Monday, October 22, 2012

B is for… (Part 1)

Part 1: Bartlett to Blunt via The Basin

A second single at the start of a promising innings, there was the option for more B’s than a hive flush with honey. Those that made my list have been a strong part of my cricketing education – stepping stones on the path to my love of our great game. 
The Basin Reserve (Courtesy of supersport.com)


Among them the game’s most revered player, New Zealand’s Wisden trailblazer and a genuine quick with a bent arm. But cricket is about more than just the players, we all remember matches, grounds and series - a crushing victory against our most formidable foes on their turf, a ground at the centre of Kiwi cricket, a whitewash with a twist and a series that angered nations, changing cricket forever. What resonates with cricket’s tragics is as varied as the surfaces it’s played on – here’s a collection dear to a cricketing Buddha.


Bartlett, Gary
How often does New Zealand produce a genuine quick – a fast bowler that can hurry and rattle batsmen, hurling red thunderbolts?

Blenheim born Gary Bartlett was one of a very rare Kiwi breed – a bowler who developed on New Zealand’s sluggish tracks but whose pace stacked up against any international bowler through the 1960s. He made his first class debut for Central Districts as a raw 17 year old and less than three years later stepped into the international breach against a powerful South African side in Durban – a sharp ascent for a young quick. 10 tests in seven years produced just 24 international scalps – 10 of which came in his last two tests against India, including his only five wicket haul - 6-38 in 17 destructive over in Christchurch. 

Bartlett suffered through injury and accusations over his action. From all I have read he was never called for throwing at international level, though the doubt and mystique followed him throughout his career. It came to a head in his final international series and sounded the death knell for a career that had promised so much.

During Bartlett’s final series Indian allrounder Syed Abid Ali, in just his sixth test, took umbrage that the New Zealand quick, who he felt was a blatant chucker, had not been no-balled. The situation worsened in India’s second innings with Bartlett recording his best test bowling return to continue the Kiwi dominance and set up a New Zealand victory, though Abid Ali wasn’t one of his six scalps. What transpired next beggars belief. Abid Ali felt the most effective protest was to impersonate Bartlett's bowling action - he was promptly no-balled for throwing!  

Bartlett played just one more test, the last in the Indian series in Auckland – a heavy New Zealand loss, and his international career was over. He was as quick as anyone New Zealand has produced, and a tremendous asset to a side littered with medium pacers – as captain, John Reid wanted Bartlett in his side whenever he was fit.

When Bartlett arrived to coach junior cricketers in Central Districts during the 1990s I knew little of him – I was yet to collect a Wisden, and statistics and stories weren’t as readily at hand as they are now, in the digital age. I got snippets of his career from older coaches and books – the man himself spoke little of his international exploits. It was more than 10 years on before I understood the opportunity we really had.

Bartlett brought an attitude and a hard edge I had never encountered before, and it resonated. He spoke more of the mental side of cricket and what made batsmen worry. Bartlett wanted to see young men bowl quick and he taught an understanding of recognising a batsman’s weakness through his backlift or stance. He instilled cricketing lessons, not technical changes for the sake of aesthetics (or biometrics – those who were around in New Zealand Cricket in the 1990s will understand the reference). That was a rare trait in a coach at the time – in essence, it still is.

Many want to coach what they know or what “the book” says. It was refreshing to see a coach encourage pace - changes were made to help you become a better bowler, not just look technically correct.  It’s an attitude that would serve New Zealand Cricket well - people only remember a classical action if it leads to wickets.

Basin Reserve
Wellington’s Basin Reserve is a cricket ground as it should be – a throwback to when wide open expanses and atmosphere were the norm, and lifeless concrete jungles only existed in other countries. Its white picket fence and sole purpose international oval had become an endangered species, but finally New Zealand Cricket is realising that they are the best way forward – Seddon Park and the University Oval bear testament to that.

