John Reid

Hit machine

A dashing, attacking batsman, he kept New Zealand cricket shining through its dark days

John Mehaffey

May 30, 2008

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Reid: particularly savage on the leg side © Getty Images
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Bill O'Halloran was a burly, red-haired former rugby player who bowled medium-pace inswing for the Karori club in Wellington. He played in the final stages of John Reid's career, when Reid was getting increasingly frustrated by a damaged knee that cruelly restricted him on his final tour to England in 1965.

Reid once asked Bill for a solo net session. Bill agreed and wheeled up a series of accurate, full-length deliveries, each of which Reid smashed into the distant reaches of Karori Park with his accustomed ferocity. He leaned on his bat while Bill plodded in an arc from long-off to long-on to retrieve the balls. The exercise was repeated until Reid was satisfied and Bill exhausted.

The labours of Bill, recounted with rueful pride over beer in the club house, reminded me of an anecdote from CLR James, who bowled as a young man on the Queen's Park Savannah in Trinidad to the West Indies opener Joe Small. "International cricketers are not as ordinary men," wrote James. "There might be only two boys fielding, but if you bowled Joe a half-volley outside the off stump, he hit with all his force, though he would have to wait until the ball came back from 150 yards." Reid struck the ball with the uninhibited elan of a West Indian. Ted Dexter, his opposing captain in a 1963 series, reckoned he hit it as consistently hard as anybody he had seen.

A considerable all-round cricketer, Reid retired after a career stretching from 1949 to 1965 with the most Test runs, wickets, catches and caps for his country, playing for a team seldom strong enough to mount a serious challenge.

Although essentially a man of his times, as indicated by his trenchant comments on modern cricket mores and etiquette, and in his role as one of the ICC's match referees, nothing is more certain than that Reid, with little modification in technique and none in approach, would have been an outstanding success in the modern game. The Indian Premier League could have been invented for a player who once hammered four sixes from 10 balls on the opening morning of a Test match in Calcutta, and a world-record 15 sixes in an innings of 296 for Wellington against Northern Districts.

For James, the interaction between players and public was the great strength of West Indies' cricket, an explanation for the successes of a collection of scattered islands that did so much with so little. He would have shaken his head in wonder at the obstacles Reid had to surmount in another colonial outpost, representing a country that did not win a Test until 1956, and where international cricketers always remained under the shadow of the formidable All Blacks.

The New Zealand season begins in October. Net sessions on dark weeknights in the teeth of the notorious Wellington southerly, with rain in the air, on uncertain pitches, were of doubtful benefit at best and an ordeal at worst. Outside the major cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, conditions were even more hazardous. Bevan Congdon, who scored 176 and 175 against England in successive Tests, was once asked by a curious English journalist how he was able to prepare for Test cricket in the remote South Island town of Motueka. Net pitches in Motueka, drawled Congdon, prepared you for anything.

Club matches were spread over two Saturdays, with up to four games in different grades staged on Karori Park at the same time. The brief first-class season was crammed into the summer holiday period over Christmas and New Year and comprised, at the start of Reid's career, just four Plunket Shield provincial matches. Then it was back to once-a-week club cricket until late February when a touring team crossed the Tasman after battling the Australians.

Unsurprisingly Reid, like his contemporary Bert Sutcliffe, flourished abroad with consistent match play on decent pitches. Sutcliffe, a golden-haired left-hand batsman of lyrical grace, scored 2627 runs on the 1949 tour of England, second only to Don Bradman's 2960 in 1930. Incapable of an ugly stroke, he averaged 40.10 in Test cricket, mostly as an opening bat on uncovered pitches, but never played in a winning side.

Sutcliffe appealed to the classicists; Reid attracted the romantics. Compact and muscular (he was set for an outstanding rugby career before a bout of rheumatic fever at school) he drove with equal power off front and back foot from a high back lift, and was particularly savage on the leg side. He lofted the ball more than other top-flight batsmen, backing his strength to beat the fielders.

