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Dare to hope

By 22 January 2024Culture Etc, North&South

Culture Etc.

New Zealand vs Australia. 1st test match at the Gabba, Richard Hadlee appeals, 1985. Image: Photosport.

Dare To Hope

This Black Caps team have racked up achievements earlier generations could only dream of, but have yet to deliver the test-cricket result their fans crave most. Time to buckle in: the Australians are coming.


By John Newton

As every old-school cricket fan knows, these days we don’t see enough of the longest form of the game. This summer the Black Caps play just four tests. And South Africa, due here for two tests in February, have named a second-string side because the series clashes with their domestic Twenty20 competition. Even so, red-ball enthusiasts are starting to get excited. Because in late February and early March, at our two best venues, the Basin Reserve in Wellington and Christchurch’s Hagley Oval, we get the rare chance to try to take a test series off the Australians.

What a fabulous time it’s been for lovers of New Zealand cricket. In the last 10 years or so, beginning under Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum, and even more in the era of Gary Stead and Kane Williamson, the Black Caps have scaled heights that earlier generations could only dream of. By 2021, after four ICC finals in as many years, the Kiwis could fairly have claimed to be, if not the best, then certainly the best-performed side in the game. As well as winning the World Test Championship, and coming within a freak deflection and a scoring error of lifting the 2019 One Day World Cup at Lords, they have racked up away series victories against England, the West Indies and Pakistan, gone 17 tests at home undefeated (ending in 2022), and still haven’t lost a series at home since 2017.

Amidst all these fine results it may seem churlish to point to what’s missing. But if this wonderful group of players still owe us one thing, it’s a test series victory against the bullies from across the ditch. Since we found our test mojo a decade ago, we’ve played Australia eight times for seven losses and a draw. (It doesn’t help that the Aussies seem reluctant to play us: in the same 10-year period we’ve played India and England 12 times apiece.) Of players likely to feature this summer, only Kane Williamson and Tim Southee have ever experienced coming out on the right side, way back in 2011 at Bellerive Oval in Hobart. When Australia last toured here in 2015, Brendon McCullum’s side were well beaten. More disappointing still was our visit there in 2019. In Perth, in the series opener, Williamson lost the toss, debutant Lockie Ferguson broke down after 11 overs, and the Kiwis spent two days frying in the outfield and never recovered. A tour which started full of optimism — even the Aussie press were talking us up — ended in a humiliating whitewash. All three matches were lost by more than 200 runs.

Not that being crushed in Australia is anything new. My memory of this grisly ritual goes back exactly half a century, listening with my father to the magisterial tones of Lindsay Hassett. After walloping us in a one-off test 1946, the Aussies had refused to acknowledge us for almost three decades. But in the summer of 73-74 a strong New Zealand side led by Bevan Congdon toured and played three tests. The series began in the cauldron of the MCG, where hopes of a credible Kiwi showing lasted not quite as long Richard Hadlee’s first over. Australia won the toss and batted. Opener Keith Stackpole, a shot-maker in the Dave Warner mode, top-edged the sixth ball of the morning. The catch dollied up in the direction of point. From gully and cover two fielders converged, collided, and a brilliant start went begging. Who the two players were, let me tactfully fail to remember. But I’ve never forgotten the flush of despair, or my father’s glum comment about “boys on a man’s errand”. What followed was almost inevitable. Dropped twice more before he reached 50, ‘Stackie’ went on to make 122. The match was lost by an innings with a day to spare.

In Sydney in the second test the Kiwis were unlucky, in a strong position to win before the last day was lost to rain. The third, in Adelaide, was a lot more like Melbourne: a hundred for Rod Marsh and another innings defeat. When Australia came over here the following summer there was little cause for optimism. In our entire test history we had won just six matches; we hadn’t beaten anyone since 1969. But the second test at Lancaster Park defied all expectations. In a low-scoring tussle on a seaming wicket, where no other New Zealand player got past 50, a steely Glenn Turner produced a hundred in each innings. In context, it may well be the greatest performance ever by a Kiwi batsman. As a fourth-former ducking away from school, I don’t know how many sessions I saw, but I was there for the famous sledging match between Turner and Ian Chappell. The incident occurred during the tight final run chase. Just what was said remains in dispute, and I’ve listened to plenty of speculation. But what will always stay with me is the image of Turner advancing on the Australian skipper with his gloved hand cupped behind his ear, semaphoring, not just indignation, but his absolute refusal to be intimidated.

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It has always taken something extraordinary to bring the Australians to heel. Eden Park in 1982 would be the next occasion, when Bruce Edgar made a marathon 161 and Lance Cairns took the long handle to off-spinner Bruce Yardley. But it hasn’t happened often. Our seven successes stand out like lonely oases in 50 years of Australian dominance.

Briefly, however, in the mid-1980s, the balance shifted. Australia, under Allan Border, were rebuilding, while in Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe the New Zealand side boasted two of our all-time greats. The away series of 1985 will always be remembered for Hadlee’s astonishing performance: 33 wickets across the three tests, beginning with nine in the first innings at the Gabba. Twelve years into his test career, Hadlee was at the height of his powers. And though he was only 23, so too, arguably, was Crowe. As time went by, he seemed to over-think his game, putting away the horizontal bat strokes and the expansive cover drives. But the Crowe who took the Australians apart at the Gabba, on his way to 188, was an exhilarating stroke player whose batting set the tone almost as much as Hadlee’s bowling. For the first and only time we beat the Aussies by an innings. The second test on a turning wicket in Sydney ended in defeat, but in the decider at the WACA Hadlee took another 11 wickets and Crowe brought the Kiwis home in a tense fourth innings. Needless to say, it remains our only series win across the water.

The dose was repeated, though, on home soil the following year: a one-nil rubber with a win at Eden Park where John Bracewell took 10 for the match. The result was a fair reflection of New Zealand’s continuing dominance. This fine side then claimed a first series victory in England. Back in Australia in 1987, however, the going was more difficult. An average batting display at the Gabba saw New Zealand go down by nine wickets, and after a draw at the WACA we came into the Boxing Day test at the MCG playing catch-up.

The Melbourne test may be the most enthralling the two sides have ever contested. Certainly, from a Kiwi point of view, it’s the most painful. The first of two bitterly disputed decisions came after lunch on the first day. Australia had won the toss and put us in on a greenish strip. Midway through the second session Andrew Jones and John Wright had battled their way through to 119 for 1, when Jones feathered a leg glance from Craig McDermott. The ball struck the left glove of a diving Greg Dyer, who bobbled it, rolled, and came up with it in his right. The keeper looked confused, but the Australians appealed vociferously. Umpire Tony Crafter consulted his colleague at square leg, Dick French, and Jones was sent on his way. The replay from behind the wicket showed the ball rolling several inches along the grass (if you’re in the mood for Aussie-hating, look it up on YouTube). Dyer has always claimed that he believed he’d caught it. But his body language tells a different story. The more likely explanation — in this Kiwi fan’s opinion — is that as a newcomer to the side, and under the pressure of the moment, he didn’t have the nerve to tell his team mates not to claim it.