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Beyond the call of duty

When Sutcliffe and Blair set Boxing Day aglow with their courage, in "a story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother's knee"

Martin Williamson

December 6, 2008

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A bandaged Bert Sutcliffe lofts Hugh Tayfield for a six, one of three in an over, during his brave 80 not out © Cricinfo

A few weeks ago we ran a Cricinfo XI on batsmen who have played on despite being injured. We received a large number of mails asking why we had not included Bert Sutcliffe's innings against South Africa in Johannesburg in 1953-54. Not only was it a really gutsy effort, the circumstances surrounding the day were just as remarkable.

New Zealand, who hadn't won any of the 27 Tests they had played, started their tour of South Africa with an innings defeat in the opening Test in Durban, although they were unbeaten in the seven first-class matches preceding it. After a morale-boosting win against North East Transvaal, the New Zealanders headed down to Johannesburg for the second Test. On the opening day, Christmas Eve, New Zealand's seam attack bowled superbly to reduce the hosts to 259 for 8 at the close.

The New Zealand squad spent Christmas Day at their team hotel, but woke on Boxing Day to the news that there had been a train crash back home in which 151 people had been killed. Among the victims was the fiancée of fast bowler Bob Blair.

The team headed to the ground, anxious as the full list of casualties had not been released. Blair remained behind to grieve. It was announced that he had withdrawn from the match, and flags at the ground were lowered to half mast.

In the dressing room, Geoff Rabone tried to pull his side together and urged them to concentrate on the game. Sutcliffe recalled the general feeling was one of "what are we doing here?"

South Africa's last three wickets added only 12, but when New Zealand batted they found themselves peppered by the fast bowling of Neil Adcock, who had made his debut in Durban. On a fast track, he was a horrible proposition, and when Sutcliffe walked out to the middle, New Zealand were 9 for 2.

"From Adcock's first over it was clear that we were in for a warm time." Sutcliffe said. "Rabone and Chapple were both struck by balls which flew viciously from a good length. I had played only two balls from him when another flew at my head. I tried desperately to hook, but was hit on the side of the head and went out like a light." Blood pouring from a split in his ear, he was eventually led off to hospital, where he fainted twice more. It was not expected that he would take any further part in the game.

John Reid came out to replace Sutcliffe and took five blows from Adcock to the body in a short time, and Lawrie Miller, New Zealand's No. 5, was hit in the chest forcing him to head off to join Sutcliffe at the hospital after he coughed up blood.

Matt Poore made a few runs before he became Adcock's third victim, bowled via his ribcage, and at lunch New Zealand were 57 for 5 with two players in hospital and one more believed to be heading home.

Miller, against advice, resumed his innings after the break and added 24 with Frank Mooney before he was bowled by David Ironside. With a follow-on target of 121 still some way off, it was expected that Tony MacGibbon, the last man standing, would come in, but instead Sutcliffe, his head swathed in bandages and his face "looking like parchment", headed to the middle. "My head was heavily bandaged, so much so I felt like a Sikh, and should perhaps be carrying a hockey stick instead of a bat," he said. The 22,000 capacity crowd stood to applaud him all the way. "I must confess I was fortified to some extent by a generous helping of Scotland's chief product… and I don't mean porridge."

His tactics were simple - all-out attack. "I decided that with the pitch still dangerously unpredictable, and the score so unprepossessing, attack was the only answer. So I hit my third ball, from David Ironside, for a six." With Mooney, Sutcliffe saw New Zealand past the follow-on.

Shortly before tea, Mooney was dismissed by Ironside and MacGibbon soon followed for a duck. When Guy Overton became Ironside's fifth victim of the innings, "I joined the fieldsmen on the move towards the pavilion," Sutcliffe said. "We were halted, though, by the unexpected appearance of Bob Blair."

Blair had heard of his team's position and headed to the ground to help. Sutcliffe walked to meet him and Blair said: "I'd like to feel I can help." They returned to the middle arm in arm. Eyewitnesses recall that the full house stood in virtual silence. Noted New Zealand writer Dick Brittenden said: "Looking down on the scene from the glass windows of the pavilion, the New Zealanders wept openly and without shame; the South Africans were in little better state, and Sutcliffe was just as obviously distressed. Before he faced his first ball Blair passed his glove across his eyes in the heart-wringing gesture of any small boy anywhere in trouble but defiant."

Sutcliffe, who was dropped twice, then really cut loose, smashing Hugh Tayfield for three sixes in an (eight-ball) over, and six in all. Blair added to the bowler's misery by striking another, his only scoring shot, off the final delivery. Pearce Rood, who watched the innings, years later told the Independent: "The sixes were lofted into the thin segment of the stand behind long-on, which was reserved in those apartheid-cursed days for "non-Europeans", who traditionally gave vociferous support to the visiting team. Each of those soaring sixes was greeted by pandemonium."

Tayfield got his revenge in the next over when he had Blair stumped. Sutcliffe and Blair had added 33 runs in 10 minutes, Sutcliffe making 80 out of 105. "He had saved a follow-on, and he was quite entitled to regard the tumult of cheering as a tribute to his skill and daring," wrote Brittenden. "But he stood aside at the gate, allowing Blair to pass in first. They went, arms about each other, into the darkness of the tunnel, but behind them they left a light and an inspiration which several thousand lectures on how to play the forward defensive stroke could never kindle.

"It was a great and glorious victory, a story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother's knee."

There was no fairytale ending. Even though South Africa were bowled out for 148 in their second innings, New Zealand were dismissed for 100 to lose by 132 runs. Adcock took 5 for 43.

The blow Sutcliffe sustained left lasting scars. "I lost my nerve after being hit by Adcock," he recalled. "I worked very hard to overcome it but the problem remained with me for the rest of my life. It was a mental block."

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