February 27, 2009

Sans 'tache, plus cab

He used to partner Richard Hadlee for New Zealand; now Ewen Chatfield drives a taxi around Wellington


"Once I get that hundred, I'll be gone. Vanished" © Cricinfo Ltd
 

"Good morning, Ewen Chatfield here." The voice is loud, warm and clear. You request an interview, a day before coming to Wellington, where he lives.

"Where will you stay in Wellington?" You tell him where you will stay.

"So I'll be there at 1pm."

"No, Ewen, I don't want to bother you. I'll come and see you."

"But I will be driving my taxi then, so I can't be sure where I will be."

How can Ewen Chatfield drive a taxi? I mean, you cannot drive a taxi in India, and most other places, if you have played 43 Tests and have had a successful pairing with the most iconic player of that country. And Chatfield of all players? He of the unruly hair, the long sideburns and the mo?

Next day. Phone rings. "Ewen Chatfield here. I am in the foyer." You go down and miss him. Most would. Imagine Chatfield with properly parted hair, a dark-grey suit and a tie. Without the moustache.

But the name tag on the breast pocket does say "Ewen". He asks you for some identification to prove you are indeed who you say you are. It's you who should be asking him for that reassurance.

You still can't get over the fact that he drives a taxi. Not that it's sad. Far from it. Chatfield has seen hardship at times, but he is a satisfied man with no complaints.

Doesn't he get recognised by passengers? "Surprisingly, it took three or four weeks for somebody to recognise me," he says. "I look a bit different now. No mo. And I have to wear glasses for driving." When he was coaching a side, his wards shaved bits off his moustache during a celebration and he had to take it all off. He was told he looked younger and has let it stay that way.

If you go by what you read of him, the personality might not be the same either. He was a man of economy - of run-up, of action, of words. He was the man who once got Viv Richards out caught down leg and told Ian Smith, the keeper, "That should have gone for four." That's what you read.

Chatfield is a funny man with faraway eyes. With long pauses when he speaks. Is idiosyncratic. Makes you laugh when he talks about his debut Test. Except that he almost died during it. Thirty-four years and two days ago; after a bouncer from Peter Lever struck him in the head.

"We were going to get beaten. There was no doubt about that," he remembers. "We had four days, then the rest day, and then the fifth day. Geoff Howarth and I had batted for an hour on the fourth day, which they grumbled a bit about. They wanted to go home. They had been to Australia and had been away from home for long.

"On the fifth day the forecast was for rain. So we carried on. We batted for another hour. We frustrated them.

"It was just one of those unfortunate things. I don't remember whether it was a bouncer or whether it was a shortish ball. It hit the top of the bat handle, hit the glove, and ricocheted onto my head.

"I knew there was something wrong. And when I got hit, I just went and knelt at the side of the wicket. If it hadn't been for him - I forgot his name, the England physio [Bernard Thomas] - I wouldn't be talking to you today. When I woke up on the way to the hospital in the ambulance, I knew exactly what my score was and what Geoff Howarth's score was. So, yeah, everything was okay."

Lever sobbed on the ground that day. He went to meet Chatfield later. But he never got any of his own medicine in return. "I never bowled a bouncer all my life," Chatfield says. "I wasn't quick enough for that."

Was it difficult mentally to come back? "No, it wasn't difficult. Just carried on as if nothing had happened… I got a helmet."

Chatfield was also a man who very rarely appealed. Not for him the backslaps and the send-offs. "I might have missed a few by not appealing."

India was never the place for him. His first time there, during the 1987 World Cup, he became the final victim in Chetan Sharma's hat-trick, and in the same match got hit for 39 in 4.1 overs. Sunil Gavaskar scored his only ODI century,a fiery one, in that game.

It is Bangalore a year later that Chatfield remembers. "Everybody told me how it was to tour India," he says. "Guys in the past, like Richard Collinge, came running in to bowl, and kept going. I went the first time and I thought there were no problems. There was no place greater than India.

"But after Bangalore, we all got very, very ill. Any New Zealander that was in India could have played for New Zealand. We were down to no one. There was times when guys got out of bed, took the bus, came to the ground, and went back to bed."

 
 
When he was coaching a side, his wards shaved bits off his moustache during a celebration and he had to shave it all off. He was told he looked younger and has let it stay that way
 

It hasn't been a great time after retirement. He coached his minor association, Hutt Valley, for a long while, only to lose the job when Hutt Valley merged with Wellington. His last job before the current one with Corporate Cabs, was that of a lawn-mower. Then two successive wet winters came.

"There was no income. I got frustrated that I couldn't do enough in summer without killing myself to make up for that." And just like that he called Corporate Cabs, because he "liked driving around". He got the licence and was employed. In between he has worked as a courier, a salesman at a chip shop, and has driven a dairy van. "One of your compatriots," he says of the dairy owner.

"I start at 5.30 in the morning, and I am only allowed to work for 13 hours a day. That's all. You think that's enough? Thirteen hours a day?"

He is not in touch with any of his team-mates. He claims he doesn't get nostalgic, doesn't watch old tapes ("I haven't even seen the 50-run partnership with Jeremy Coney, against Pakistan, to win the match"). There's no bitterness either.

What did New Zealand cricket mean to him? "A vehicle to be able to play against the best in the world. It wasn't a full-time job. I had to work as well. But, yeah, they enabled me to play." The faraway eyes. "Though I didn't dream of it when I was young. Later on, when I didn't get picked [for the 1978 tour to England] I was disappointed." Pause. "It must have meant something to me."

Does he have any regrets? None, but for that 1978 drop. "But I got over it."

There's one last wish before he can leave cricket. One hundred. He plays club cricket still, and the quest is on. "Once I get that hundred, I'll be gone. Vanished." Simple as that.

"We play on artificial wickets, only 40 overs. If they give me a good, flat wicket, and the bowling is not too good, I open the batting. Everybody knows I'm trying to get this hundred, but I'm getting slower and slower. I got to 70. Don't think it will ever happen."

You want to take a picture before he leaves. "Come out. We'll do it in front of the taxi. Let's get them some advertisement."

From a farm boy, to a Wellington player - Wellington, where he knew only five people when he first arrived - to a New Zealand Test player, alongside superstars like Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, to a taxi driver, Chatfield is living an extraordinary life in a normal manner. Still being his own idiosyncratic self. Maybe he still is a farm boy. "I wasn't interested in farming," he says.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

Comments