Ewen Chatfield - The niggardly farmer
Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write
At its cricket zenith in the 1980s, New Zealand had the better of Australia, was a match for West Indies, and could even get away with taking the field in tan polyester body shirts. They had larger-than-life luminaries like Sir Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe; yet they were somehow personified by the lesser-than-life figure of Ewen Chatfield.
Hadlee and Crowe: these were stars by any definition. But "Chats", with that deadpan demeanour, pudding bowl haircut, sideburns and moustache? He could have come from no other country - a singular and resourceful land that specialised in harnessing its abilities to the last atom. He trundled in at a uniform pace and ran through the crease in a continuous movement, as though his bowling life was just one endless delivery. But the basics were so right and so robust: the upright delivery, the high arm, the big striding follow-through, and the nagging, nagging, nagging accuracy that grudged only 2.3 runs an over.
Teammates called Chatfield "Mer" - short for "farmer", as if anyone needed reminding of his origins. His farming family lived in the hollow of a hill at Waione, on New Zealand's north island, near Palmerston North. Actually, "near" is correct only in the sense that nowhere in New Zealand is geographically far from anywhere. Waione is a speck on the map, often cold, eternally cloudy, known, if at all, for wool...and, well, in later days, Ewen Chatfield.
Such cricket tutelage as he had was from his father Neville, a fair player before being swept up in the fall of Crete and spending most of the war as a prisoner in Germany. Otherwise, Chatfield's initiation in the game was listening to it on radio out in the family orchard, for potential playmates were few: he travelled 20km by car and bus to sit in a class of one at a school at Akitio.
Hutt Valley and Wellington teammate Graham Newdick recalled his first sight of the junior Chatfield, looking like he had walked straight "out of the bush", with hair down to his shoulders, a baggy old sweater in his Nanae Cricket Club's colours and size-14 boots. A haircut followed, and a change of deportment: every night on tour, Chatfield would proudly hang his Wellington blazer and lovingly fold his tie. But the self-containment never changed: he spoke when spoken to, and would have bowled all night as well as all day if permitted. For, like a good farmer's boy, Chatfield was formidably fit, and remained so. Well into his 30s he was outrunning young teammates, and leaving peers far behind. "Chats could outrun me holding a suitcase," said his captain Jeremy Coney.
Chatfield's initiation in the game was listening to it on radio out in the family orchard, for potential playmates were few: he travelled 20km by car and bus to sit in a class of one at a school at Akitio
When he wasn't "Mer", Chatfield was "The Machine", teammates joking that he had less need of a physiotherapist's ministrations than a mechanic's. For Chatfield's cricket was rational, functional, pared back. Born to bowl, he did not trouble with the game's other faculties. Unlike many negligible batsman, he did not even swing wildly, instead playing boringly and predictably down the line...well, a line, because it was generally the wrong one. With the ball, he was only slightly more elaborate. No one polished a ball quite so devotedly, like a collector caring for a precious antique. But there were no histrionics, no sledges or stares; Chatfield didn't even particularly like appealing. "It's just one of those little idiosyncracies I've always had," he explained.
In fact, for all the regularity of his habits and reliability of his performances, Chatfield was a remarkably idiosyncratic cricketer, his lack of mannerism becoming itself a kind of mannerism. His book Chats (1988), deftly put together from some unpromising material by Lynn McConnell, is self-effacing to the point of personal erasure. Over the course of its 200 pages, what accumulates most are Chatfield's aversions. He doesn't like team meetings. He doesn't enjoy chatting on the field. He isn't one for talking about the day's play afterwards. He's reluctant to watch cricket on television. He can't explain his motivations: "When asked about what really stirs me up, I cannot really answer." Not even his wife seemed to know: "There have been times when he has been hurt by his disappointments, but he deals with these by himself."
The most redolent story is related by keeper Ian Smith, who describes rushing up to share his joy with Chatfield after catching Viv Richards down the leg side at Lancaster Park in March 1987. Amid the laughs and back slaps, Chatfield merely commented: "It should have gone for four." The most telling images are two photographs of Chatfield's 100th Test wicket, which show him first with arms raised although more in relief than exultation, then the first to peel away from still-celebrating teammates and head back to his mark. The tendency today, an age where every cricketer has a hundred-dollar haircut, an earring and a tattoo, is to find him a little comical. But, without defiance or demonstration, he was undeniably his own man, and unmistakably of his own land.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer