Cricket: Taylor is gaining but Crowe supreme

By David Leggat

On statistics alone, current No4 is taking his place among New Zealand's greats

Taylor's performances in the last two tests make this topic timely. Photo / Getty Images
Taylor's performances in the last two tests make this topic timely. Photo / Getty Images

When Ross Taylor became holder of New Zealand's best test average - of those whose careers had some duration to them - it raised one of those talking points so beloved of cricket ruminators.

Who is New Zealand's greatest test batsman? To these eyes it's Martin Crowe. But let's track back a moment.

Taylor's performances in the last two tests make this topic timely.

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Not only has he edged ahead of John F. Reid, at 46.52 - of those with a minimum of 30 innings - as of the end of New Zealand's first innings at the Basin Reserve yesterday.

He has joined the 200 club - of whom there are now 13 - has 10 test hundreds, and only three men made more, a list topped by his mentor Crowe.

He has years to run and in time may overhaul Crowe, and Stephen Fleming's test run tally for that matter. When/if that happens, this subject will doubtless get another extensive airing.

But it is too simplistic to say the batsman with the best average is, ergo, the best batsman.

On that basis, Taylor is New Zealand's best test batsman of all. He may finish with that mantle, but not yet.

And until Taylor edged ahead of Reid during his 129 in the first innings at the Basin Reserve, the doughty Auckland lefthander of the 1980s had that honour.

Reid was a skilled, resourceful batsman who made the best of his talents but left the game relatively early. He didn't play against the formidable West Indies, then at the peak of their fast-bowling powers.

Consider Stewie Dempster, the pre-Second World War opener. He played only 10 tests, 15 innings, yet averaged 65.72. Eight of those tests were against England. Against them he scored two centuries and four fifties in 11 innings.

Clearly he was a champion batsman, but doesn't make the qualifying criteria.

Neither does Martin Donnelly the pre- and post-war lefthander, who played rugby for England. He played just seven tests, 11 innings, and averaged 52.91, and hit New Zealand's first double ton, at Lord's, in 1949.

A graceful batsman, he played just 13 of his 131 first-class games in New Zealand and none of his tests, therefore there was an element of mystique about him. Bert Sutcliffe used to say Donnelly was better than him; Donnelly argued strongly for Sutcliffe in that good natured pas de deux.

Elements that need to be considered are averages, centuries, longevity and quality of the opposition.

Players of the generation from the immediate post-Second World War would argue strongly for Sutcliffe. "There'll never be another like Bert," was a line often heard from that generation of players.

There's no question that Sutcliffe, quick footed and an attractive strokemaker, often wore the weight of New Zealand's batting hopes on his slim shoulders.

The 1950s were lean times for New Zealand. The situation was often as straightforward as this: if Sutcliffe failed New Zealand failed.

Even John R. Reid, the outstanding allrounder and uncompromising leader as New Zealand began winning test matches, had a period of low productivity in that decade.

England were formidably good in that time. Touring India and Pakistan and playing on matting pitches was a strange and discomforting experience. The matting was stretched or loosened, depending on which team was batting.

And Sutcliffe had guts, best evidenced by his return from a nasty, bloody crack on the head at Johannesburg in December 1953 to hit a defiant 80, in the match remembered for the tragedy surrounding the Tangiwai disaster and fast bowler Bob Blair, whose fiancee died in that train crash.

Fielding standards were a lot lower then than now. That's not Sutcliffe's fault and it is reasonable to assume his test average would have been significantly better than 40.10 had he not been a one-man show for much of his career.

New Zealand has had plenty of notable achievers and in recent times Andrew Jones, Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle and Mark Richardson come to mind. But each falls short of the highest standard in one respect or another. Fleming perhaps comes closest of that group, in terms of covering most bases. The elegant lefthander is also the country's longest serving - in terms of appearances - player and captain. There was also a feeling runs had been left in the dressing room when he departed the game, which frustrated him as much as watchers.

Boil all the bits and pieces together and the choice for New Zealand's best batsman comes down to two outstanding batsmen, Martin Crowe and Glenn Turner.

As befitting an opener, Turner first.

He began his first-class career with few strokes and a reputation for slow scoring.

Turner blossomed during a long career at Worcestershire. In time he became perhaps the best opener in the game. He is the only New Zealand batsman to have been rated the world's No1 batsman, in 1974, according to International Cricket Council retrospective rankings.

Turner was technically sound and prospered through immense concentration and once one-day cricket gained serious currency, learned ball placement.

A century of first-class hundreds followed. Quality of opposition? Strong. No minnows back then. Two centuries at Christchurch in 1974 set up New Zealand's first victory over Australia; a brace of double centuries were plundered off the West Indies in the Caribbean in 1972, albeit on docile wickets.

He did step away from test cricket from 1978-82, which meant missing demanding Pakistani and, especially, West Indian attacks.

Still, any opener averaging north of 40 has had an impressive career. Turner's numbers, for example, are comparable with West Indian heroes Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, and Australian captains Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry from the 1960s.

Crowe had a rough introduction to test cricket, as a 19-year-old, having his helmet rattled by Australian Jeff Thomson in 1982. He's talked about the battles to get through that baptism.

In time he became a member of the game's batting elite. He was possibly the best batsman on the planet around the time of the 1992 World Cup.

Crowe set the bar seriously high and pushed himself hard, rarely satisfied.

Radio commentator Bryan Waddle talks of Crowe asking him to come and bowl at him on a day off during a test in Lahore.

When they got to the ground, Waddle found himself bowling to another batsman as Crowe spent an hour walking from one end of the pitch to the other, taking up his stance, visualising, planning. The next day he scored 108 not out against Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir.

Crowe and Turner had one thing in common: dedication to their craft. Both craved perfection.

Not that it's strictly relevant, but Crowe was proud of never having been dismissed by the great Richard Hadlee in first-class cricket.

So it's Crowe at the head of this list. At least for now.

- NZ Herald

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