With his strength and bristling aggression he could bowl genuinely fast as a youth. In later years he bowled useful offcutters or offspin from a short run-up concluded with a distinctive sidestep. His versatility was such that he was selected as the reserve wicketkeeper for the 1949 side, and until his swollen knee restricted his mobility he remained his team's best all-round fielder, sure in the slips or gully and swift at cover point.

South Africa defined Reid's career. Following a prolonged barren period in Test cricket he scored over 1000 runs and took more than 50 wickets on the 1953-54 tour, remembered best in New Zealand for Sutcliffe's heroic 80 not out with seven sixes on a venomous Ellis Park pitch, during which he batted with blood seeping from a bandaged head after being felled by Neil Adcock.

 
 
Reid, with little modification in technique and none in approach, would have been an outstanding success in the modern game. The Indian Premier League could have been invented for a player who once hammered four sixes from 10 balls on the opening morning of a Test match in Calcutta and a world-record 15 sixes in an innings of 296 for Wellington against Northern Districts
 

In 1961-62, Reid, finally captain after having led New Zealand to their solitary Test win till then, over West Indies, enjoyed the finest season of his career, scoring 546 runs in a five-Test series at 60.64 and 1915 runs on tour to South Africa at 68.39. Reports marvelled at his sustained mastery and uninhibited aggression. Largely through his efforts, a useful Kiwi side drew 2-2 with a team who were to extend Australia to the limit on their 1963-64 tour. In Reid's time Australia did not deign to play Tests against New Zealand.

The Australian journalist RS "Dick" Whitington, who had played for South Australia before the war and studied the best of his time, including Bradman, Walter Hammond, Neil Harvey, and the three Ws described Reid as "the greatest batsman in cricket today" after having watched him blaze a path through South Africa. A more controversial tribute leaps out from Whitington's tour book John Reid's Kiwis.

"There is nothing petty or ignoble about John Reid, nothing bitter, disappointed, resentful in his system." Whitington wrote. "To me, Reid shines from the ruck of many others who have played big cricket since the Hitler war, in much the same manner that Sir Roy Welensky, and yes Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, because of his courage, stands out from the other so-called statesmen of modern Africa."

The close sporting relationship with apartheid South Africa was to create bitter divides in New Zealand over the next 20 years, culminating in virtual civil war during a Springboks rugby visit in 1981. Because no Maoris played cricket to international standard then, the anti-apartheid movement concentrated its attentions on rugby, where the native race was banned from touring South Africa by a government led by Verwoerd.

Reid's views, as related to his biographer Joseph Romanos, were conventional for sportsmen of the 1950s and sixties; an acceptance of the status quo and a heads-down determination to look no further than the boundary. As late as the 1980s, when he lived and coached in South Africa, Reid still opposed the international sporting boycott.

Reid never got the Test win over England that would have crowned his career. His team took a narrow first-innings lead in the third Test against Dexter's 1963 side but collapsed to 159 all out against an attack including the two Freds, Trueman and Titmus. Reid scored exactly 100 in four hours (the next highest score was 22), ending his solo vigil white-faced with exhaustion.

His 1965 side was defeated 0-3 following a gruelling seven-Test tour of India and Pakistan, after which Reid was granted the singular honour of leading a World XI against England, the first series of its kind.

Reid's statistics, 3428 runs at 33.28 and 85 wickets at 33.35 from a then world-record consecutive 58 tests, indicate a useful but hardly great cricketer. The figures mislead. Nobody who saw him at the crease would dispute his own assessment that he could have increased his batting average by half again if he had played in the 1980s side with Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe.

Through his unflagging enthusiasm and drive Reid helped keep the faltering flame of New Zealand cricket alight in the dark days of the 1950s, when the nation's Test status was questioned after they were dismissed for 26 in an innings by England. On his last expedition to England he helped nurture a new generation, including Congdon and the rangy left-arm quick Richard Collinge, who were to play significant roles 13 years later in that long-awaited maiden win over the mother country.

John Mehaffey is a sports reporter for Thomson Reuters

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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