Monday, May 20, 2013

Cricket’s David and Goliath – Dempster’s dominance

Who better to use as a marker for New Zealand’s early efforts against England than Charles Stewart (Stewie) Dempster? Dempster was a talisman for early New Zealand cricket as they found their feet on the game’s top shelf. His short international career accompanied New Zealand’s entry into the international arena – that it ended three years later was a bitter blow to the Kiwi cause. 
 
This is a walk down memory lane, it’s not meant as an exhaustive list, not a detailed summary of Anglo-Kiwi battles through the ages – it’s more a celebration of New Zealand moments that live in my memory banks and a few of my Twitter cricket circle. Hence there is no mention of the 1932/33 MCC tour to New Zealand – the only New Zealand highlight being for those in the stands and on theMen in White or searching ESPNCricinfo. I’m not an anorak, statistics don’t roll off my tongue and the only “dates” I remember are those with cougars when I was young, impressionable and living overseas.
embankments in Christchurch and Auckland as Wally Hammond stroked 563 runs in his two test knocks. Not every series is covered, nor every player of note – if that’s what you want you’d be better served reading

Have a read of my introduction (Cricket’s David and Goliath - a lopsided history) - there is little that compares to New Zealand versus England battles for Kiwi cricket tragics.

History begins - tests wait
New Zealand first toured England in 1927 – they were yet to attain test status and New Zealand Cricket chose to pick players who had a long term future in international whites – a weaker, more youthful side was sent with the hope of grooming a number of youngsters for future success.

Over four months the bunch of rank amateurs competed on even terms with all but the best first class counties – they got the cricket education they sought and their determined efforts paved the way for New Zealand to be granted test status three years later. New Zealand played 38 matches (think about that for a minute and understand why players developed their games more fully on foreign tours than a short, haphazard New  Zealand provincial summer, 26 of them first class fixtures. They lost just five, won 13 and drew 20 – as much a reflection of the English “summer” as New Zealand’s inexperienced bowling line-up.

After starting the tour with two draws, the tourists lost the next three matches – that they lost only two further fixtures shows the vast improvement and quick learning of a group keen to grow their cricket nous.  Stewie Dempster and Roger Blunt both averaged in excess of 40, while Blunt sat second on the wicket takers list behind leg spin and googly bowler Bill Merritt who amassed 107 scalps – he was yet to celebrate his 19th birthday and had played just four first class matches in New Zealand. That six players finished with an aggregate in excess of 1,000 shows both the batting talent in the side and the length of the tour.
The "spaceship" hadn't landed in 1927 (courtesy of @kiwi_kali)

The first tentative steps onto cricket’s hallowed turf
The second match of that first tour saw the Kiwis battle the MCC at Lord’s in a three day match. All but the New Zealand skipper, Tom Lowry, were making their debut at the home of cricket. Cambridge-educated Lowry was no stranger to the slope having played there for the University, Somerset and the Gentlemen prior to the New Zealanders’ first match. That experience showed as he and Ces Dacre both struck centuries in a first innings total of 460 to take their side to a deserved lead against the Marylebone Cricket Club. Left three and a half hours to score an impossible 359 for victory, New Zealand powered their way to 224/4 in 55 overs, with Lowry making 63 not out, but were always going to fall short. The Kiwi side had made their mark and shown the locals they were more than capable – that they did it on a ground that sends shivers up the spine of the hardiest of cricketers is a tribute to their mix of a can-do Kiwi attitude and the impetuousness of youth.

A Kiwi in cricket’s “bible”
Roger Blunt blazed a trail for another eleven Kiwis – not the members of his 1927 playing squad but those who have followed in his footsteps in being afforded the honour as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year. The first Kiwi to be recognised by Wisden’s editor, Stewart Caine, Blunt was recognised on the back of New Zealand’s first tour to the British Isles in 1927, three years prior to their first test.

In 25 matches on tour the Durham-born 26 year old was the stand out player among a number of accomplished performers. He struck 1540 runs at 44 to top the Kiwi aggregates, including centuries in two of the final three matches on tour against Kent and H. D. G. Levenson-Gower’s XI during the Scarborough Festival. A further 11 scores of 50 or more illustrate his consistency though batting at the top of the order he would have hoped to have converted more of his starts. His 78 (or 77 depending on your source – I’ll put my faith in Men in White) wickets during the four month tour saw him second behind only Bill Merritt – the teenager ending in excess of 100 scalps and well clear of his leg spinning companion. That Blunt was to figure in only nine tests, making his test debut at 29, means his international record is not what it might have been had he been born a decade later.

I wrote a more detailed piece on all New Zealand’s Wisden Cricketers of the Year – have a fuller read about Blunt’s efforts as one of our country’s cricketing trailblazers.

New Zealand become the fifth test nation
England, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and now New Zealand – the MCC tour to our shores in 1929/30 saw New Zealand become the fifth nation to attain test status three years after their previous visit to the British Isles. As with the three nations who had preceded them in joining cricket’s exclusive club, New Zealand joined the fold against cricket’s then gatekeeper, England. England won an otherwise uneventful debut test in Christchurch by eight wickets. Of note though is that in a three day test match a rest day was taken after day one – and we all make fun of “strategic time-outs”...

After only just getting to three figures in each of their first test knocks, the Kiwi top order made amends in Wellington. Both Dempster and his opening partner, Jackie Mills, struck centuries on day one, Mills holding the honour of scoring New Zealand’s first century on debut – he will forever sit atop a prestigious list.

