A New Zealand Icon
23 Jan 2006
By: Richard Edmunds
On the 23rd of January 2006, Christopher Lance Cairns walked into a press conference to face the media. This was far from the first occasion on which he has done so, but he appeared nervous and at times emotional as he worked his way through a prepared speech. At the completion of the speech, what had been a rumour earlier in the day, and what many a New Zealand supporter has dreaded for the last six years, became a reality.
Chris Cairns is to wear the black colours of New Zealand for the last time in the Twenty20 international against the West Indies at Eden Park on February 16. Playing in New Zealand's largest stadium and it quite possibly being sold out for his final appearance is a fitting farewell to one of the legends of New Zealand sport. But it is not only the size of the stands that make it a suitable venue for his last appearance; Eden Park has been a kind ground to Cairns, with both his first test century against Zimbabwe in 1995/96 and his highest test score, 158 against South Africa in 2004, being made at the ground, which with the departure of Cairns will see yet another major moment in New Zealand cricket history.
Although his performances have tailed off slightly in the last twelve months, Cairns will always be considered one of the greats in New Zealand cricket history, and has probably done what seemed impossible; to equal and possibly even exceed his father Lance's hero status.
The Cairns who made his debut against Australia at Perth in late 1989, soon after the retirement of his father, is barely recognisable as the same figure we saw sixteen years later in the press conference. Although the talent was there, Cairns was in those days a long-haired teenager with a rebellious attitude, an attitude which was clearly shown a couple of years later in a bitter and very public dispute with coach Glenn Turner, a clash of two powerful personalities that was always going to cause trouble.
It was the appointment of Australian Steve Rixon as New Zealand coach in 1996, and subsequently Stephen Fleming as captain, that saw a transformation in the attitude and performance on the cricket field of Chris Cairns. He changed from a talented but erratic and, in some's minds arrogant and not very likeable youngster into a matchwinner with both bat and ball, and soon a senior member of the New Zealand team. Since the start of 1997, Cairns averaged 36.63 and 27.18 in tests with bat and ball respectively, both of which are at least two runs better than his overall career record.
He had to wait another couple of years for his breakthrough performance in ODIs, one which established his reputation not only as New Zealand's best player but as one of the world's finest all-rounders. In January 1999, Cairns walked out to bat in the 25th over with New Zealand batting first against India. 24 overs later, with the team's score some 186 runs higher, Cairns would depart for 115, his first century in one-day international cricket. His century was scored from a mere 75 balls, the fastest ODI century ever scored by a New Zealander. He also well and truly stepped up to the mark set by his legendary dad in terms of power hitting, clearing the boundary seven times.
The tour of England later that year, including the World Cup in which he was crucial in guiding the Black Caps through to the semi-finals, was another part in what was becoming a rapid rise to international stardom. In the four tests in the 1999 test series against England, Cairns took 19 wickets at an average of 21.26 and scored a mighty and ultimately matchwinning 80 from 93 balls in the deciding test at The Oval, taking the visitors from a perilous 39-6 to a defendable 162, a lead of 245 that ultimately proved to be more than enough.
1999 was arguably the big man's finest year of test cricket. In tests he scored 548 runs at 39.14 and took 47 wickets at 20.51, including a destructive 7-27 against the West Indies in the second innings at Hamilton to lead New Zealand to an unlikely victory after the visitors put on a double century opening stand on the first day.
The following year Cairns played what was possibly his most famous innings. New Zealand were playing India in the final of the ICC Knockout Trophy in Nairobi, and Cairns, severely hampered by a leg injury and defying all sense and logic in deciding to play, walked out to bat with New Zealand in a bit of trouble chasing 265. Effectively batting on one leg, Cairns scored a marvellous 102 from 113 balls to give New Zealand their first win in a final of an ODI tournament.
Cairns was no stranger to leading New Zealand to victory from a troublesome spot in a steep run chase. Another of his best innings came in the VB Series, a series perhaps remembered more for the emergence of fellow Cantabrian Shane Bond than for this epic century by the big all-rounder. Against South Africa at The 'Gabba, New Zealand were set 242 to win and were struggling at 98-5, but Cairns, with a 99-ball 102 not out, saw New Zealand through to one of their more memorable wins.
All in all, Cairns hit 240 sixes in international cricket, with 153 in ODIs and a current record 87 in tests, a record he broke in his final series, the 2004 tour of England. It is for this as much as his superb talent with both bat and ball that Cairns acquired hero status among New Zealanders, status normally reserved only for the very best rugby players. The phrase "next batsman for New Zealand...Chris Cairns" received as loud a cheer as any wicket taken by New Zealand or runs scored by any other batsman.
But it wasn't all glory in the Cantabrian all-rounder's one and a half decade-long career of playing cricket at the top level. As well as his big hitting and his famously deceptive slower ball (you need only to ask Chris Read, who completely misread one in the 1999 series, ducked and was bowled), Cairns will be remembered for injuries. Very few cricketers have suffered half as many injuries as the unfortunate Cairns, whose legs and back have given him no end of trouble. One of the more memorable moments of his career is the awful sight of him lying on the ground in agony after tearing his calf muscle running between the wickets against South Africa at Dunedin in 1999.
In total he missed 59 test matches in his career, just three fewer than he played.
It was these injuries which led Cairns to decide to end his test career at the end of the 2004 England tour, to focus on one-day cricket in the hope of lasting through to the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Every time Cairns walked out to bat or took a wicket the crowd reacted almost as if the game was being played in New Zealand. This was especially the case in the final test, fittingly at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Cairns was a regular at Nottinghamshire as an international player in the early half of his career, and the success he enjoyed there has ensured a permanently friendly ovation from the Trent Bridge crowd. It came as no surprise that Cairns took a five wicket bag in his final test.
And now, he has called it a day in one day cricket too, with his final curtain call in a Twenty20 international, a game seemingly invented for a cricketer like Cairns. Although his last twelve months in ODI cricket were average and disappointing by his standards, it shows how good he was in the remainder of his career was that his statistics remain impressive and that he will be remembered as nothing less than an all-time great in New Zealand history and a certain inclusion in all greatest all-time New Zealand elevens.
In his press conference Chris Cairns thanked New Zealand Cricket and the fans for sixteen great years, but really it is us that should be thanking him.
CHRISTOPHER LANCE CAIRNS
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