class level are altogether more impressive, 537 wickets at 18.54. The pain of the Tangiwai disaster seems to have motivated him. Speaking in 2013 he said of the episode; It made me …. when I got the ball in my hand I wanted to hurt people. I had been hurt. I wanted to deck people, that is why I bowled so short. It gave me fire. Blair turned 87 in the northern hemisphere summer just gone, and made his home in England many years ago.

As for Sutcliffe he had celebrated his thirtieth birthday a few weeks before those fateful events at Ellis Park. His final Test appearance came in 1965. Altogether he played for New Zealand on 42 occasions, and never once featured in a winning side. When New Zealand finally won for the first time against West Indies in the final Test in 1955/56 Sutcliffe wasn’t in the side, left out after the second Test because of exhaustion. Later he took a five year sabbatical from the Test side and missed the second and third victories in South Africa in 1961/62.

The biggest innings of Sutcliffe’s Test career came in India in 1955/56 when he scored an unbeaten 230. Another century came in that series and a final one, in India again, in 1964/65. Added to that were his two earlier centuries against England, but no Sutcliffe innings, not even the 385 he scored for Otago against Canterbury almost a year to the day before his knock at Ellis Park rivals that unbeaten 80. Scored out of 106 added whilst he was at the wicket it was a remarkable innings. Only once before had a batsman hit more sixes in a Test innings, and that was in the context of a knock of 336. An added irony is that a ten year old Sutcliffe was in the crowd at Eden Park that day, watching Walter Hammond bat.

Did the Ellis Park Test affect the course of the rest of Sutcliffe’s career? As noted he went into the match with an average of 48.94. He initially retired after the 1958/59 encounter with England but at 41 was lured out of retirement to add some experience to the party that was due to tour India, Pakistan and England for ten Tests culminating in the first twin tour summer in England since 1912. At the end of that trip, 29 Tests later, his average had fallen to 40.10, the mark of a good player rather than a great one.

It is certainly true that Sutcliffe rarely deployed the hook again after Ellis Park, so one of the most thrilling shots in the book disappeared from his repertoire. He himself would readily agree that his career was affected by the injury, although some felt that was simply further evidence of what an amiable man Sutcliffe was, and that he simply chose not to disagree with people who started from the premise that he cannot have been the same player afterwards. A comment of writer Peter West in 1965 summed up the general feeling however; Sutcliffe has been known to be vulnerable to the bouncer ever since he was hit by Adcock in South Africa.

The inevitable problem that Sutcliffe was caused by the widely held belief was that this perceived weakness against the bouncing ball would get his wicket, so he then got more than his fair share of the short stuff. Whatever might sometimes be suggested to the contrary cricket in the 1950s and 1960s was not a sport where any quarter was given at the highest level, and fast bowlers would target Sutcliffe, although perhaps not always quite as obviously as Douglas Jardine did at Adelaide in 1932/33 when he switched to his leg theory field immediately after Bill Woodfull was struck over the heart.

In the end Sutcliffe only appeared in the first of the three Tests against England in 1965. When he came into bat New Zealand were replying to an innings of 435 and were 67-3. Sutcliffe was soon struck on the head by a delivery from Trueman. It was a ball that was pitched very short, but didn’t really get up and Sutcliffe ducked into it, sustaining a blow to the right side of his head. After a delay of something approaching ten minutes Sutcliffe batted on, but not long afterwards felt dizzy whilst running and left the field not to return. New Zealand collapsed to 116 all out and were invited to follow on.

The visitors made a much better fist of their second innings and England had to score 96 in the fourth innings to gain a nine wicket victory. Sutcliffe came in at seven, and was immediately greeted by the return to the attack of Trueman, England skipper Mike Smith taking the new ball. Even though the Yorkshireman was not quite the ‘Fiery’ Fred of old (the match was his penultimate Test) Sutcliffe must have anticipated a few round his ears. Perhaps that expectation was enough for Trueman to decide the wise tactic was to do precisely the opposite, or maybe he really didn’t fancy bouncing Sutcliffe again, but for whatever reason he kept the ball well up. One thing that could never be questioned with Sutcliffe was his courage. He scored 53 in that final innings and shared in what was then a record sixth wicket partnership with Vic Pollard. His effort was the more admirable because, clearly affected by his injury, he missed the remaining Tests although he did, in his last innings on the British Islands, record a century in Ireland to rescue his side from 86-7.

After returning from England there was a last season of domestic cricket before, at 43 and after 24 seasons, Sutcliffe finally called it a day. His is an excellent record. In all First Class cricket he scored more than 17,000 runs at 47 with 44 centuries, eight of them doubles and two triples including what remains the highest individual score by a New Zealander, that 385 he made for Otago against Canterbury in 1952. Comprising as it did 77% of his side’s total of 500 it remains a remarkable knock.

After his sports goods business failed Sutcliffe, who made sure all the business’ creditors were paid from his personal assets, had to sell his home and start again with nothing but the proceeds of a benefit match. He moved into coaching and administration. He did some media work as well and was in the commentary box in early 1975 when a bouncer almost claimed the life of Ewan Chatfield. Unsurprisingly Sutcliffe was deeply critical at the bowling of such a delivery to a number eleven.

Bert Sutcliffe was a great family man and was extremely close to his three children and his grandchildren. He enjoyed the best of health for years and would occasionally play cricket into his sixties, generally surprising all with his ability to roll back the years. In the 1990s however he developed the degenerative lung condition, emphysema, a disease that claimed him in 2001 at the age of 77.

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