Cricket: Cairns right up there with the best of' em

By Richard Boock

It might be the end of the line for Chris Cairns the cricketer, but it certainly isn't the end of the debate about where he should stand in the game, and how he should be remembered.

To many, the veteran New Zealand all-rounder was the one of the finest players to grace the cricket field (Shane Warne described him as the best all-rounder in the world); a man who, but for the mortal frailties of his body, could have been one of the best of the best.

Others, including my good mate and colleague Chris Rattue, have bridled at the suggestion, reasoning that Cairns was only useful at hitting the occasional six, never led from the front, usually underwhelmed, and was only an average-sized fish in what was a very small international sport.

Whatever your stance, the debate has been a common theme throughout the 35-year-old's 16-year career - from his 1989 debut in what became New Zealand's own version of Dunkirk, to his tearful retirement this week.

Hardly a season has passed without some sort of controversy involving Cairns, whether it was his epic personality clash with 1995-96 coach Glenn Turner, one of his countless career injuries, or his 3am arrivals at the team hotel during test matches.

There was no doubt he polarised opinions. The idea that someone with so much talent could risk everything through indiscipline was anathema to many, while a good sprinkling of others believed he lacked mental toughness.

The latter accusation sprang from Cairns' injury record, starting from his controversial withdrawal from the team on the morning of the second test at Hobart in 1993, following a change of mind about a bruised heel.

At the time, New Zealand skipper Ken Rutherford and coach Geoff Howarth both made surprisingly cutting comments about his level of commitment, and Cairns said later that he felt his character was being called into question.

From then, Cairns' injury record grew like topsy: stress-fracture problems in his back, intercostal strains, a kidney ailment, torn calf muscles, patella injuries in both knees, ruptured spleen, bone spurs, sacroiliac joint problems, and shoulder, groin and side strains.

A star in the making since his primary school years, his body could simply not keep up with the demands of the modern game, such that, when he pulled the curtain on his test career two years ago, he had played just 62 matches and missed 55.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of only seven players in test cricket history to have scored 3000 runs and taken 200 wickets, Cairns now finds himself being compared with the best all-rounders in the history of the game - a list including Sir Garfield Sobers, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock.

And while Rattue might scoff at Cairns being mentioned in the same breath as the others, it's worth remembering that he reached the mark in 58 outings, quicker than any of his fellow club members apart from Botham.

BOTHAM'S 55 tests is the record, followed by Cairns, Kapil (73), Imran (75), Sobers (80), Hadlee (83) and Pollock (87). This suggests Cairns and Botham were by far the most balanced of the great all-rounders. They contributed more equally in each discipline than any of their colleagues, and were of similar valuable to their teammates whether batting or bowling.

Whereas Botham completed the double within 55 tests and Cairns was able to celebrate eclipsing both marks in his 58th, Kapil, Imran, Hadlee and Pollock were predominantly bowlers who batted, and Sobers was a batsman who bowled.

It's not a scientific measure of course, but if Cairns' body had held together long enough for him to have played 100 tests, his figures extrapolate out to something like 5334 runs and 351 wickets - very similar to those of Botham.

Cairns freely admits to his immaturity through the early stages of his career, and his ever-changing hairstyles over the past decade-and-a-half possibly bear testament to the identity crisis he seems to have negotiated.

At times he was virtually impossible to deal with, whether the relationship was with his mother Sue, his father (cricketing folk hero) Lance, his national team coaches, or managers such as Gren Alabaster and John Graham.

Turner was so disturbed about what he described as Cairns' temper tantrums and outbursts during the 1995-96 campaign, that he wrote to then-NZC chief executive Chris Doig and pleaded with him to arrange professional assistance.

Ultimately, Doig decided it was not the mop-topped Cantabrian that had to go but the entrenched Turner, a decision that ushered in the appointment of Australian Steve Rixon as coach, and led directly to Cairns' revival.

From then on, New Zealand's most balanced all-rounder seemed to thrive (apart from when he was injured), and began stringing together some of his best performances at home and abroad.

Critics claim he never led from the front. Really? History insists that he did just that on the 1999 tour of England, when his 6-77 broke the back of the hosts' first innings batting, leading to New Zealand's first test victory at Lord's.

And he was in a similar mood in the deciding fourth test at the Oval, his five wicket bag and whirlwind 80 off 93 balls rescuing his side from almost certain defeat, resulting in him being named both Man of the Match and Man of the Series.

And wasn't it Cairns who reversed the trend against the West Indies at Hamilton the following season, bouncing back with a match-winning seven wicket bag after Brian Lara's side had gone to stumps on the first day at 276 for one?

There were similar feats performed in the shorter game as well, among them Cairns' match-winning 102 not out against South Africa in the 2002 VB Series, his equally impressive and decisive unbeaten 102 in the 2000 Champions Trophy, and his blazing century against India at Christchurch in 1999 - at the time the fifth fastest on record. "What's the Champions Trophy again," asks my cobber. Well, it mightn't be the World Cup, but it's still the only international tournament title New Zealand's ever won, and the only reason we did is because of Cairns. As for him being a minnow in what is a "very small international sport", I can only assume that this was a leg-pull, or that someone had forgotten to factor in the 1.5 billion sub-continental Asians who consider the game their religion.

Outside soccer or basketball, cricket would be among the most international of team sports; far bigger, wealthier, and involving more participants than rugby, league, Aussie rules and American football put together.

Viewed in this context, and not forgetting the 129 years of history that judges him, Cairns possibly deserves a bit more than being described as an also-ran to Sir Richard Hadlee.

He was, and should be remembered as, one of the game's best all-rounders.

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