Sunday, August 15, 2021

“McKenzie’s Over of Agony at Folkestone”

 Kent v Leicestershire, 40 overs, Folkestone, 19 July 1971

In 1971, the Sunday League was in its third season, and well-established. On 18 July there were 18,000 at Headingley for the Roses Match. In The Times, John Woodcock noted that the New Road crowd was the largest since Worcestershire last won the Championship six years earlier. At Glastonbury, there were record receipts for a Somerset home game, for the second week in a row.

I was at the Cheriton Road Ground in Folkestone, which was also packed out. Outside St Lawrence, Folkestone was the best of all the Kent grounds in terms of spectator accommodation. A stand about ten rows deep embraced half of its circumference, not quite the Great Southern Stand at the MCG, but a step up from Maidstone’s planks balanced (or not) on logs.

All of us there that day saw something that none of us have seen since, for which we should all be grateful. Graham McKenzie of Leicestershire and Australia bowled eight no-balls in one over, and kept bowling them even when he cut his run-up down to three paces.

Leicestershire had batted first and made 168 for nine, a better score in 40 overs than it will appear to be to the modern spectator, but a little disappointing given that Barry Dudleston (unaware of the presence of a future remedial skiing student in the crowd) and Mick Norman put on 49 for the first wicket. Inevitably, it was Derek Underwood who reined them in, with four for 26. Two of the four were tailenders, which suggests that Underwood bowled at the death (as we didn’t say then), which was most unusual. Bob Woolmer was as effective, with two for 22. Woolmer was one of the best one-day bowlers around, and it was in that capacity that he was first picked for England the following season.

None of the home crowd would have regarded victory as inevitable. For a start, Graham McKenzie was opening the bowling for the opposition.

McKenzie is not much mentioned when the great Australian fast bowlers are discussed, which is an omission. He opened the bowling with Alan Davidson at the start of his career, and with Dennis Lillee at the end. At that time he had 246 test wickets, two short of Richie Benaud’s then record. He was not to play test cricket again, but he would have had the record had the wickets he took against the World XI in the following Australian season counted.

Glimpses of McKenzie’s run up on You Tube are surprisingly fleeting, but there is enough to be reminded that it was a rolling action, with none of the beauty of Lillee’s approach nor the menace of Thomson’s. I have trying to work out who it reminds me of. Were it not for the threat of a letter from McKenzie’s legal representatives, I might suggest Darren Stevens.

He wasn’t out-and-out fast, but was quick enough. Gideon Haigh writes that “when stirred he possessed a wicked bouncer”. He would extract what help the pitch could give him like a Tudor torturer seeking their preferred version of the truth.

All of which makes what happened that day on the Kent coast one of the strangest things that I have ever seen on a cricket field. Dick Streeton was there for The Times. I have borrowed the headline on his report as my title.

People forget about the 15-yard restriction to the bowler’s run up in the Sunday League, but it existed for most of the duration of the 40-over competition, showing that fixing the rules so that the game fits a TV slot is not a new thing.

The limit caused surprisingly few problems; most bowlers adjusted remarkably well. Mike Procter managed to summarise most of the quirks of his 30-yard charge to the crease; Bob Willis swayed out and in again. JSE Price of Middlesex, who had a run up of a man who was not very good at orienteering, extracted maximum value from the fact that a straight line marked the 15 yards, running parallel to it for some of the way before turning 90 degrees to port.

Many will not understand the talk about the front-foot law, and will not know that no-balls have been defined in any other way than part of the front foot having to be behind the popping crease. There is a clue in that the line on which the stumps are pitched is the bowling crease, for that was the line that the old law demanded that the back foot stay behind. Over the years, some bowlers developed the art of “dragging” the back foot, allowing the ball to be delivered closer to the batsman than the law intended, which is why it changed. The transition from back to front foot was messy. Some countries operated under one law, some under the other. In England in 1963, the front-foot law was used in the Championship while the back-foot was applied in test matches. The change became accepted, though Fred Trueman complained about it to his dying day.

I have been reading about Simone Biles, a great gymnast who had to withdraw from most of her Olympic events because of an attack of the twisties, the equivalent of the golfer’s or slow left-armer’s yips, but more frightening as the sufferer may be upside down in mid-air when they strike. What afflicted McKenzie that day seems to have been something similar; a sudden, unexplained inability to perform an action at which he had previously executed with skill and expertise. As far as I am aware, it was a one off, the demons departing almost as soon as they arrived.

The striking thing about Streeton’s report is that nobody offered McKenzie any support; the sight of Illingworth taking up a position in the covers would simply have indicated to the bowler how desperate things had become.

The only time I have seen anything similar was on the television coverage of an ODI between New Zealand and Australia in Auckland in 2005. Daryl Tuffey began the game with four no-balls. Four wides followed as he struggled to complete the over, but he was never reduced to three paces as McKenzie was.

Kent, mostly Denness, took 31 from the over. It should be remembered that in those days no extra was recorded from a no-ball if runs were accrued in another way; it would have been more under contemporary laws (as many as five of the no balls were not scored from because would not have bothered to take singles as they had the extra already). Victory came with 14 overs to spare for the loss of only Dave Nicholls.

A strange day.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

1982: A War, a Minister and a wait for Chris Tavaré to get off the mark

Continuing the (very) occasional series remembering Lord’s finals at which I was present.

It was a funny year. On 2 April I was revived from the anaesthetic after a lengthy operation in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol to be told that the country was at war with Argentina. For almost a day I believed this to be a delusion brought about by the power of the drugs, but no. The following few months were like living in a lost work by Gilbert and Sullivan. I have recently finished Dominic Sandbrook’s Who Dares Wins, an 800-page reliving of the three years between Mrs Thatcher’s victories at the polls and in the South Atlantic. Just as with Seasons in the Sun, Sandbrook’s history of the previous five years, the unrelenting picture of misery and economic buffoonery that he presents is in contrast with what the young people these days would call my lived experience.  On the whole, these were very good years for me, not least because they were cricket seasons (sometimes) in the sun. 

My spectating summer was delayed by a day due to an encounter with one of Mrs Thatcher’s ministers, William Waldegrave. As MP for Bristol West, he agreed to spend an hour of so of Saturday afternoon talking to a group of school students as part of an introduction to politics course that I ran as part of my postgraduate teacher training. Waldegrave was friendly and engaging, though I became alarmed when he opened his ministerial case and spread a pile of papers, each of which was stamped “Falklands: confidential”, across the floor of our student flat. When I expressed concern he said “Don’t worry, they wouldn’t tell me anything significant. These are all three weeks out-of-date and copied straight out of the Daily Telegraph”. I developed a level of respect for William Waldegrave that day (though not enough to ever vote for him). I enjoyed his memoirs A Different Kind of Weather, particularly the opening paragraph of the chapter on the poll tax, surely the most self-depreciating of any in the genre—

Local government finance is, famously, the most boring and complicated subject in all of public life. The threat of a chapter on it is a serious threat indeed. But my triumph was this, it must be remembered: I made this most tedious of subjects so interesting that it became the cause of widespread riots up and down the land and, one cause of the defeat of a great Prime Minister. This is how I did it.

