The big hitters July 22, 1994

Lance Cairns

Brian Bearshaw

© Getty Images
When I asked Denis Compton about "Big Jim" Smith's only century, at Canterbury in 1939, he told me that the Middlesex players had always said that "when old Jim gets a century it's bound to be the fastest of the season". In the event, through mishitting and a shortage of the strike, it took Jim all of 81 minutes. Lance Cairns, too, had a few tasters with fast 50s before his first and so far only century arrived in 1980, in his ninth season in New Zealand cricket. His hundred, however, arrived rather more quickly than Smith's, taking 52 minutes and being the fastest ever in New Zealand.

Cairns, a strongly-built swing bowler, first played Shell Trophy cricket in the 1971-72 season when he was twenty-two. He was soon recognised as the finest hitter in New Zealand, a tail-end batsman with a good eye, strong muscles and a deep desire to hit the ball as far as possible. He first played for New Zealand in 1973 and two seasons later really captured attention with his batting as he hit five fast 50s, three of them from fewer than 50 balls. He started with one in 40, beat that at 37 and then hit another in 32 balls for the fastest of the season in domestic cricket. He played one Test match that summer, the third against India at Wellington, and in an innings of 47 he pulled one ball from Prasanna so fiercely that Sunil Gavaskar, fielding a few feet from the bat, took a frightening blow in the face and had to have an operation on a broken cheekbone. Cairns's prodigious hitting also brought him a six off England's John Lever on to the roof of the Dunedin grandstand, and 60 in 46 minutes in a Prudential Trophy match with England at Old Trafford. His Prudential Trophy innings was played in 1978 when England were coasting to a comfortable win with New Zealand 85 for six. Cairns hit 60 of the last 67 runs, reaching 50 in 37 balls and including four sixes. New Zealand still lost but it probably cheered Cairns up after giving away 84 runs in 11 overs during the England innings.

Cairns played an important part in New Zealand's first ever series win over the West Indies, in 1979-80, when some uncomplicated hitting helped bring victory in the first Test at Dunedin and a 1-0 win in the three-match series. That same summer, after several mediocre performances, Cairns produced his history-making century for Otago against Wellington at Lower Hutt. Bruce Taylor and Ewen Chatfield, both Test bowlers, had torn an enormous hole in the Otago batting which was on its knees at 42 for seven when Cairns went in. Soon it was 48 for eight and Cairns decided to throw his bat at just about everything. In 24 minutes to the close of the first day he faced 28 balls and hit 68 runs, hitting Chatfield on to the grandstand roof twice from consecutive balls, and twice lifting Taylor over the scoreboard in one over. And Evan Gray, said one report, "seemed to be for ever lofted on to the corrugated roof of the stand with a deafening bang".

Cairns just kept going in the same rich vein the following morning and the first ball he received again finished up on the battered, dented grandstand roof. He was eventually caught in the deep off a massive hit that was held back by the wind, with 110 runs in the Otago total of 173, having hit nine sixes, 11 fours, three twos and six singles. His century had taken 45 balls and of the 90 runs produced for the last wicket in 31 minutes, his partner, Graeme Thomson, claimed an unbeaten four.

There was some discrepancy for a time over whether his century should be recorded as 48 or 52 minutes. It seems somebody wanted to knock four minutes off for the time it took to retrieve the ball all those times from the grandstand roof. If that had applied to some of the performances of old-timers like Gilbert Jessop and Ted Alletson their times would have been incredible. So Caims had to be satisfied with 52 minutes, beating Dick Motz's century for Canterbury against Otago at Christchurch twelve years earlier by one minute. At the time Cairns's hundred was also the joint second fastest ever outside England, behind Algie Gehrs in Adelaide in 1912-13 (50 minutes) and equalling Learie Constantine's for the West Indians against Tasmania at Launceston in 1930-31. The boundaries on each side of the Hutt Recreation Ground were on the short side but as one spectator pointed out: "No difference. Most sixes were well in, or on, the stand on one side or over the large scoreboard on the other."

Cairns was often promoted in the batting order when the situation demanded, especially in one-day matches. When New Zealand, needing only 104 to beat Australia in the Test at Auckland in 1982, were dithering at 44 for three, Geoff Howarth sent in Cairns who hit enormous sixes off Bruce Yardley and Terry Alderman and brought victory close at hand with 34 runs in 21 balls. And when England, at the end of their 1982-83 tour of Australia, went to New Zealand for three one-day internationals, Cairns was among the first four batsmen in all the games. He hit Geoff Miller out of the ground twice at Christchurch and had innings of 19, 44 and 21 in his country's 3-0 win. England saw enough of Cairns that winter, for only a few weeks earlier in the three-pronged World Series matches in Australia he had scored 36 in four overs batting number three at Melbourne and 49 in 35 minutes at Adelaide. And all with that funny-looking, round- shouldered, hump-backed bat he had started using.

New Zealand lost 2-0 to Australia in the finals but Cairns had one more glorious moment with six sixes in an innings of 52 at Melbourne. A few months later he was in England for one of his country's greatest triumphs, when they won the second Test at Headingley to record their first win in England after fifty-two years of trying. Earlier that month, July, Cairns had hit four sixes and seven fours against Somerset at Taunton, his innings of 60 taking 29 balls. At Headingley, however, it was Cairns the bowler who did the damage with his career best return of seven for 74 in the first innings. But he could not resist putting the cherry on the cake by hitting two sixes off Phil Edmonds as New Zealand went on to win by five wickets.

Cairns played professional cricket in the North of England and in a game for Bishop Auckland in 1981 he scored 174 against Glostrup, a Danish National League touring team. His innings lasted 64 balls, with 15 sixes and 16 fours, his century having occupied 36 balls (38 minutes) and his 150, 52 balls (58 minutes).

Excerpt from The Big Hitters by Brian Bearshaw