When Bohemian’s whistling won the day

New Zealand defended its way to a series win against the English cricket team this week. An excerpt from David Loughrey’s new book Grass Roots: Great Otago Sporting Rivalries* remembers a local cricketing battle where defence was key.

The pitch was fast and true on the day of the Dunedin club cricket final of 1968, and the dappled autumn sun picked out yellowed leaves as they skidded across the Oval in a playful, skittish wind.

The outsider would have seen a gentle, almost idyllic scene, 13 young men gambolling on hissing lawns, and heard the click of leather on willow and the loping steps of the fieldsman.

The outsider may have wondered at the strange tuneless whistling from one bowler, and watched as the batsman’s face darkened from pink to red to purple, but may have dismissed it as unimportant.

But those in the know were well aware they were not watching a pleasant afternoon’s cricket. Instead they saw the moment for what it was: a bitter, brutal tussle between two men opposed not just in sport, but in temperament, philosophy and political outlook.

It was the famous battle between the man they called the Bohemian Bowler, and his arch rival, the Butcher of Beaumont.

It is half a century now since the ’68 final, and both men are playing cricket in heaven.

But the other players who took part in the game between the North Dunedin and Beaumont cricket clubs remember the day like it was yesterday.

They still speak in whispered tones of the battle that unfolded.The only physical mementoes of the game can be seen in the dusty corner of a Dunedin hotel still frequented by elderly cricketers.

Hanging lopsided over a noisome carpet sticky with dried beer and crushed potato crisps are photos of the two men, both of which appeared in the newspaper the next day.

Tom Mueller, the tall and slender lad they called the Bohemian Bowler, a beanie pushed back raffishly on his head allowing a flop of thick dark hair to bounce over his brow, is shown in full flight, the ball about to spin from his grasp as his left foot hits the crease.

His friends from the time tell of a philosopher and free thinker, a young man fascinated with the phenomenology of religion, which he studied at the University of Otago.

In a time before veganism was invented, he experimented with a wide variety of diets, at one time living only on raw lucerne and rapeseed.

He was obsessed with beat poets, particularly the writings of Jack Kerouac.He also loved free-form jazz.

He was loose-limbed and exceedingly flexible.

His relationships were passionate, tumultuous and short-lived, and he attracted, and entertained at his North Dunedin flat, both men and women.

They called Colin Bruten the Beaumont Butcher due to his passion for hunting pigs, and the relish with which he slaughtered and butchered the animals before selling them at his roadside pig meat stall under the Beaumont bridge.

His picture shows a squat, brutish man with oversized calf muscles, an angry expression and dull, malicious eyes.

Holding the bat low on the handle, he faces the camera with an air of witless obstinacy.

He resented what he perceived as difference of any kind, and preferred the company of farm animals to that of his fellow humans.

He never scored a run in cricket, but neither did he ever lose his wicket, standing doggedly in front of the stumps and thumping the ball dead into the pitch, forcing a draw every time his team looked like it would lose.

That was until he met Mueller in the semifinal of ’68.

North Dunedin had run out of options.The team had to beat Beaumont to make the final, but needed a wicket.

It had peppered Bruten with speed, seam and spin, but even bouncers could not dislodge him, he merely stood and let them slam into his apparently unbreakable skull, never giving an inch.

After games his bonce was said to have swollen two or three times its usual size, due to the bruising it suffered.

It was captain Rowdy McLaughlan who finally decided to send Mueller in, hoping against hope his dainty but accurate bowling would have an effect.

But accuracy was not the only card in Mueller’s pack.His innate understanding of human psychology meant he could pick an opponent’s weakness.

North Dunedin wicketkeeper Curly MacIntyre remembers Bruten being at the top of his game, calm to the point of somnambulation, an immovable object, an almost non-sentient being protecting the stumps at all cost.

Mueller had a short run-up, and on the way in with his first ball, he gave the slightest hop, pirouetting in a flamboyant manner before landing at the crease and setting the ball on its way.Bluey MacTavish was standing at silly mid-off, and he remembers the first facial movement Bruten  was ever known to exhibit at the crease, an irritated twitch in his left eye as he watched Mueller head back for the second ball.The bowler turned again, and before his run-in, in the quietest voice, recited a Jack Kerouac haiku:

The taste
of rain
— Why kneel?

Almost imperceptibly, Bruten’s eyes narrowed.

The ball turned slightly as it flew in, and he just managed to swat it away with an uncomfortable movement of his ungainly frame.

It was clear he was rattled.

It was as he returned for his third bowl Mueller decided to turn the screw. Halfway back he began to whistle.It first it was a low drone, then a discordant cluster of notes, then a piercing whine.

The sound began to pulsate as Mueller vibrated his cheeks, then it became cloyingly sweet before sweeping unexpectedly to a crescendo.

After a short silence there were a series of single notes, each of different length and tonally unrelated.

He was whistling free-form jazz.

It was at this stage Bruten began to take on colour, ending up a sort of puce, drooling slightly with rage as Mueller began his run up, and as the ball was released, he slammed his bat on the ground.

"It has no melody," he cried.

"It lacks form and rhythmic structure.

"It is atonal, and is not completely distinct as a genre," he screamed, before remembering where he was, and stooping to pick up his bat.

But by then it was too late; the ball whizzed past him and slammed into middle stump.

Next week — How the All Blacks used free-form jazz to win the 1973 Lions tour.

*There is no such book. None of this is true.

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