The following day I went to the County Ground in Bristol for the first time that season, for the best innings I ever saw in the Sunday League. Middlesex were 51 for six when Phil Edmonds joined Clive Radley. They put on 90 as Radley pushed, glanced, nudged, nurdled and contemplated Middlesex to 184 and himself to a century. The home side fell 20 short. Radley was a masterly one-day batsmen, capable of conjuring runs out of nothing, as if he had snuck into the scoreboard and added 50 to the total while nobody was looking. When we get to 1986 in this series on one-day finals (if any of us live that long) we will discover how he denied Kent a trophy.   

It was odd watching John Shepherd, on Sunday debut for Gloucestershire, playing for someone other than Kent. 

With the world of work hurtling towards me like the asteroid that accounted for the dinosaurs, I made full use of my student railcard. Over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend it was Taunton on Saturday and Monday, with a Sunday game at Worcester (yes, Kent were sent on a five-hour round trip up the M5 on one of the busiest weekends of the year in the middle of a Championship game).

In Somerset, there were two centuries that were, to say the least, contrasting. I need say only that they were made by Viv Richards and Chris Tavaré for the reader to infer the nature of the difference. I have written often enough in these columns about the two Tavarés, the carefree strokemaker of Kent, and the survivalist who played for England. Here, the latter bled into the former. He was opening the batting for the national team the following week, so was getting into the mood, though he did hit Vic Marks into the Tone late in the innings. A couple of months later I saw Tavaré take 67 minutes to get off the mark in the Lord’s test against Pakistan (and enjoyed every one of them).

I went to all three days of Kent’s Championship match at Lord’s. Alan Ross was there for The Times, but it was not an occasion for poetry. His report on the second day began “As entertainment, yesterday’s play was pretty much a dead duck”.

Kent squandered a lot of talent in the eighties, none more than Laurie Potter’s. In this game he made a century in the first innings and fifty in the second, the latter described by Ross as “another brawny effort”. Ross described Potter, who had spent the bulk of his childhood in Australia (he captained both Australia and England under-19s), as “Swarthy and with a moustache in the old fashioned manner—one of Ned Kelly’s gang”. Nothing seemed more certain than that Potter would score many more centuries, for Kent and England, and that he would captain both. But there were only seven more first-class hundreds and he spent most of his career as a spin-bowling all-rounder for Leicestershire. 

The Championship match was interrupted by a Sunday League game, quite the most unusual I ever saw. Kent batted first, disastrously it seemed. The first boundary did not come until the 35th over. Graham Johnson top scored with 29 in 28 overs. Only a bit of eyes-shut hitting from Graham Dilley and a ninth-wicket partnership of 22 with Chris Penn took the total to 119 all out in the 39th over.

Yet the Middlesex innings quickly became one of the most gripping that I have seen, with Brearley, Radley and Barlow all gone: seven for three. From that point on, every run was acquired with the difficulty of extracting diamonds from the deepest mine. The Kent bowlers gave nothing; both Ellison and Underwood conceded only 14 from their eight overs. Colin Cook and John Emburey put on 49 for the fifth wicket, but so slowly that they fell well behind the required rate of just three an over. 

Eleven were needed from the last over, bowled by Dilley. Paul Downton brought the urgency and deftness of placement that had been missing so far, and got two from each of the first four deliveries. Up in the Warner Stand, I remember that the tension, which had been ratcheting up for two hours, became unbearable. Three were needed from two balls (points shared for a tie). Downton was run out with no addition from the fifth, so Cook faced the last.  Peter Marson described for The Times what ensued.

Cook drove towards cover and he and Cowans set off like Greyhounds [sic].  Alas, they managed only one run, for as Cook turned he was well-beaten by Ellison’s throw.

So, a most unlikely one-run victory for Kent. I am told by Wisden that these two games were the last that Asif Iqbal played for Kent. He was captain, but stood down to allow Eldine Baptiste to take the overseas place, and to place Tavaré and Chris Cowdrey in an uncomfortable head-to-head leadership trial. Asif never got the send off he deserved, which should have been a full St Lawrence standing to cheer him all the way out and back. If one mental image sums up my early years of cricket it is Asif dancing down the pitch, then sprinting a quick second at a pace that had his teammates gasping. 

It was the last year I was able to attend every day of Maidstone week. Malcolm Marshall took ten in the game to give Hampshire a win by 45 runs in the last hour. Bob Woolmer got one from Marshall in the face. The crack of leather on cheekbone was heard right around the boundary. In the other game, it was Potter’s unbeaten 90 that saved Kent from defeat by Surrey after being behind by 123 on first innings, this a few weeks before that maiden hundred at Lord’s. In the Sunday game, Gehan Mendis made a century and Paul Parker square cut a six into the press box as Sussex won easily. 

Graham Gooch dominated Canterbury week. He made 303 in three innings. A six he hit in the Sunday game was one of the biggest I have seen at St Lawrence. A casual flick off the pads sent the ball over the terrace, bouncing off cars and almost making it to the Old Dover Road. 

The discerning reader will have noticed, in this piece about the one-day finals of 1982 there has been no mention of one-day finals. This is because both games were very dull, two of the three worst of the 26 Lord’s finals I saw. The only match I watched in either of the two knock-out competitions was the 55-over quarter-final in which Kent were, as had become traditional, beaten by Somerset. 

The Kent scorecard is as strange as you will see. A total of 203 contained only two scores (plus extras) bigger than single figures. It was Neil Taylor’s first season as a first-team regular, a position he was to hold for more than a decade. No Kent player was more underrated. He stands twelfth on Kent’s first-class runscorer list, at a similar average to the two just above him, Mark Benson and Brian Luckhurst (as ever, we note that Luckhurst played in the era of uncovered pitches, which will have depressed his figures). Taylor was Luckhurst’s natural successor, less showy than some lower in the order, but more dependable. In an era when selection for the national side appeared to be a trial for the later appearance of the National Lottery, Taylor was unlucky not to pick up a few caps. Some players no better than him did so.

This day, he was unperturbed as Kent’s top order, as Alan Ross told readers of The Times, “seemed bent on self-destruction”. The poet was impressed by the young opener一

Taylor has negligible backlift, but his judgment of length and timing are such that the ball, played very late, fair hums to the boundary. 

The fifth-wicket partnership of 119 with Chris Cowdrey looked likely to take Kent to a fair total, but Garner and Botham blew away the tail, the last six wickets falling for 34. Taylor finished on 121, the same score that he had made against Sussex in the final group game, again undeterred by the sound of wickets crashing around him. Underwood’s three not out dragged Kent to 203, which was almost, but not quite, enough. 

With Richards going early, leg-before to Kevin Jarvis, Rose and Roebuck used the contingency given them by a comparatively low target to exercise caution. They played Underwood out; the Legend went for only 21 from 11 overs, but took no wickets. Botham’s measured innings brought about the required acceleration. Ross reports that he was “hitting boundaries left-handed”, which was his way of describing the reverse sweep. I thought that these were off Underwood, but this could not have been so; it must have been from Graham Johnson, who bowled three expensive overs. 