The Basin is a cricketing haven in the middle of New Zealand’s largest roundabout – an oasis amongst the hustle and bustle of Wellington commerce. There is little better than spending a day on the grass embankment watching cricket in its purest form while just down the road suits flock like drones to the CBD. One of my most vivid memories is of Wellington College prefects coming down the hill from the Mt. Victoria tunnel to send truant students, escaping the classroom for an alternate lesson, back to school.

The ground, and Wellington’s weather, adds a dimension that few cricket arenas can rival – not that players are unhappy for that.  The wind, and at times the bitter cold, presents a challenge that has been too much for many an international cricketer – it takes a special bowler to prevail at the Basin when the wind thrashes into your face as you run into it. Heavy bails are par for the course and bowlers lose their run with regularity – knocked over by the “breeze” in their delivery stride or unable to push into an “infamous” Wellington gust.

New Zealand’s short-lived Boxing Day experiment was a Basin fixture. Simon Doull hooped it everywhere in 1998 in a dominant New Zealand display against a sub-par India, but the 1999 West Indies encounter holds a dear place in my cricketing heart. My first opportunity to see a West Indian side in person, the opening two days were dominated by debutant Mathew Sinclair who struck a breath taking double hundred in front of a packed Basin Reserve crowd. 10,000 people watching a days’ cricket in my homeland is akin to the same number turning up to a test in Dubai. That the Boxing Day test died so quickly is a sad indictment on New Zealand cricket and it’s standing in the international game.

The Basin Reserve, now regrettably preceded by a sponsor’s name, is the only sporting ground in New Zealand registered with the Historic Places Trust – it’s a Kiwi cricketing icon. There is talk of a traffic bypass running alongside the ground, increasing the flow of heavy traffic and distorting the unrivalled atmosphere in the ground – leave it alone!

Blackwash
Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will understand the special place the West Indies hold in my heart – to have witnessed the two “blackwashes” must have been a sight to behold. The term may seem politically incorrect, it probably is, but it brutally demonstrates the power and authority the Calypso Kings showed in dismantling the English, not once but twice in consecutive series’. Previously the feat had been achieved only four times in a series of five tests or more – that Windies side sits in elevated company.
Another Calypso celebration (Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)

The original blackwash, in England in 1984, was the first time England had lost every match in a full (five match) Test series at home. Two tests were won by an innings - the closest result was a 172 run victory in the final test at The Oval after the West Indies were dismissed for 190 in their first innings. Clive Lloyd’s charges were dominant in every aspect - whenever the West Indies looked in danger, and it wasn’t often, one of their team stood up; everyone had his time in the sun.

Opener Gordon Greenidge was named Man of the Series – with Larry Gomes the pair struck nearly one thousand runs and averaged in excess of 80. A pair of centuries each and England were always on the back foot. The pace attack of Garner, Holding, Marshall and Baptiste kept them there, never allowing the England batsmen to press forward or score freely. They formed a fearful foursome - a constant barrage of menacing pace, broken only by the offspin of Roger Harper, who filled a void whenever his side needed him, which wasn’t often. Marshall and Garner’s 53 wickets cost them both a shade over 18 – Holding’s 15 scalps looked expensive at 22, even Harper’s 13 victims came at a price of just 21.

Conversely, Allan Lamb, with three centuries at nearly 43, was the only England batsmen to average over 35 – captain Gower managed just 19. Without Lamb’s 386 runs, the margin of defeat would have been substantially greater. With the ball Paul Allott was an England stand out with 14 wickets at 20, the others read like dominant batting averages – Agnew, 48.5; Botham, 35.10; while Cook, Willis and Pringle all wallowed on the other side of 50.

The return series in the Caribbean in 1985/6 was equally lopsided, both in the result and the attitude of the respective combatants. Lloyd have given way to Viv Richards as leader of the pack and he paid homage to the man by building on the dominance his predecessor had helped usher in. The only victory that looked remotely in doubt ended in a seven wicket victory, while the series included victory by an innings and two ten wicket wins.

Debutant Patrick Patterson set the tone for the series, named man of the match in the first test with a match return of 7-74 – quicks in the Windies seemed to simply roll off a cricketing production line. Garner and Man of the Series Marshall, so instrumental to victory in England, took 27 wickets apiece, averaging 16 and 18 respectively - all six West Indian wicket takers averaged less than 25.

