Howzat! The golden era of New Zealand cricket

by Peter Calder / 25 January, 2018
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Richard Hadlee claims an Indian wicket in the second test in Bombay in 1988. Photo/Getty Images

An attempt to recapture a shining period in Kiwi cricket suffers from an information overload. 

Sports journalists are a breed apart – occasionally to the point that they seem like alien creatures. This is particularly the case with cricket writers: living in a world where statistics are more important than in any other field of human endeavour, except perhaps statistics, they can summon in an instant the most obscure minutiae of information about a match or a series, to the extent that they can stop a pub conversation with a dilettante devotee in its tracks.

It takes a cricket journo to name the only New Zealand captain to have won more matches than he lost in both the test-match and one-day forms of the game (Geoff Howarth), but you can’t help wondering if a David Gower cover drive ever made their heart sing or their eyes brim with tears of pure joy.

The author of this rambling, ramshackle and occasionally illuminating survey of a golden era in the country’s cricketing fortunes, when television schedules were cleared to make way for cricket, has worked on the sports desks of major agencies here and abroad, and cricket is plainly a passion. So it’s a shame that the 236 pages that he has managed to cobble together are so passionless.

He chooses a title that does not so much tempt fate as ignore the facts (any cricket follower who grimly sat through the following two decades can attest that they were seldom sunlit), and anyway, the phrase works only when it refers to the golden weather’s end, as the chap who coined it and weather forecasters could have told him.

But then he spends much of the book belying the title, which in full includes “When Kiwi cricketers conquered the world – the 1980s era of Hadley, Crowe & Co”. Like that pub talker, he is a man obsessed by the numbers (no bad thing, but that’s what appendices are for), and as a writer, he seems incapable of passing a narrative side alley without nipping in for a fossick around.

The chapter on the dogged opening batsman John Wright quickly diverts two degrees of separation to recall Bob Blair, newly bereaved by the 1953 Tangiwai disaster and partnered by a bandaged Bert Sutcliffe, batting heroically but vainly to save a test in South Africa.

In a chapter on Jeremy Coney “and the captaincy challenge”, the name “Coney” doesn’t even appear for seven pages, after those of two dozen other cricketers, few of them even New Zealanders, and a boxer have put in an appearance. Another, about the “canny coach” Glenn Turner, tells us next to nothing about his thoughts on coaching, though there are mentions elsewhere in the text of his inventive ideas, including making tail-enders work hard on their batting. We do find out what NZ Herald sports writer TP McLean thought of Colin Meads, however.

He does bravely and usefully go where many writers have not, discussing Howarth’s drinking and anatomising the haughty selfishness that made Richard Hadlee, the first cricketer to be knighted while still playing, such an isolated figure in the team. There’s a good summary, too, of the stoush between umpire Fred Goodall and the West Indians.

That story and others are enlivened by interviews conducted, by necessity, over several years with characters now in retirement. Perhaps that’s what gives the book a bitsy and anecdotal feel. Poor-quality photographs and the unforgivable absence of photo credits hamper a volume that only at moments captures the magic of an extraordinary era. But if you long to learn that Ian Smith’s 100th dismissal as wicketkeeper took place at the same time of day, 12.03pm, as his first, it might be just the ticket.

DAWN OF THE GOLDEN WEATHER, by John Mehaffey (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $34.99)

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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