We can put it off no longer. Somerset reached Lord’s for the fourth time in five years, where they faced Nottinghamshire, at their first Lord’s final. Put in by Brian Rose, they were like tourists in a new city holding the map upside down. Again, the memory misleads. It tells me that, as a means of distracting ourselves from the torpor before us, spontaneous games of I-Spy began, that classes in languages, nuclear physics and rustic crafts broke out and that busloads of counsellors were sent in by the Samaritans, just in time. This may not be the literal truth, but it conveys the general tenor of the occasion. 

Of course, what I was hoping for was another Viv Richards Lord’s century, but a target of 131 provided no scope for that to happen. The great man did make it to fifty, with what Wisden called “a carefree cameo”, and had the decency to finish the game just after five, so we could be at the pubs when they opened.

The September final was from the same template. This time it was Warwickshire trying and failing to get on the right bus after being put in. That the highlight of the innings was a batting partnership that involved RGD Willis tells you most of what you need to know. He and Asif Din put on 22 for the last wicket to take Warwickshire to 158, after Din and Gladstone Small contributed an admirable but unenervating 62 for the ninth, at a rate that would have triggered a slow handclap at a funeral.

Alan Butcher led Surrey home with an unbeaten 86. It was good that Butcher had his day of triumph; three years earlier he had been the subject of the cruel and unusual punishment of having his potential as a test cricketer judged on the basis of one appearance in the final test of the summer. He made 14 and 20 and was never picked again. The man-of-the-match award went to left-arm seamer David “Teddy” Thomas for his three wickets. It was Surrey’s fourth Lord’s final appearance in as many years, but their first win; it would require a very hard heart indeed not to feel some pleasure for them. 



Saturday, April 17, 2021

The End of the New Zealand Season

New Zealand v Bangladesh, third ODI (of three), Basin Reserve, 26 March 2021

Wellington v Northern Districts, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 27–30 March 2021

The Bangladeshis have been here, the sixth and final international opponents to visit New Zealand this season (including the English and Australian women). To the pleasure of the capital’s cricket fans, their visit here was to the Basin Reserve rather than the Cake Tin. It was only the fourth ODI at the Basin since I moved to Wellington in 2006. The authorities are reluctant to shift short-form fixtures away from the stadium, perhaps because it would be tacit acceptance that the multi-sport concept behind it was flawed. Usually, it occurs only when there is a clash of events, but this time it seems to have been accepted that the crowd likely to be attracted to the fixture would look lost at the bigger venue. 

Bangladesh have a 100% loss record for international matches in New Zealand, and had maintained that in the first two games in the three-match ODI series. But we in Wellington look forward to their visits, as we so enjoyed the test match here in 2017, which had some brilliant cricket and a finish in the final session of the fifth day.

Regular readers will know that recent Basin Reserve pitches have varied wildly in their character. Early on in the new Zealand innings the difficulty that batsmen had in timing the ball suggested that this one was towards the bowler-friendly end of the spectrum. 

New Zealand won the toss and batted. Henry Nicholls, heaving like a ship in a typhoon, was dropped off a diving chance to keeper Mushfiqur Rahim, only to be caught in the gully two balls later. Something similar happened to Ross Taylor, first dropped, then caught, this time by the keeper, at the end of the same over. Rarely for him, Taylor is going through a bit of a dip in form. Is this age casting its long shadow? He wants to go through to the next 50-over World Cup, and has the botox of class with which to ward off the calendar’s attack. In the meantime, he has been impressive in the commentary box during the T20s.

Guptill and Latham, both in good form, were also out to mistimed shots, which made it hard to judge what an adequate score would be. At 120 for four from 23 overs it could have gone either way; that the final total was as high as 318 was down to an innings of some brilliance by Devon Conway.

Since he came to Wellington from South Africa in 2017, these columns have brought to readers’ attention his international class. This has required no special insight nor superior analytical ability; the weight of runs he has scored are evidence enough. Here, there were shots off the back foot and the front foot, on the offside and the legside, played with a precision of placement that made boundary fielders look as if they had weights strapped to their legs. 

My favourite shot was the straight drive he played early on…or maybe the late cut in his 40s between two fielders so close they might have danced…or perhaps the successive drives through the offside after he had reached his century…or even one of the other of the 17 boundaries he hit, each of which might have been hallmarked.

Conway has not yet played test cricket, but must do so in England. There has been some debate about where he will fit in. The middle order of Williamson, Taylor, Nicholls and Watling, followed by an all-rounder, is well-established. As a practised No 3, opener seems the best option for him, which would be tough on Tom Blundell, who averages just under 40 from ten tests, most of them at the top of the order, but it is a characteristic of a successful team that what was once good enough becomes no longer so. What is clear is that Devon Conway is too good to leave out. On both his entry and exit from the field Conway was hailed like the local hero he has become.

Conway was well-supported by Daryl Mitchell in a partnership of 159. Mitchell was 83 at the start of the fiftieth over, a century improbable, but three fours off Mustafizur’s first three balls, the last a no-ball, brought it within reach. A two and a single moved Mitchell to 98, but left him at the non-striker’s end with two balls left. It looked as if Santner had found the cover boundary with the next, but never has a home batsmen being denied a four been more warmly received; they ran three to give Mitchell one chance. A better throw would have run him out, but he scrambled the second and reached his maiden international hundred, the 21 accrued from the over apparently putting the total beyond Bangladesh’s aspirations. Only towards the end of the reply, when Mahmud Ulluh started hitting out, was a serious attempt made to score at the required rate, but it was far too late. New Zealand won by 164 runs.

The following day a select spectating elite returned to the Basin for the final home Plunket Shield fixture, against Northern Districts. As usual, the severe green of the pitch suggested that the groundsman had been under the impression that he was preparing a surface for snooker rather than cricket. It has been some time since a toss-winning captain chose to bat first here in a first-class game, and Northern Districts’ skipper Joe Carter was not going to buck the trend. But, as is usual these days, the pitch was like a fierce-looking guard dog that, upon being offered a chocolate, rolls over to have its tummy rubbed.

Anybody entering the ground during the 15th over with Wellington 40 without loss would have thought that they missed nothing the least bit out of the ordinary. Yet I have never seen anything like it before in the first hour of a first-class game. 

Twenty-four of those runs came in sixes, all pulls by Rachin Ravindra. I have written about 21-year-old Ravindra’s rich promise before. This was his first game for a couple of months after sustaining a shoulder injury in the T20, so peppering the bank was just working his way of working himself back in. The shots, perfectly executed, were impressive enough, but the best thing was that these were the only attacking shots he attempted in that first hour. Great shot selection, technical excellence, the audacity to go through with them and the mental discipline not to get carried away and try it too often all wrapped up in one young opener. 

None of the sixes came off Neil Wagner. An odd fact about contemporary New Zealand cricket is that Wagner has never played for the national team in either of the shorter forms, which is why he was able to be in the Northern Districts line-up here. One can understand why, sort of. He functions only when set to “attack” and asking him to throttle back to the containing mode required in the limited-overs game would be like recruiting Genghis Khan for a UN peacekeeping mission. 

Here, at first it appeared that Wagner had signed up with Bouncers Anonymous as, unusually, he forsook his natural length, located close to his toecaps, for the uncharted waters in the third of the pitch nearest to the batsman. There were signs that he was about to fall off the wagon—a fielder sent three-quarters of the way to the square-leg boundary—but not until the twelfth over did he go round the wicket to take his seat at the short-pitched bar. Even then, it was only to Georgeson; there was no greater compliment to Ravindra than Wagner’s reluctance to give him further opportunities to smite sixes.