With days one and two of the third test lost to rain and England captain Harold Gilligan (who was given the leadership responsibilities after his brother Arthur was unable to tour due to illness) unwilling to extend the three day match to five to make up for lost time, both boards agreed to add a fourth test to conclude the tour in Auckland, such was the flexibility on overseas tours when the only time restraint was ensuring the team boarded the boat home – ships didn’t leave our shores for the British Isles every day, and it took a little more than the relatively short flight these days. 

Like the previous two tests, the fourth was drawn and New Zealand entered the test arena with a 1-0 series loss. Though against a weakened England side, as was the case for many years to follow, New Zealand had taken the first tentative steps into the international arena – given the lean years that followed the initial result should not be scoffed at.

Dempster, as in all three series he played against England, was a man apart – in just six innings he stroked 341 runs at a shade over 85. Blunt, so proficient with the bat in England three years earlier struggled with the blade though his nine English scalps at 19 lead the way for the Kiwi bowlers.

12 January, 1930
Contrary to popular belief it was once possible to be in two places at the same time – though why you’d choose to be in Christchurch and not Barbados is beyond me. Confused? So was I.

England began their first test in New Zealand on 10 January while they also took the field against the West Indies at Bridgetown on 11 January when the New Zealand-based combatants were enjoying a rest day. This, on 12 January, 1930 England officially took to the field against two test nations on two different continents, neither of them their own. They won easily in New Zealand while settling for a draw in the Caribbean. It is the only time two tours have ever been held concurrently in cricket, though something similar has been seen in rugby when in June 2006 the All Blacks toured Argentina as another squad battled Ireland at home (though the matches were still a week apart). Both New Zealand and the West Indies were new to the international arena and England held the lion’s share of the world’s cricketing cards.

21 February, 1930 saw two test matches involving the same nation start on the same day for the only time, though I imagine at least one nation would be keen to see it happen again if only to meet their “obligations” under the ICC’s Future Tours Programme.

On the board at the Home of Cricket
But for a comment from @abdunford the significance of an early tour match against the MCC in May 1931 would have been lost on me – thank you, sir. The view may be that the MCC side was a team of young men given an opportunity to prove their worth and though wholly amateur only two of the side hadn’t played test cricket for their country. Much of the first two days was lost to the late spring weather but New Zealand’s positive display with the willow allowed them to declare after passing 300 – an unbeaten 101 from captain Tom Lowry accentuating a strong effort.

With the MCC not starting their first innings until the final morning, a fourth draw on tour looked the likely outcome – a pair of Cantabrians had other plans. Medium-pacer Ian Cromb moved the ball both ways to snare 6/46 before leg spinner Bill Merritt, outstanding on tour in 1927, ran through the MCC following-on capturing 7/28 in nine inspired overs. They took just 18.1 overs to run through the MCC for a paltry 48 and claim New Zealand’s first victory at Lord’s by an innings and 122 runs. It would be 68 years before New Zealand could repeat the dose in a test match on the hallowed turf.

Itineraries weren’t always decided by TV executives
During New Zealand’s return tour to England in 1931 two additional tests were added to the itinerary in place of scheduled first class fixtures against Surrey and Lancashire – a decision unthinkable in today’s environment where television contracts and media commitments allow for all the flexibility of Shane Bond’s brittle spine.

The one-off test was expanded to a three test series after creditable efforts at both Lord’s and in the early tour fixtures – many mock English cricket administration but like many nations in those early days, New Zealand was afforded opportunities by the MCC that went beyond their obligations to cricketing competition. England’s view of the New Zealand strength were justified with the expanded series finishing in a hard fought 1-0 win to England, though the first two days of the final test were lost to the English summer weather and the only Kiwi who donned the pads was Wellington ‘keeper Ken James. Dempster was again the stand out in the tests including a fine 120, though Curly Page will be forever a part of Lord’s history, his 104 sitting alongside his more accomplished companion on the honours’ board. Roger Blunt fell just four runs short of making the double a trio, bowled by England leggie Walter Robbins for 96.

Stewie Dempster – a man apart
Named as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year in 1932, sadly Dempster only played test cricket between 1930 and 1933, almost wholly against the English.

Dempster faced the first ball in New Zealand’s test cricket history from England’s Stan Nichols and for the next three years was at the centre of the New Zealand batting efforts. New Zealand’s first great batsmen, had he played more he may well have held that lofty spot indefinitely. He began and ended his international career against England – 11 and 25 on test debut may not have signalled the riches that followed but by the time he signed off with 83 not out in his final test at Auckland just three years later, no one was left in any doubt as to the depth of his talent. His retirement from the international game at just 29 robbed many in this country, and abroad, of the opportunity to marvel at his remarkable ability to wield the willow. He generally opened for New Zealand though at county level he preferred to bat at four after settling in Leicester.

In just 10 tests Dempster compiled an average bettered only by the Don. He has the highest average against England by a New Zealander - his 619 runs at 88.42 in 8 tests are unlikely to ever be bettered. His 136 in New Zealand’s second test at home in 1930 was the burgeoning nations first test century, a feat matched by scoring the first century abroad a little over a year later. After falling for 53 in the first innings of New Zealand’s test debut at Lord’s, he fittingly became the first New Zealand name on the Honours Board at the home of cricket – his 120 ensuring New Zealand left the hallowed turf of Lord’s with a thoroughly deserved draw.

Nothing I write would do justice to the deeds of one of New Zealand’s finest batsmen including my more detailed summary as New Zealand’s second Wisden Cricketer of the Year.


If there are errors in my stats or reference, let me know – this blog is primarily for me to develop a stronger understanding of where New Zealand cricket has come from, and the players who have shaped our great game.

Post a comment below or send me a tweet @aotearoaxi. I’ll write about other eras during, and likely after, the tour though late night starts during the tests aren’t conducive to lucidity in prose.

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