To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.
Thomas Aquinas (probably not talking about cricket, but he may as well have been)
All day on Tuesday at school I could hear bursts of cheering from the Basin Reserve down the hill. It was exciting, and while I was teaching during period two and I heard a cheer go up I knew that McCullum had got 300. I can vividly remember watching on TV as Andrew Jones and Martin Crowe ground the Sri Lankans down at the Basin in 1991, and the sudden sickening feeling in the gut when Crowe got out for 299. Imagine being bitterly disappointed when you just got 299 runs. But that’s the intense, psychological nature of test cricket. That 299 has hung around on Crowe’s mind for a long time, and McCullum’s 302 is a relief to Crowe. He writes about it very well himself, that and the fateful moment when he left the field in 1992 against Pakistan and we went out of the World Cup. For Crowe cricket seems to have been equal parts triumph and torment.
In 1984 I played cricket for my school.
It was my one and only season as a cricket player, and I probably started because of Richard Hadlee.
I started following cricket around 1980 so I thought that New Zealand was good at cricket like it was good at rugby. The 90s and the 00s therefore were quite a big let down. We had our moments of course, especially in one day cricket, but in the long era post-Hadlee/Crowe things have been, shall we say, inconsistent. At the start of 1984 England were touring (their first time here without being somewhere else first and arriving tired and depleted), and a look down the list of names of the New Zealand team shows, if you know anything at all about cricket, that it was a strong team: Wright, Edgar, Howarth, both Crowes, Coney, Hadlee, Snedden, Smith, Cairns and Chatfield.
The first test was drawn, but we creamed the English in the second test (I remember the disappointment of seeing Hadlee out for 99), and drew the third. We performed pretty poorly in the one day matches winning only the third.
Hadlee was our biggest star and featured on the cover of The Listener as the English arrived.
I was the proud owner of the book Hadlee on Cricket, which taught you how to bat, bowl and field in page after glorious page of stilted black and white photos. It was a book I treasured. Not quite as much as my book on BMX’s but it was a close second. Hadlee in his Listener article talks about being hounded by a fear of failure, and the pressures of increasing commercialisation that are not good for the game. It’s not a hugely interesting piece, nor is the book he wrote about that time although he obviously had a few mental hurdles to overcome to claim the various records he was pursuing internationally and nationally in England and New Zealand. Hadlee was always best on the cricket field where he seemed relaxed and deadly, in other situations he seemed somewhat robotic.
After Hadlee on the ladder of prestige, in my eleven year old eyes, was Lance Cairns and his Excalibur. The Hadlee-Cairns conflict was actually the dilemma I faced when I bought my first bat. Should I get a GM used by Hadlee or a shoulderless bat like the one wielded by the mighty Cairns. I went for the GM probably because I wanted to seem serious and full of flair, rather than brutal and punishing. As it turned out I was neither.
The coach of my team didn’t like me, and so he offered no training. He didn’t teach me how to bowl or how to bat. He watched me try both things once or twice at our first practice, concluded I was no good, and put me at number 11 and left me off the bowling roster. Later in the season he discovered I was good at catching balls and he put me in the position correctly called silly mid-on. It’s silly, I assume, because you are standing about two metres in front of the batsman in the exact position where the batter is most likely to absolutely cane a shot at about head height and 200kph. You are there in case they bobble up a ball while they are trying a defensive shot in which case you need to spring forward sprawling on the ground and catch it. Springing forward when you are also preparing yourself mentally for the idea that the batsman might thrash a ball into your head is hard to do. The natural instinct is to cower back.
Even though we were getting quite handily thrashed on our home ground one Saturday our coach decided to set an attacking field and put me in at silly mid-on. The lead batsman had spent a lot of time dispatching our bowler’s balls to the boundary, and smiled sympathetically at me as I marched into position two metres from his blazing bat with my head in the natural trajectory of his splendid lofted drives. There was a certain inevitability about what happened next. Even I wasn’t really surprised when he cannoned the ball of my face. It disintegrated my glasses and the ball shot straight up into the air. As I slumped to the ground I heard excited cries of “catch it” from my team mates, and then felt the ball land on my inert body, and then – I was too stunned to move – very slowly roll off my body and onto the grass. The first of my team mates to make it to me tutted crossly, “you dropped it”. I raised my head blearily from the ground and, through my broken glasses, observed the ball on the ground. I had to agree with him. I had “dropped” the ball. Of course, to be fair, I’m not sure that having a ball fired into your face constitutes a missed chance, but I’m sure our coach popped it down as that.
After a while I got to my feet and shoved bits of my glasses back together. My coach moved me to fine leg to recover. The demolition of our team ground on.
I had a kind of revenge in the end. In the last game of the season, in the last over, we needed one to win, and I was called to the crease. I suddenly felt the attention of my coach fall on me. For the first time. After two months of teaching me nothing about batting he now found his season hanging on my ability to score one run. He turned to me and said, in true inspirational manner: “don’t stuff it up.” By the time it was the last ball we still didn’t have one run. As the bowler bounded in I regarded my options. Weighing up all my experience with shot selection and reading field placement I decided I would just run whatever happened and hope for the best. As it happened the ball popped up and I managed to clip it between the slips (there was no skill or planning involved – the shot occurred without me), and then took off like a hare (well, like a quick guinea pig). James and I ran two and won the match.
It was very exciting.
It was also the last time I ever played cricket for a proper team. I still had years of lunch time cricket at school ahead of me, but this was the last outing in whites with all the gear. I blame my coach. A modicum of encouragement and training would have gone a long way, but he was quite up himself and couldn’t be bothered with the likes of me. In later life I found out that my father was a good cricket player. It was probably just never meant to be.
I stopped watching cricket when it all went to Sky. Which is also why I stopped watching rugby. Six years in Japan didn’t help. I have no time for American sports, and the Japanese are obsessed with baseball. I think we are often called to decry the surface-flitting western mind, and admire the Buddhist ease with tranquility. When we make this generalisation I think we forget about test cricket. Test cricket is a five-day marathon of focus. I don’t miss watching sport really, but I do miss test cricket. It is extraordinarily psychological and punishing on the participants, and can require enormous mental and physical endurance, and yet it appears to be sedate and effete to the outsider. I was reminded of all of this on Tuesday when that cheer went up at the Basin for McCullum’s 300. Reminded of what I had missed this season, and pleased for all the true cricket fans.
It was a long time coming.