Towards the end of the day Wagner struck Troy Johnson on the pad. The appeal was a theatrical masterpiece, so perfectly constructed as a three-act drama that halfway through I instinctively looked for an usherette from whom to buy a vanilla tub. 

He drew on some of the finest dramatic oeuvres, starting with the great tragic actors. Then a pirouette and a backwards progress down the pitch en pointe brought to mind Nureyev as Romeo, before a finale on one knee, arms spread wide in beseechment was Al Jolson reincarnate. All of us would have walked a million miles for one of Wagner’s smiles except the umpire, who ruled it not out.  

The context for Wagner’s performance here was a dead game (the Plunket Shield having been sealed by Canterbury before it began), and he was certain of his place for the forthcoming tour to England, so had nothing to prove. Yet his analysis for the innings was 24-7-34-1. He could not have tried harder. Neil Wagner is the most estimable of cricketers. 

Ravindra joins Wagner in the tour party. He went on to 138, first out with the score on 226. Blundell also made a hundred. Long-term, his international future may be as BJ Watling’s successor as keeper. Northern Districts had reached 97 for four in reply to Wellington’s 414 for four declared at the end of the second day, only rain to wash away the final two days.

So ended the New Zealand season. It has been a good one. The fixture list worked well for me, enabling me to see more Plunket Shield and domestic 50-over cricket than I have for a few years. There was a good test match, and I enjoyed the T20 competition more than before, especially the women. That, I think, was down to an appreciation that simply being at the cricket was a privilege in our world.

My mother, who more than half a century ago was so willing to foster a young boy’s unexpected fascination with cricket, was one of those taken by Covid as the Kent variation ravaged the county, three days after my aunt succumbed to it. It will be some time before I’m next at St Lawrence (if ever, I sometimes think) so it has been a real treat, this week, to watch county cricket on YouTube. The sight of Darren Stevens sauntering in with the new ball proved that the world is not turned completely upside down. 

I hope that those whose reports and reflections on county cricket and its players I so enjoy, and anybody else who knows the pleasure of a day at the cricket, have the sun shine on them this English summer.



Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Pitches and sixes

It only occurred to me the other day that I was among those present when Kent fans were last able to watch their team play. It was a disappointing day on which to see cricket at St Lawrence for the first time in three years. The rain that ended it early did not relent sufficiently for play to resume over the following three days. As the faithful few made their way home that afternoon, none could have imagined what was to follow, or that it would be so very long before almost everybody would again be able to celebrate again the ritual of going to the cricket.

I have had two full New Zealand seasons as a spectator since then, and am thankful for it every time I walk through the gates at the Basin Reserve. Covid-19 finally cost me a day a couple of weeks ago, when New Zealand upped its alert levels after a small number of community cases appeared in Auckland, meaning that a domestic one-day game at the Basin was played behind closed doors (once more, New Zealand’s strong response has eliminated Covid in the community, and restrictions were soon lifted). This piece is drawn from three domestic one-day matches that were open to spectators, a double-header of international T20s, and games from several continents on TV.

The New Zealand domestic season is, like those in most jurisdictions, structured with the T20 at the heart of summer, the 50-over and first-class competitions in orbit around it. The longer one-day form has an odd format this season. All six teams play each other twice, with both games at the same venue with a day between them, presumably a cheaper option.

So Wellington played their first six games away from home before Christmas (Scorecards reported on their contest with Central Districts in Palmerston North) and now had four at the Basin, the first pair against Northern Districts, the second versus Otago. All featured some terrific cricket.

On both weekends, the pair of matches was played on the same pitch. That against ND found a near-perfect balance between bat and ball, while the one for Otago was an instrument of torture for the bowlers. I’d call only the former a good pitch.

Speaking of pitches, the India v England test series was on at this time, causing a spike in the sales of smelling salts across England to revive the cricket aficionados on whom the sight of a ball turning on the first day had the same effect as that of a bare calf on a Victorian debutante. The strip produced at Ahmedabad’s (ridiculously oversized) stadium for the third test was particularly provocative. Clearly, the scales measuring the balance between bat and ball had a heavy thumb placed on them in the bowlers’ favour, but it was nowhere near as bad as much of the comment from the UK suggested.

I now pause to don my smoking jacket, clench my pipe above a firmly set jaw and say “gather round, my young friends, as I speak of uncovered pitches in the time of Underwood”. The thing with those soggy pitches was not that they turned, though they did, copiously. The real danger lay in how the ball would randomly rear up or shoot through. There was little or none of this in Ahmedabad, the main issue being whether the ball would turn or not. Michael Atherton, among whose many qualities as a writer is a sense of perspective, wrote a series of pieces about the pitch. He talked about the effects of DRS in limiting the batsmen’s options, and how their priority should be protecting the stumps rather than playing the ball, thus closing the chasms evident between some English bats and pads. We would all agree that it would help not to take points off Somerset, or anybody else, for producing pitches on which batsmen learn to play spin.

The Basin strip for the Northern Districts games was not spiteful, just a bit shady, the sort of pitch that might try to sell you a cheap bottle of whisky or some nylons. Yet it produced a splendid game of cricket that defied prediction from first ball to last.

At 90 for one after 20 overs, Northern Districts seemed set for a routine 270-plus, but the wickets started fall, first to the spinners then the seamers, mistimed shots disclosing the pitch’s duplicitous character. ND struggled to 205, thanks to Colin de Grandhomme’s typically low-exercise approach to batting—32 of 43 in boundaries—and some late-order nudging.

When Wellington were 24 for four in reply, ND’s 205 looked more than enough, but Troy Johnson and Fraser Colson batted for 23 overs with full adherence to the health and safety manual, but just fast enough to give the later batsmen a margin. Every time it looked as if Wellington were ahead, a wicket would fall, until when the ninth went five short of the target with two overs left. The build up in tension in these tight, lower-scoring 50-over games is, at its best, Shakesperian. I heard recently some commentators in Australia, where hyping is habit, say that it seemed that almost every game in the Big Bash was a tight finish. If so, that merely reduces the outstanding to the ordinary. Here, Colson finished it with a leg glance to the boundary with nine balls remaining.

The second game between these two teams, played on the same pitch two days later, followed a similar pattern, but with Wellington batting first. Two down for 115 became 188 all out. Of the last seven batsmen, only Younghusband reached double figures. This time it was Bracewell who batted through, unbeaten for 64 at the end.

At 91 for three in the 18th, an ND victory should have been a formality, but four wickets fell for 23, and we began gnawing on what was left of our fingernails. With 11 overs left, 48 were needed, but with only two wickets remaining. Henry [sic] Cooper and Joe Walker did well to survive through the next nine overs, but could not maintain the required rate, leaving them with 18 to get from the last two overs.

Troy Johnson took over the Wellington captaincy for the second half of the 50-over season, impressively so. His choice of Bhula’s occasional slow left-arm for two of the three final overs made Wellington supporters jittery, but we need not have worried. The bowler held his nerve and both Cooper and Walker were caught in the deep in the 49th over. We had five days to get our pulse rates back down for the visit of Otago.