John Emburey was England’s leading wicket taker, in conditions that unfairly favoured the quicks – England was on a hiding nothing but their seam attack should have done better. Thomas, Ellison, Foster and Botham all averaged over 40, whilst second spinner Phil Edmonds’ three scalps cost him nearly 87 apiece.

Things were no closer with the bat - three of the West Indies top order averaged over 50 for the series. Desmond Haynes, after a lean series in England, showed the way forward with 469 runs at 78 – even their poorest performer in the series, Larry Gomes, averaged nearly 32. Gower, with 37, was the only Englishman to average over 30 and struck the highest English score in the series, 90 - no England player managed a century.

Captain Richards added a telling exclamation mark in the final test at St. Johns striking a then record century off just 56 balls against an English side whose minds were already back in their homeland’s green and pleasant lands.

Even the harshest of English critics must have felt for David Gower, who suffered the ignominy of captaining his country in all 10 blackwash tests. 

Across both series, 200 England wickets fell in the 10 tests – England didn’t once have the opportunity to declare, such was the dominance of a rampant Windies side. More astonishing is that Marshall and Garner took 107 of those wickets between them!

Whilst I don’t often appreciate such one-sided affairs, to see the carnage would have brought a smile to the face of most outside the British Isles – for a self-confessed Windies tragic there would have been little to top it.

Blogs
My blog is cheaper than therapy and less confusing, like talk radio used to be before self-professed “social commentators” took to the airwaves and made it little more than a vehicle to inflate their flagging egos. I wanted an outlet for the cricketing arguments going on in my head – an advanced form of cricketing schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder – Donning the whites has given me that. Everyone has varying reasons for putting their thoughts online – a cricketing outlet, sharing a love of our great game, or the forlorn long shot of being “discovered” and making a healthy living travelling the world following cricketing superstars, staying in five star hotels and being waited on hand and foot – that’s the life of a cricket journalist, isn’t it?

The beauty of the plethora of cricketing blogs is that we all have a choice we can tailor – the selection is endless. I follow an eclectic lot, but if you’re looking for rare quality, Leg Side Filth is a must read – writing about blogging, in Wisden, is a fine endorsement.

Much of the preceding prose is from a piece I wrote after six months of blogging - Why blog, why not? If you’re thinking about having a go, do – it’s great fun. Let me know your favourite bloggers, I’m always keen for more to read. 

Blunt, Roger Charles
Until I began a series on New Zealand’s Wisden Cricketers of the Year, I knew very little of Roger Blunt - old books have their place, Blunt was a cricketing trailblazer. He began his first class career in 1917 as a leg-break bowler but quickly found his niche as a more proficient batsman. His 7953 runs, at a touch over 40, remained the highest career aggregate in New Zealand first-class cricket until it was surpassed by Bert Sutcliffe in 1953. He was named New Zealand’s first Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1928, two years before the Kiwis were awarded test status, on the back of their first tour to England in 1927.  Unfortunately he only played in 9 tests, pulling stumps on his career in 1934, 17 years after his first class debut for Canterbury. To read more on one of New Zealand’s cricketing pioneers, have a read of my Wisden COY profile.  


I will post Part 2 of B is for… in the next few days, covering topics as diverse as Bodyline, Brisbane 1985 and bunnies.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. I’ve only managed to get through two letters, but you can have a look at the plan for the other 24 – A-Z of cricket. If there are subjects you’d like to see covered, let me know. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.
Previous blogs in the A-Z of cricket:
 

3 comments:

  1. Brilliantly didactic as always! I feel like I have learned a whole lot of new stuff reading that one.

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    1. I learned a few new ones writing it - a few more in Part 2 as well. It's one of the best fringe benefits of writing longer pieces. I love learning more about our great game.

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  2. I liked this part number one, especially the way in which you wrote it and I am looking forward to reading the second part, fingers crossed to read it as soon as possible :)

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