ARE NEW ZEALAND EVERYBODY’S SECOND FAVOURITE TEAM?
I’m referring to their cricket team here, not their rugby team. I would imagine that the mighty All Blacks would be anybody’s least favourite team to play against. This is not to suggest that the Black Caps are not mighty – they are after all currently rated the No. 1 Test team in the world – but to point out that they seem to play in the right spirit, hard but fair, with a smile never far away from their faces.
In the 1970s, during my professional career, I became quite friendly with Geoff Howarth, the New Zealand batsman, who was at the time playing for Surrey. In the winters, he would return home and exchange his brown cap for a black cap; he played 47 Tests for his country and captained the side from 1980-85. Ian Smith, the Kiwi wicket-keeper, said this of Howarth, “He was quite simply the best captain I have played under….approachable and generous.” This came as no surprise to me. In those days – I’ve no idea what it is like today – you got to know your opponents, socially as well as their cricket attributes. Three days is a long time, the evenings were often spent in the pavilion bar and the frequency of fixtures meant that some became almost like good friends. I was immediately drawn to Geoff. He was a hard-nosed, gimlet-eyed opponent on the field, but off the field affable and wryly humorous. Sledging? All he ever said to me on the field was, “G’day, Murt.” In the bar, he would buy you a beer and the anecdotes and stories would flow. Here’s an interesting point, not well known. In his early days at Surrey, he shared a flat with Bob Willis (before he decamped to Warwickshire) and the football commentator, Martin Tyler. Up until Willis’s untimely death in 2019, the three of them would regularly meet up for a reunion dinner somewhere.
Let me draw a sharp comparison with another experience I had whilst playing professionally. In 1975, Hampshire were playing against the touring Australians. Jeff Thomson, who had terrorised England batsmen the previous winter in the Ashes series of 1974-75, was playing. In Hampshire’s second innings, he had poleaxed our opening pair of Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, both retired hurt. As we contemplated the bomb crater that was Barry’s box and private parts, between groans of agony, he hissed, “Jeez, that guy is fast!” As next man in, I was grateful for that piece of information. When I did attain the crease not long after, I found myself heartily concurring with the assessment of somebody whom most of us considered to be the finest batsman in the world. In between weaving and ducking out of the way of Thommo’s thunderbolts, I was subjected to a barrage of vitriol from the Australian captain, Ian Chappell. My batting partner, Peter Sainsbury, sauntered down the wicket between overs.
“Have you ever been spoken to like that on a cricket pitch?”
“No. Not even by my brother in Test matches in our back garden when we were kids.”
In truth, Sains was an even bigger target than me for Chappell’s animus. I was very much the junior partner. Incidentally, and not entirely immaterially, Thommo said not a word. He was more concerned about sorting out his run-up and where his front foot was landing. Later, after Peter Sainsbury and I had batted out to salvage a draw, I asked Barry what on earth Sains had done in another life to upset the Australian captain. “Peter Sainsbury,” he replied, “epitomises everything Chappell hates about county cricket. Full of old players hanging onto their contracts and bunging up the pathway for younger players.” This was a bit harsh on Peter Sainsbury, I thought, who was twice the player I would ever be. But Chappell had a point. Sains was 41.
My point is not about ageing county pros. I can hardly criticise. My nephew Tim is still playing for Middlesex in his 40th year (and a bowler, too!). I merely make comment on the Australians (well, some of them) and their belief that the game should be played by two sets of players who snarl at each other the day long. The New Zealanders are cut from different cloth. In the past, as cricket’s perennial underdogs, it could be postulated that they were not good enough to match big deeds to big words. No longer. They are a battle-hardened and talented team, with several world-class performers in their ranks. But still, they don’t sledge.
I cannot resist another unfavourable comparison. In 2016, at Christchurch, the New Zealand captain, Brendon McCullum (now the England coach), was playing in his final Test match. He scored a hundred in 54 balls, which was then, and remains, the record for the fastest century in Test cricket. His opponents, the Australians, gave him a warm send-off. No, not guard of honour, no congratulatory handshakes, but a volley of abuse. McCullum ignored them. He was better than that.
The current series between England and New Zealand has contained some breath-taking cricket, not all of it by any means from England. It takes two to tango. But more than anything, the spirit in which the matches has been played has been exemplary. The Kiwis seem to be enjoying what they are doing – even if at times, the rub of the green has not been in their favour – and England, not always saints in this regard, have followed suit. One incident sticks in my mind. Stokes put Henry on his backside with a well-directed bouncer. Henry scrambled to his feet and grinned at Stokes. He in his turn had no option but to grin back (something for which he is not renowned). Of course, another bouncer swiftly followed but it was not accompanied by an exaggerated follow-through, with bulging eyes and a string of personal insults.
If the ‘spirit of cricket’ is anything, it is the way that the New Zealanders conduct themselves. Remember the classy way in which they took their loss in that nail-biting super over in last year’s World Cp Final? Even when it was pointed out to them that the umpires had made a (genuine) error, they did not complain but accepted defeat graciously. My old mate, Geoff Howarth, would nod his head in approval. Yes, the Kiwis are definitely my second favourite team.