The action now moved to the eastern side of the block, which for the bowlers was a change of sentence from community service to a term in the gulag. Over the two matches, 1,454 runs were scored at an average cost of just under 50 a wicket.

As might be expected, Finn Allen got Wellington off to a sprint start. Only six of his 46 from 21 balls were not from boundaries. Nobody got a century, but there were three half-centuries for a total of 340, doubted by nobody among the home supporters to be a match-winning score.

It quickly became evident that we were wrong. With 20 overs gone, Otago needed 230 off 30 with all wickets intact. In the T20 era, on this pitch, that made them favourites. Four wickets were lost, but each time the new batsman took over without any impact on the scoring rate. Though the winning run was not hit until the first ball of the 50th over, there was never the level of tension that either of the ND games had induced. It as the biggest successful run chase that I have seen as a spectator.

The brief Covid restrictions meant that the second game against our southern visitors was played in camera. I followed on the live video feed from one fixed view that shows only the pitch. I invented a new game: Was That Six?, where the viewer has to judge whether a six has been hit based on the shot played and the trajectory of the ball as it left the bat. There were 35 in total, so a guess that it would be six was likely to be correct.

Eleven of them were struck by Finn Allen, who consolidated his reputation as a thunderous striker of the ball . He made 128 from 59 balls, reaching his century from 50. It seems that the evidence of the fixed camera was enough to impress overseas audiences, as contracts in the IPL and with Lancashire for the T20 have followed.

Even if I had been there, Allen’s effort would not have become my fastest spectating century. That notable record remains Mark Ealham’s, for his 44-ball innings in the Sunday League against Derbyshire at Mote Park in 1995. I have never seen more ferocious batting (though the latter section of Martin Guptill’s 2015 World Cup quarter-final double century was its equal). Dominic Cork took a fearful pounding. Ealham came in with only 14 overs left and Kent in trouble. Without his innings, the Sunday League would not have become the first title won in 17 years.

Tom Blundell made a less frenetic century with only one six, but 17 fours, as Wellington reached 427 for eight, the highest List A score ever seen in New Zealand. Otago’s reply of 345 was bold, but futile.

It is always fun to see sixes raining down on the popular seats, but if I had to choose between watching cricket on the ND pitch, or that for the Otago games, I would opt for the former every time. The great thing is that the choice does not have to be made. If you watch for a season, you want to see the game in as great a range of conditions and circumstances as you can, including a road at the Basin or a snake pit in Ahmedabad.

Wellington lost the play-off to Northern Districts, who were in turn beaten by Canterbury in the final.

T20 Internationals

Those of us who spend a fair amount of our summers at the Basin Reserve don’t care much for the Cake Tin. Opened at the start of the 21st century, it was the last throw of the 20th century concept of sports venue design here in New Zealand, one which aimed to fit as many sports into the one venue as possible. As well as a stack of cricket, I have seen both codes of rugby, World Cup soccer and even Australian Rules there. Only the last, cleverly conceived to occupy whatever space is available, is a good fit. Wellington had been the only major centre in New Zealand to separate cricket and rugby, but in an attempt to arrange a forced marriage between the two, the Cake Tin is an oval arena. This means that the rectangular sports are remote from their spectators, and the stadium has to be near-full to create an atmosphere that does not imitate that of the moon.

It is also a concert venue, which means that it has a sound system that could wake the dead, operated by people who consider the cricket a sideshow to the main entertainment of the day: themselves. As it turned out, the crowd for the double header against Australia’s men and England’s women, was disappointing, given that this fifth game in the men’s series stood at two-two, so providing a rare opportunity of seeing New Zealand beat Australia at cricket. We could have fitted into the Basin comfortably.

But there was great consolation in the batting of Martin Guptill. He had been through a poor run and many amateur selectors would have dropped him. Not me. Guptill in touch is as glorious a sight as anything I have seen in cricket. I mentioned earlier the World Cup quarter-final innings against the West Indies. Here, he played as sweetly, if more briefly. I have seen any number of players who hit the ball as far and as hard as Guptill, but none who do so more cleanly. He put the ball on the roof, the third time he has done so at this venue. He reaches this peak with the frequency of total eclipses of the sun; both are worth going a long way to see.

New Zealand were chasing only 142. At 74 for one in the tenth, it looked like being a lot higher, but under pressure from Ish Sodhi in particular, the middle order crumpled.

When he came in at No 4, we thought that Glenn Maxwell would impose himself on the innings. My wife was taken by Maxwell’s nickname, the Big Show, thinking it rather insulting. On the other side of the Tasman Sea, it is nothing but a compliment. She forgot that if Ned Kelly had been guilty only of irony, rather than robbery and murder, the Australians would still have hanged him. Here, the Big Show was caught second ball and the matinee was cancelled.

One of my regrets as a spectator is that I never saw Sarah Taylor keep wicket. Watching Amy Jones here was not far off. She executed three stumpings with a deftness of hand almost too fast to see. England’s 128 for nine appeared chaseable, but Katherine Brunt removed both openers in the opening over and that was pretty much it. Of the six games in this series—three in each shorter format—New Zealand won only the final ODI. In none of the other five did they come close. There is a lot of ground to make up if they are to be competitive in the rescheduled World Cup early next year.

 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Summer days at the T20

The first-class season in New Zealand used to begin at Christmas, sometimes on Christmas Day itself, which must have been the cause of tense negotiations in households across the country. Now the tinsel and reindeer bring with them the start of the domestic T20. I watched the opener at the Basin Reserve on Christmas Eve on television, and was at the ground for the remaining four home rounds of the round robin, and for the finals. 

One of the problems with T20 is that it does not offer a whole day at the cricket. There is barely time to put away a third scotch egg before stumps are pulled and you’re back on the bus. New Zealand Cricket have put this right by staging the domestic T20 as double headers, with a women’s and men’s game together offering a full day’s play, or at least the overs equivalent of a Sunday League game. 

In those distant times they managed to get through 80 overs in well under five hours of playing time rather than the six-plus it now takes. The biggest reason for this is that captains find it as irresistible to pick at their fields as does an infant its nose, often preceded by a conference that starts with the agreement of the minutes to the last one. So what about—either as an imposition once the over-rate falls below a proscribed level, or as standard practice—saying that the field set at the start of an over stays in place for the whole over, unless a left-hander replaces a right-hander on strike (or vice versa)? A harsher variant might be that captains submit a standard field at the start of the game and have to revert to that if they don’t get on with it. 

Both Wellington teams started the competition as reigning champions. The men have gone from strength-to-strength, and this year lost only away to Canterbury during the ten-game preliminary stage. Wellington supporters are doing a reasonable impression of the meek on the day when the title deeds to the Earth finally drop through the letter box. The women have experienced a levelling-up in the standard of competition. Last year they were unbeaten; this, they finished only third in the group stage and hosted the final because TV wanted it on the same ground as the men’s rather than on merit. 

Sophie Devine missed the early games but was devastating when she returned, starting with 108 from 38 balls in a total of 131 in a ten-wicket win away to Otago, followed by 59 off 26 in Christchurch. Her first appearance at the Basin, in the return against Otago, she made 80 from 44 and put on 110 for the second wicket with Melie Kerr. 

