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New Zealand cricket and I are now getting to know each other again, making our reacquaintance. It has been a long love affair which had recently cooled, but now, because of the World Cup and the brilliance and emotion of that final, just may have been rekindled.
A passion for cricket was passed on to me by my Dad. He was a handy cricketer in his day and played for Southland against Australia and the West Indies when they toured in the 1950s. It was not one of his best days on the field when he dropped a very young Garfield Sobers off his brother Ted’s bowling, but it made for a good family story.
He played with the likes of legends such as Bert Sutcliffe and Jack Alabaster and told me stories of dramatic moments in cricket’s distant past such as the Bodyline series in the 1930s and the tragic Boxing Day Test in South Africa in 1953. Sporting drama at its heart-rending best.
As a child, I had a particular fondness for the incomparable Richard Hadlee. At seven, I wrote to inform him he had the enormous privilege of having my kitten named after him. Sadly, Hadlee the kitten was squished on the busy road we lived on, as was his successor, Paddles. But I digress. I sent the letter off, addressed to ‘Richard Hadlee, Christchurch’. By some miracle, I received a lovely handwritten reply from Nottinghamshire in England where he was playing. I will never forget the thrill of receiving that letter.
My path crossed with another of the greats earlier this year. I happened to glance at my husband’s to-do list for his next work day and saw written “Glenn Turner – heat pump”. “You mean, THE Glenn Turner? Are you going to put in a heat pump for THE Glenn Turner? “ I said, slightly hysterically.
It so happened the next day was my half century birthday and my hubby came home with a card for me signed kindly by Glenn himself. He wrote, “The second 50 is usually easier. Happy birthday.” It absolutely made my day.
Anyone who loved cricket in the 80s will look back on those times with unabashed nostalgia. They really were the glory days. Cricket was free to air and the whole country stopped to tune in when a big game was on. The sound of summer was the dulcet tones of cricket commentary on a thousand radios in a thousand gardens. The nation lived and breathed every game.
I was hooked. I can remember sneaking a transistor radio into the movies in order to keep up with some important match. I also remember tying the same transistor to the handlebars on my bike in case I missed some vital moment while biking to see my friends.
I found some of my teenage diaries recently and thought these might give me a glimpse into any inner angst as I came to terms with adolescence. I was wrong. They are all simply filled with descriptions of various games of cricket, headlined with either “Oh no! We lost!” Or “Yay! We won”. No insights there.
I myself had a brief, unsuccessful cricketing career as part of the Timaru Girls’ High School First XI. I should really say only XI, to avoid the misapprehension that I was in the first team by dint of talent. I wasn’t. I didn’t have any.
Despite Dad’s best efforts at bowling to me on the front lawn for practice, I was a lost cause, hopeless on all fronts. “Duck for dinner tonight?”, Dad would cheerfully tease after another dismal failure at the crease. I soon realised I was much better at watching cricket than playing it.
My devotion continued into my 20s. I went to any international cricket match I could get to. I was in the crowd at Lancaster Park when Greg Chappell, touring New Zealand straight after the infamous underarm incident, was booed roundly as he walked out to the pitch. He let his bat do the talking and walked off to a standing ovation, having scored a superb 176.
I was there when my childhood hero, Richard Hadlee, became the first bowler in history to take 400 wickets in tests. And at the same ground I watched Ian Botham, laughing and joking like he had just come from a Sunday roast at the pub, effortlessly take us apart with both bat and ball in two matches in a week.
It was reminiscing with my father about Botham’s exploits that made me realise how far Dad’s dementia was progressing. Dad, an avid cricket follower all his life and a man who was particularly fond of the English team, couldn’t remember who Botham was. “Never heard of him”, he stated with great confidence. That was devastating to hear.
Being a cricket fan in Dunedin was tough in the Carisbrook days. I loved that place but was there ever a colder cricket ground in the world? I have sat in the stands rugged up in a sleeping bag attempting to watch cricket there and once spent three months recovering from a facial palsy brought about by one cold, windy afternoon spectating from the dust -laden terraces.
But it was all worth it, cricket still held me firmly in its loving grip. I especially loved the tactics and drama of the test matches, to me, still, cricket at its best.
Then, somewhere in my late 30s, the flame began to die. I can trace it to the invention of the even shorter version of the game, the T20, and the removal of cricket to the pay TV channels. Suddenly cricket was awash with obscene amounts of cash and many of the nuances of the game seemed to be gone.
The goal seemed to be to hoick any delivery aerially to the boundary and hopefully over it. If that meant playing with a horizontal bat across the line of the ball, so be it. What happened to the placement of the ball, the glances, the tickles, the nudges, the glorious cover drives along the ground? It was all too much.
“They are turning cricket into baseball,” I sniffed, snobbishly.
The Black Caps seemed to be playing continuously, either winning dramatically or losing spectacularly. I didn’t have Sky, so couldn’t watch many of their games. I lost touch, I couldn’t keep up, the players seeming to revolve through the team at break-neck speed. I still followed cricket, but from a distance.
I continued to pine for the old days. The modern game just couldn’t compare. I truly thought the romance was over.
But then, three things happened. Firstly, this World Cup. The wickets were tricky. They had a bit in them for the bowlers. There were very few wallop-fests. Relatively small totals could be defended. It got interesting.
Then I read an article about the Black Caps which outlined how well they had performed over the last few years given their limited resources and small pool of players to choose from. Apparently, the Black Caps have less money spent on them than the Surrey county cricket team in England. They are actually over-achievers. Major over-achievers. I looked at the team a little differently then.
Then lastly, the final. What a privilege to watch two teams full of talent and guts slog it out to the most dramatic of finishes. As Jimmy Neesham said of New Zealand’s campaign, “We scored par totals then scrapped like hell.”
Scrap like hell they did. They scrapped so hard they had a middle aged woman in Central Otago yelling at her television set at six in the morning saying “It’s okay, Guppy, we still love you! It’s alright!” I only wish Dad had been alive to see it too.
So, I am now tentatively reaching out to cricket again. I will go to their next South Island fixture. I may even grit my teeth and go to one of the dreaded T20 matches. My next cat just might be called Kane. I am coming back.
The day after the final, I apologised to a friend for running late. I explained I had been up all night watching the cricket. She shook her head. “Cricket, “she said. “I just don’t get it. Nothing ever happens.”
I could only look at her with pity. Yeah, nah.
Cricket is a game where everything happens.
- Leeann Morton