Cricket: Memories stir of day when men stood up

By David Leggat

Test still remembered for courage of New Zealanders

Bert Sutcliffe played on that day, despite a lump behind his ear said to have been the size of a fist.
Bert Sutcliffe played on that day, despite a lump behind his ear said to have been the size of a fist.

The death this week of Neil Adcock severed a link to one of the most famous days in New Zealand sport.

Adcock, who died of bowel cancer aged 81, had been the last survivor of the South African side which played New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in the dying days of 1953.

It lives on as one of New Zealand's great cricket tests, not for the result, which was a comfortable 132-run win to the hosts, nor even the broad quality of the New Zealand cricket.

And it was not an occasion to savour, at least not in the raising-a-glass way.

This was the test when New Zealanders, two in particular, showed remarkable courage in the face of terrible circumstances, which went far beyond the playing of sport.

Adcock was among the great fast bowlers. Certainly he was South Africa's first genuinely quick, hostile bowler.

He had made his test debut in the first test of that series, taking three wickets in Durban. But the Ellis Park pitch was not a good one.

As was recounted in Richard Boock's The Last Everyday Hero, Bert Sutcliffe said it wasn't so much Adcock's bouncer causing trouble, as the fact his good-length deliveries were "going vertical", exploding off a length and steepling into fingers, elbows, chests and, unfortunately, heads.

The bare bones of the story are that South Africa, winning the toss on Christmas Eve, made 271.

New Zealand, battered by the hostility of Adcock on a treacherous pitch, were 57 for five, but chiefly through the courage of Bert Sutcliffe, reached 187.

South Africa were shot out for 148 but New Zealand, requiring 233, were rolled for 100.

That's the numbers of the test. But this is one match where numbers are rendered largely irrelevant.

New Zealand was in shock from the Tangiwai train disaster on Christmas Eve. Among the 151 people who died was 21-year-old fast bowler Bob Blair's fiancee Nerissa Love.

A distraught Blair was told the news by telegram and as New Zealand began their reply - after a day's break on Christmas Day - he remained at the team hotel before insisting he "wanted to join his mates" as the Adcock-led carnage had New Zealand's dressing room resembling an emergency ward.

Several batsmen were clattered. Sutcliffe was struck a brutal blow on the head and retired bloodied, only to return later with a white towel wrapped around his head.

"Bert had a lump the size of my fist behind his left ear," 12th man Eric Dempster recalled in The Last Everyday Hero. "But they took x-rays and couldn't find any fracture so dressed his torn ear-lobe and sent us back to the ground.

"We were met there by [manager] Jack Kerr and [captain] Geoff Rabone. 'How are we going,' asked Bert. 'Not very well,' came the reply. 'Right ho then, I'll bat again,' Bert said - 'just bring me a double whisky.' So someone rustled up a dram; Bert swallowed it, padded up and went out and batted like a bloody champion."

He launched a defiant assault on the South African bowlers but when the ninth wicket fell the players headed for the pavilion, assuming the innings over. After all, Blair would not be batting.

However - and players swore this is not stuff of imagination - the 23,000 Boxing Day crowd fell silent as Blair emerged from the pavilion, fumbling with his gloves, tears in his eyes.

Sutcliffe, who was 29, walked over to the younger man, put an arm around his shoulder and told him: "Come on son. This is no place for you. Let's swing the bat and get the hell out of here."

In one over from the outstanding offspinner Hugh Tayfield, Sutcliffe clouted three sixes as the crowd - aware of the tragic circumstances - roared.

When Blair swung Tayfield high over the mid-wicket boundary the ground erupted.

The pair added 33 in just eight balls before the game carried on to its inevitable conclusion.

Sutcliffe's legend was already growing. In 42 tests over 18 years, he averaged 40.1 and will always sit among the country's finest batsmen.

Blair went on to take 43 wickets in 19 tests spread over 11 years. For Wellington he was formidably difficult over a 14-season career, especially at the Basin Reserve, and in 119 first-class games took 537 wickets at 18 runs apiece.

But what of Adcock, who took 24 wickets at 20.2 in that five-game series, won 4-0 by the hosts?

He became the first South African bowler to 100 test wickets. In 1961, he was named one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year for a superb performance in England the previous year.

Adcock was a tall, wiry man who generated sharp pace and awkward bounce. Put him on a pitch which had the ball flying dangerously and you had something of a cricketing perfect storm.

Adcock took eight for 86 in the match, helped by his new ball mate Dave Ironside, who on debut grabbed eight for 88.

Adcock began and ended his career - 104 wickets in 26 tests at an outstanding 21.1 each - against New Zealand.

He was coming to the end when he was recalled for the last two tests of New Zealand's 1961-62 tour, and took nine further wickets . Altogether, against New Zealand Adcock took 33 wickets at 19.18 apiece.

In later life, Adcock did radio commentary and had a travel agency.

Those who knew him said he possessed the fast bowler's hard-headed mentality, although some suspected it was more a case of playing up to the expectations of the role.

"There is no doubt that Adcock was one of the greatest fast bowlers South Africa has ever produced," former captain and his country's most prominent administrator Ali Bacher said.

"And I can honestly say he was the quickest bowler I ever faced throughout my career, locally or internationally."

Three New Zealand players survive from that test: John Reid, Matt Poore and Blair, now 80.

Talk to the New Zealand players years later and they'd still get emotional. Eyes would glisten, or look off into the distance reliving the events of that awful Boxing Day 60 years ago.

The passing of Adcock will again stir old memories of a remarkable day which helped cement the sporting links between the two countries.

The final word goes to the Rand Daily Mail, which wrote: "It is not the result of the match that will be best remembered when men come together to talk about cricket.

"They will speak of a match that was as much worth watching as it was worth playing, a match the New Zealanders decided must go on.

"And if the rest of the world still wonders what it is all about, the only possible answer is that, if men are going to play, they can do a lot worse than play cricket."

- NZ Herald

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