A young boy of about nine years of age who, when asked by a TV reporter if Finn Allen (see later) should be in the Black Caps squad replied that he judged Allen “not better than Sophie Devine, but still pretty good”, the quote of the season so far. It reflected not only the growing profile of women’s cricket here, but also how fortunate we are here in New Zealand, in these alarming times, to be so short of material to fill the news hour that we resort to seeking the opinions of primary schoolkids on the selection of national sports teams. 

Wellington’s women are the best fielding side in the competition, but when a Wellington player made a fielding error in a televised game, one of commentators said that the fielding was “not what you expect from a professional”. The excellent Frankie Mackay reminded him that there were only two professionals—Kerr and Devine—in the team. 

Mackay—also captain of Canterbury—is a prime example of a general truth that when a woman commentator comes to the microphone the average IQ in the commentary box increases significantly. This is never more true than on the Fox Sports coverage in Australia, which rarely rises above the level of tiresome banter other than when Isa Guha is there to guide and coax the boys into saying something intelligent about the cricket. Mackay is a librarian. When asked how many books she had read in 2020 she replied that it had been a busy year, so the total was a below-average 70. The incredulous response of her co-commentator suggested that he didn’t know that there were that many books in the world.

The aforementioned Finn Allen moved to Wellington from Auckland last year. In the early-season Plunket Shield games he could hardly put bat to ball and was dropped for the final match of the opening half of the programme. Restored for the shorter forms, he scored more runs than anybody else in the T20 competition (512), at the third-highest strike rate, with most fours and sixes. If he gets beyond single figures his innings explodes like a violation of the Test Ban Treaty. He combines timing and power in a way that is often spectacular. Alex Hales or Jason Roy might be playalikes in England. 

Against Central Districts, chasing 164, he reached his fifty in just 16 balls. This was the quickest half century I had seen since Matthew Fleming got one from the same number in a Sunday League game reduced by rain to ten overs for Kent against Yorkshire at Canterbury in 1996. Hearing that the game was soon to start, I hurried to the ground with my son, then aged eight. He was impressed. A couple of weeks later, we watched on TV as Sachin Tendulkar made an elegant century in a test match. He reached fifty in a little over a run-a-ball. “That’s four times slower than Matthew Fleming” said the boy, lifting the bar too high in a trice for any of the game’s subsequent great players to clear.

The second-highest T20 aggregate was Devon Conway’s, and his opening partnership with Allen goes much of the way towards accounting for Wellington’s success. One uses the power of a jack hammer, the other the finesse of the dentist’s drill. Conway has already been successful in the national T20 team, and would have walked straight into the test team in any other era. Expect to see him there in England in June.

The only loss that Wellington experienced in the home preliminaries was that of the women to Canterbury, thanks to the batting of Amy Satterthwaite, whose unbeaten 71 took the South Islanders to a nine-wicket win. Satterthwaite is Devine’s only contender as New Zealand’s best woman batter. The comparison is like that between the power and forcefulness of Graham Gooch and the elegance and security of Graham Thorpe. Like Thorpe, Satterthwaite is a left-hander, a rare thing among women cricketers here. Why this should be, and why there are more left-handers in the men’s game than there used to be, is a puzzle. Something to do with how they are coached when very young, perhaps. 

So to the finals, with Canterbury the visitors for both games. The women’s match was very entertaining. Three times, Wellington looked well on the way to victory, only for the game to turn on them. The first was when they were 100 for one, with Devine still there, slightly subdued but ready to press on the pedal for the final six overs of the innings until she was bowled by Melissa Banks, the first of seven wickets to fall for just 25 runs.

Satterthwaite’s loopy off spin accounted for three of the wickets, with three more falling to run outs, the best of which was a direct hit by eagle-eye Mackay. But that was the sum of Satterthwaite’s contribution; she was second out, for a duck. Melie Kerr’s hattrick, as previously reported, then reduced Canterbury to 40 for five, which became 60 for six with seven-and-a-half overs left.

Lea Tahuhu joined Kate Ebrahim. From that point, only four deliveries were not scored from. The shot selection of both players was exceptional, Ebrahim working the ball around while Tahuhu supplied the power, with two sixes off Jess Kerr in the 17th over. Six came from the next over, so 19 were needed from the last two. 

Only singles from the first three balls of the 19th, bowled by Devine. Wellington were back ahead, decisively we thought. But Ebrahim hit the next two deliveries to the boundary, one flicked to mid-wicket, the other lifted to the vacant third man. Ebrahim should have been run out off the last ball of that over, but Devine missed the stumps from four metres away. The Wellington fielding got a bit shaky as the game got more tense. Still, nine were needed from the last, bowled by Kasperek. 

Tahuhu charged the second ball of the over, sending it back over the bowler’s head to the straight boundary. Two more singles and the game was Canterbury’s, with two balls to spare. The rest of the Canterbury team rushed onto the field, first encircling Ebrahim. Satterthwaite broke away and rushed to Tahuhu, to whom she is married and with whom she had reversed roles today, batsman and bowler. Their embrace was as emotional a thing as I have seen on a cricket field for some time, sharpened by the appearance soon after of their one-year-old daughter. 

The men’s game was every bit as tense without quite as many giddy twists and turns. Canterbury batted first and for the first half of their innings made it look easy. At 106 for two in the twelfth, 200 looked probable. 

Wellington’s spinners, Bracewell and Younghusband (though slow bowler would be a truer representation of the former’s oeuvre), intervened decisively, gouging out Canterbury’s middle order and damming the flow of runs. Some end-of-innings biffing by Shipley took Canterbury to 175, fewer than they should have got, but still a challenge. There was some exceptional catching by Wellington. 

If Allen got going, it would be a cinch, but the tension of the final knocked his timing off, and he went for 16 off (by his standards) a dawdling ten deliveries. When Blundell was caught first ball by the diving Bowes at backward point, the tide of pessimism, never far from these shores, seemed about to engulf the local faithful. 

Devon Conway is one of those rare batsmen who goes about his job in the same way in all forms of cricket. The speed of scoring quickens to fit the format, but the foundation of judgement, temperament and, above all, technique is what his game is built on no matter what the context. 

As usual, it would have taken a while for the observer to discern what form of cricket was being played if the only evidence available to them was Conway’s batting. No chance of making runs was spurned and his risks were calculated, apparently to several decimal places. He paced his innings superbly, though he knew this better than most supporters when 29 were required from the last three overs, 15 from the final nine balls. 

Successive fours off the next two deliveries were executed as if they had been in Conway's diary for months. Another, his eleventh (just the one six today, more evidence of Conway's actuarial approach to batting) completed a five-wicket win with two balls to spare.

The Basin was fairly full for both finals, and, like last year, it was the family occasion that T20 competitions are said to enable, but, in some parts of the world, rarely do. T20’s limitations are well-known, but it can still provide a good day at the cricket, as it did here at a time when going to any cricket is a privilege.


