October 12, 2009

Small pool, big debate

David Leggat
There might not be big, glaring omissions, but there was enough argument to suggest enough top-quality talent in the country

So no Ricky Ponting for Australia, no Herbert Sutcliffe among England's chosen ones.

Far smaller playing numbers mean liberties such as these are not available to those choosing New Zealand's finest Test XI, although there were several points of conjecture among the judging panel, and enough contestable selections to argue that New Zealand has produced its share of top-quality cricketers. Heads were certainly scratched among the panelists.

New Zealand cricket has long had an all-hands-to-the-pump philosophy, combined with a relish of pricking egos and tripping up those with expectations of an easy ride. That has enabled it to punch well above its weight, albeit after a trying start, for much of its Test life.

Of the 37 nominees, 23 gathered at least one vote; just three players got an unanimous verdict - Glenn Turner, Martin Crowe and Sir Richard Hadlee. The marvellous Bert Sutcliffe? Nine votes. So too for John R Reid, the most dominant figure in the New Zealand game for over a decade, and current captain Daniel Vettori.

The final XI comprises two players whose best work took place before the Second World War (Stewie Dempster and Jack Cowie), two from the present team (Vettori and Shane Bond), four from the 1980s - when New Zealand, unbeaten at home for 10 years, enjoyed a golden period with a collection of strong-willed characters (Turner, Crowe, Hadlee and Ian Smith), and four from the 1949 team that set high standards in squaring a four-Test series in England (Sutcliffe, Reid, Cowie and Martin Donnelly).

Turner's selection was easy. A hundred first-class centuries, a brace of them to steer New Zealand to their first Test win over Australia, 1000 runs before May in the 1973 season, all speak of his class. A man with a perfectionist's touch, combined with a remorselessness about his batting, this supreme technician reinvented himself as a free-scoring one-day batsman with an eye for innovation.

Those who saw Dempster bat are long gone, but there are occasions when numbers and legend can be persuasive bedfellows. Ten tests, a 65.72 average, New Zealand's first Test century-maker, and still part-owner of the country's third-highest partnership and the highest opening stand against England, 276 with Jack Mills in 1930. Oh yes, and a Wisden player of the year in 1932.

John Wright and Mark Richardson, doughty scrappers, and Sutcliffe all won support; Sutcliffe in two categories. His numbers were superior as an opener, but a place had to be found, and so it is at No. 3. At a time when Australians insisted Neil Harvey was the game's peerless left-hand batsman, there was, in a small nearby corner of the world, a core of folk who did, and still, forcefully disagree. Opportunities beckoned far less often for the golden-haired Sutcliffe. There is film of him batting, notably in the subcontinent in 1955-56, and it reveals classic strokes and quick feet.

Crowe strove for perfection, and at times got desperately close. His 188 against Australia in Brisbane was central to probably the country's finest all-round Test performance. At his best he had a dismissive quality at the crease and could make batting look easy.

New Zealand cricket has long had an all-hands-to-the-pump philosophy, combined with a relish of pricking egos and tripping up those with expectations of an easy ride. That has enabled it to punch well above its weight, albeit after a trying start, for much of its Test life

Donnelly spent most of his career in England, where he was a prolific player for Oxford University; scored what remains the only double-hundred for New Zealand at Lord's, in 1949, during a series he averaged 77 in; hit 162 for the Gentlemen against the Players; and was a Wisden Player of the Year in 1947, when he was lauded as the world's best left-hand batsman. Donnelly only played seven Tests, but as with Dempster his fame was achieved from afar.

Stephen Fleming, an elegant left-hand batsman and fine captain, and Andrew Jones, a hard-minded character who averaged 44.27, had their supporters.

New Zealand cricket has yet to produce a more forceful personality than Reid. There were times he carried the national side almost alone, capable of ferocity with the bat, an aggressive medium-pacer and a fine fielder. He would have eaten up the one-day game. Reid captained New Zealand to their first three Test wins, led the World XI against England, and in between was a colossus in South Africa in 1961-62. Chris Cairns and Bruce Taylor had their roles, but neither came close to the man who was New Zealand cricket for years.

Ian Smith was an overwhelming choice as wicketkeeper, part of the celebrated 1980s troupe. Adam Parore was a skilled successor, Brendon McCullum the boisterous man of the moment.

Vettori had a lock on the spinning spot, a player whose mild appearance disguises a steely determination. Which brings us to the most contentious selection. Who to partner Hadlee? Cowie and Bond it is.

Hadlee first. The tree-lined Hagley Oval in Christchurch, among the most scenic cricket spots in the country, had its usual half-dozen senior and second-grade club games in full swing on Saturday, November 9, 1985. Australia had started the second day of the Brisbane Test at 146 for 4, all to Hadlee. Someone shouted out, "He's got six". Shortly after, "He's got seven", and then "He's got eight!" Games ground to a halt as the transistors were turned up around the Oval. Enough said.

Bond provides the genuine speed and a fine average, alongside Cowie, nicknamed "Bull", a tough competitor who bowled with skill and heart, taking 45 wickets at 21.53 in his nine Tests. How good was he? "Had he been an Australian he might have been termed a wonder of the age," wrote Wisden editor Wilfred Brookes.

David Leggat is chief cricket writer and chief sports reporter of the New Zealand Herald