Men’s final scorecard


Women’s final scorecard

 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Hat tricks I have seen No 9

Amelia Kerr for Wellington v Canterbury, T20 Final, Basin Reserve, 13 February 2021

After a twenty-year wait between hattricks Nos 7 and 8, No 9 came along a mere 13 months later. It was distinctive among my collection of hattricks in several ways. It was the first by a woman cricketer, the first by a leg spinner, the first in a final and the first to be all bowled (indeed, the first where all three victims fell in the same manner).

Melie Kerr’s cricketing pedigree is as distinguished as any in New Zealand, including the Hadlees and the Bracewells. Her sister Jess was alongside her in the Wellington team here, as she will be in the national team in the forthcoming series against Australia. Both her parents, Robbie and Jo, were Wellington representatives. Robbie played as a batsman and sometime keeper 59 times in the 90s, mostly in one-day cricket.

Her grandfather Bruce Murray (often known as “Bag” because of his initials—BAG Murray) played 13 tests as an opener from 1969 to 1972. He played in the first test I ever watched, at the Oval in 1969, though I don’t think that I saw him bat on that day.

The family trade is teaching. Bruce Murray was a high-school principal for 20 years. Jess has just started as an intermediate school teacher (11–13 year olds) and Melie, according to Wikipedia, works as a teacher aide, supporting autistic children.

Watching Melie Kerr bowl leg spin has become one of the delights of the Wellington summer. She has great accuracy and turns it both ways. She also holds the record for the highest individual score in women’s ODI cricket (232 against Ireland). She is 20.

The game was the T20 final between Wellington and Canterbury. At 40 for two in the tenth over chasing 125, Canterbury needed to increase their scoring rate urgently.

The dangerous Amy Satterthwaite was already out, but captain Frankie Mackay was still there. She tried to sweep the third ball of Kerr’s second over. It was a googly, but she was beaten through the air rather than off the pitch and was bowled off stump.

The next delivery was another wrong’un, which Kirsty Nation failed to read, going back with room to play a desperate prod at the ball as it followed her. Top of off, again.

Emma Kench played a similar shot to the hattrick delivery, which went on quicker rather than turning. Kerr was, for a couple of seconds, the only person in the ground who did not know that the ball had again found its way to the top of the off stump, and was undertaking an operatic appeal for leg before when a swarm of teammates put her right.

There was nobody in the ground who thought that this was anything other than a match-winning piece of bowling, except the non-striking batter Kate Ebrahim, and No 8 Leah Tahuhu. Their thrilling partnership of 66 in six overs deprived Wellington of a fourth successive T20 trophy. More of that soon.

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

New Zealand defeat the West Indies at the Basin Reserve

 New Zealand v West Indies, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 11–14 December 2020

Scorecard


As the West Indian fielders and the New Zealand openers took their positions for the first ball on the first day of this test match, they went down on one knee to affirm the universal truth that black lives matter. There had been no announcement of this beforehand so it took us by surprise. There was silence for a few seconds, then I and others started applauding, soon to be joined by a good proportion of the crowd. It was an emotional moment on a sunny morning with the red blooms of the pohutukawas leaking across the Basin’s panorama. Added to the privilege that we in New Zealand feel at simply being able to go to the cricket  was my personal reflection on the debt I have to West Indian cricketers. They were my Jesuits, capturing me at my most impressionable, inculcating me with an unshakeable faith in the passion and excitement of cricket to a degree that English cricket’s abstaining methodism of that time could not inspire. 


Regular readers will know that finding new ways of conveying the deep verdancy of New Zealand cricket pitches has proved a challenge to Scorecards over the years. The strip at Hamilton for the first test attracted a lot of social-media attention from the UK, mostly from people to whom it did not occur that the parameters of pitch behaviour 12,000 miles away might vary from those at the club down the road (the more strident the opinion about New Zealand, the less likely it is that the perpetrator has been here, or can locate the country on a map). The occasions on which these pitches produce the amount of assistance to the bowlers that their appearance might conventionally suggest are greatly outnumbered by those on which they do not. The score at the end of that first day at Seddon Park was 243 for two. Discussing this issue the other day, the TV commentators suggested that the green grass here might be so dense that the main effect is to cushion the ball. 


At the Basin, the first-morning pitch was about an eight on the international scale of greenness, and three-and-a-half measured domestically, still enough for Jason Holder to put New Zealand in upon winning the toss. Tom Latham was captain, as he was the last time Scorecards reported on the national team, in Sydney at the start of the year. This time, Kane Williamson’s absence was down to the impending arrival of his daughter. 


The sun had a ticket, but the wind is a life member at the Basin, and registered its presence by removing a bail at each end after the first ball of the match. The gale seemed to blow Shannon Gabriel off course. His first two overs went for 21, the ball pitched up too far with no consistent line. 


Gabriel adjusted to the conditions with the alacrity of an America’s Cup skipper. In his next 12 overs he took three for 17. The first of the three was Tom Blundell, the ball after he had cover driven a four. The next one came back just enough to find the gap between bat and pad and to hit the top of the off stump. Gabriel bowled with the wind, but that meant that he had to walk back to his mark into it, which he achieved at a speed of a retreating glacier. 


Showing himself to be an over-the-top-into-the guns sort of leader, Jason Holder opened the bowling into the wind. His opening spell was tight, but the first wicket from that southern end was taken by his namesake, Chemar Holder, at whom Latham drove to provide a first test dismissal not only for the bowler but also for replacement keeper Da Silva, in for the injured Dowrich.


Regular readers might expect that Devon Conway would have come in at No 3, so often has Scorecards extolled his credentials as an international batsman in the four years since he started playing for Wellington and qualifying for New Zealand. Despite Conway’s impressive start in the T20 side, Will Young of Central Districts got the call in this series. Young was close to selection for some time before making his debut in the first test. He was down to play in the Christchurch test against Bangladesh that was cancelled following the terrorist attack on the mosques in that city in 2019. He has a first-class average of 43, just four fewer than Conway. 


Ross Taylor was Gabriel’s second victim with another ball that straightened a little to provide a second catch to Da Silva. This brought in Henry Nicholls, another feeling the breath of Conway on his collar. It is a sign of the current health of New Zealand cricket that Nicholls’ current test average of 41 did not guarantee him a place for the rest of the season when not so long ago it would have done so for several summers. He and his fourth-wicket partner Young knew that a substantial innings by one would mean the other making way for Williamson on his return on Boxing Day against Pakistan.   


Young fell for 40 to a stunning diving catch by the captain at second slip (it was a surprise not to see Holder driving the team bus at the end of the day such had been his ubiquity in other roles). Nicholls finished with 174, but was missed four times, including two straightforward slip chances, and had edges go into gaps on any number of occasions. He showed great mental strength not to be undermined by his good fortune, but Young might be forgiven for shaking his fist at the fates. 


BJ Watling played an uncharacteristic innings that ended in an uncharacteristic way. Big shots replaced little nudges: 24 of his 30 runs came from boundaries.  He played on attempting to cut a ball that did not have the necessary width. 


Daryl Mitchell looked as comfortable as anybody and accompanied Nicholls to his century, achieved appropriately with an inside edge. It was the hundredth test century at the Basin, and one of the ropiest, not that Nicholls will care. New Zealand finished the day on 294 for six, much better than it would have been with average test-match catching.


The southerly always keeps its diary free for some of the Basin test, and was there for the second day, but without its usual icy venom. The Wellington summer wardrobe of two sweaters was sufficient.


The highlight of the first half of the day was Neil Wagner’s innings at eighth down. Wagner bats as he bowls, like a man writing an angry letter to the editor, in green ink with much underlining. After five balls to gain a sighter, he began with a little light legside slogging off Holder, then top-edged a six off Joseph, who was beginning to look a bit of a spare part, as Josephs will at this time of the year. 


Our hero was dropped twice at fine leg in three balls, neither easy, but both catchable. The joke du jour was that it had been a waste of money putting the West Indians in quarantine for a fortnight as they can’t catch anything. With a combination of the classical and the grotesque, the 50 partnership, 39 from Wagner, came up in 30 balls. In his 50th test, Wagner’s first test 50 was now close, but he had to wait until after lunch to push for two past point to get there. How we roared. There is no more popular cricketer in New Zealand than Wagner, for his enthusiasm, dedication and unkiwilike bad temper. He is Monty Python’s Black Knight made flesh. In the Boxing Day test a couple of weeks later he bowled 28 overs in the second innings with two broken toes. Here, Wagner marked the landmark by unrolling a cover drive of which Frank Woolley would have been proud. 


When Nicholls’ marathon ended, Wagner was joined by Trent Boult, the only batsman by comparison to whom he appears measured and orthodox. Anyone who has not seen Boult bat need only read some of Hardy’s descriptions of the bucolic folk of Wessex scything hay in the fields to get the flavour. He was off the mark first ball with a six over wide long on.


The innings finished two balls later at 460, Wagner unbeaten on 66. This was at least 200 more than the fielding should have allowed. 


West Indies had not taken a single step towards that total when Southee got one to hold its line close enough to off stump to force Brathwaite to edge to Watling. Along with Boult, Southee controlled and threatened throughout the opening spell. The inevitable second wicket came when Bravo did not go through with a drive, giving Southee an athletic return catch. Bravo’s departure from the field was Brexit slow.


These days, the New Zealand attack is no longer what Graham Gooch described as the World XI at one end and Ilford Seconds at the other. After Boult and Southee there was Wagner, who had got himself into a state about the price of fish, or global warming, or something, and was working it out with red-ball therapy. Then there was Kyle Jamieson, whose first over was one of the most memorable bowled in tests at the Basin.


Jamieson has made a dazzling start to his international career this year, having been on the domestic scene since 2014. He is 26, and it is hard to explain why he has suddenly become such a force. There was never a chorus of calls for him to be picked before he was. Yet here he is, with batting and bowling averages of 49 and 14 after five tests.


He came on, into the wind, for the 15th over. The first ball brought appeals from the slips, but not the bowler, for caught behind, but it had flicked the pad. Jamieson joined in the appeal for lbw from the second ball, but Latham did not review, rightly as there was an inside edge. Campbell drove at the third, full on off stump, and was caught behind. Chase’s first ball was an inswinging yorker that bowled him. 


The hattrick ball got the RA Vance Stand to its feet, as it clattered into Jermaine Blackwood’s pad, but the review showed that it was missing leg. The final ball was closer, again spearing into the back pad. It was turned down on review on the umpire’s call. 


Blackwood played for a while with the abandon of a man who has cheated death and is attempting to tick off his bucket list, reaching 30 from just 21 balls. At this point he drove hard to give Jamieson a tough return chance that was put down. This seemed to bring him back to his senses, and he took a further 43 balls to reach 50. With Shamarh Brooks he put on 68 for the fifth wicket.


Brooks was bowled by Jamieson playing no shot for a 92-ball 14, the first of the six remaining wickets to fall for the addition of only 34, leaving the West Indies with a deficit of 329. Southee and Jamieson divided the wickets equally between them, but this was a combined achievement of the whole attack. There was no let up in the pressure from either end.


The final two wickets were taken on the third morning. Since the abolition of the rest day, it has become unfashionable to enforce the follow on, but Tom Latham could feel what it was like to be Clive Lloyd, with four fast bowlers at his disposal, two of whom would always be fresh, so the West Indies openers were back in on a cold morning that had me watching the first session from the Long Room. 


The second innings went much better than the first for the visitors.There was more of an attacking intent, with 186 more runs scored in just 23 more overs compared to the first innings. The openers had almost seen off the opening spells from both ends when Boult removed Brathwaite and Bravo in the 11th over, the former to a fine catch by Young at leg gully off the middle of the bat. 


Campbell and Brooks put on 89 for the third wicket, but both fell within four runs of each other, interspersed with Chase picking up a pair. We expected the game to be wrapped up within the hour, but the West Indies lower order had more spirit, led by their estimable captain. I have written before of my admiration for Jason Holder, who has borne the burden of the West Indian captaincy with courage since the dark day of the World Cup quarter-final at the Cake Tin when he fielded lonely on the boundary as Martin Guptill tore his team apart. 


Holder found support from debutant Joshua Da Silva. They put on 82 for the seventh wicket in 18 overs, relying on the big hits rather than rotation of the strike and took the game into the fourth day helped by an early finish because of bad light, which, as ever, came when the batsmen were seeing the ball better than at any point in the match.


Holder was out in the first full over next morning to a cracker from Southee that left him just enough to take the off stump. Alzari Joseph got off the pair with a hooked six off Southee and made 24 entirely in boundaries before being caught behind off a legside strangle. Da Silva got a deserved half century on debut.


Wagner uprooted Gabriel’s middle stump to secure the victory with a margin of an innings and 12 runs. As usual, New Zealanders put the result down to how poor the opposition had been. As Holder acknowledged after the game, their catching was awful and spending so much of their lives in various degrees of quarantine over the past few months must take its toll, but we must overcome the natural humility that is central to our charm to acknowledge that we have a very good test cricket team. 


That as good a player as Devon Conway does not walk straight into the team shows the strength of the batting (Williamson returned to the team for Boxing Day and peeled off his 23rd century). We have added to this a four-man quick attack of high quality, even if, with loveable Kiwi diffidence, it lacks the speed of the great Caribbean attacks or England 2005. Of course, Wagner bowls as if at 150 kph rather than the mid 130s that the machine registers, a magnificent illusion worthy of membership of the Magic Circle. A quality spinning all-rounder would round things off nicely. Mitch Santner may fill this slot, but isn’t there yet. 


India’s defeat of Australia in the Boxing Day match in Melbourne means that New Zealand and Australia are level on points at the top of the ICC rankings, but, as we have come to expect from ICC contests, a technicality (most boundaries? wicketkeeper’s height? who knows?) keeps us in second place. 


This is different from the ICC test championship, with a final at Lord’s in prospect for the top two. New Zealand have a path to this, but it seems to depend on a decisive win for either Australia or India in the rest of their series, and for India against England. 


This may leave us in the awkward position of being on Australia’s side in the current series, though unprecedented choruses of C’mon Aussie, C’mon have yet to be heard this side of the Tasman.


I wish everyone a happy and safe 2021. 







“McKenzie’s Over of Agony at Folkestone”

  Kent v Leicestershire, 40 overs, Folkestone, 19 July 1971 In 1971, the Sunday League was in its third season, and well-established. On 1...