July 5, 2010

The consummate professional

He was New Zealand's greatest bowler and the first Test cricketer to be knighted while still active, but at home Richard Hadlee didn't get the adulation his stature demanded

Fortunate the cricket writer who has seen Richard Hadlee break Ian Botham's Test wicket-taking record at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, demolish the Indians with 7 for 23 at the Basin Reserve, absolutely slaughter Australia at the Gabba with 9 for 52, and march proudly out of Lord's in 1990 as the only playing cricketer to be knighted.

Hadlee was born to the purple, his cricketing genes alive and throbbing from his early sporting years as a quick-footed football goalkeeper. His father Walter had an almost royal impact as the most devoted player, captain, chairman, selector and president of the New Zealand board in the second half of the 20th century. Two sons, Barry (confined to one-day batting) and Dayle (medium-fast bowler), had already represented New Zealand.

Hadlee junior worked his way steadily up the age-group ladder on to first-class cricket with Canterbury, and a quiet international start with two wickets in a home Test against Pakistan. That was followed by a one-wicket Test at Trent Bridge before he made it to the side for the 1973-74 tour of Australia.

In the first Test in Melbourne, he might have had an early victim had a miscue by Keith Stackpole not dropped neatly between sluggish fieldsmen at square point and deepish cover. Stackpole scored 122, Australia won by an innings. Hadlee glumly finished with none for 104 from 25 overs.

Then, from his wicketkeeper Ken Wadsworth, came some vital advice. Wadsworth told Hadlee that with his sharp speed, by New Zealand standards, and on sometimes helpful pitches, he had taken heaps of wickets. "At home," said Wadsworth, "you might get wickets by bowling fast and scaring batsmen. Australian batsmen are used to fast bowling, are not scared, and the bowler needs more skills than sheer speed if he is to get out good batsmen on the hard, fast Australian pitches."

In the following Test in Sydney, New Zealand scored 312 and 305 for 9 declared. Hadlee broke the back of the Australian first innings (162) with 4 for 33, three caught close in, one lbw. By stumps on the fourth day, Australia, needing 456 to win, had lost Stackpole and Ian Chappell lbw to Hadlee. They were 30 for 2 the next morning and it rained all day. Justice was done two months later in Christchurch when New Zealand won the second Test by five wickets - Hadlee taking 3 for 59 and 4 for 71.

From that point onward, Hadlee steadily put together his marvellous career: his bowling developed, his batting was full of handsome and ambitious strokes, and his fielding at his favourite gully position was quite outstanding. However, while New Zealanders admired his ability (especially when he was forging a Test win) they stopped short of hero worship. Hadlee was forming his career in his own fashion: determined, seeking perfection, but not with the homespun warmth that New Zealanders seek in their sporting heroes.

Some regarded him as the tall poppy, a lofty, self-centred eminence compared with the average New Zealander, and there were more than a few who would have liked to see him whittled down to normal status. Such an attitude has blighted some New Zealand sporting careers. Fortunately for Hadlee, he was signed up by Nottinghamshire from 1978-87. He had a new home, among folk who loved their cricketers. He sank luxuriously into this new and wonderful world of cricket, where he could seek fame, and the records he was rather fond of, without hometown rancour.

Hadlee was born to the purple, his cricketing genes alive and throbbing from his early sporting years

He received, and deserved, a fistful of county cricket awards, was a Wisden Player of the Year in 1982, and with his typically determined approach put together the amazing effort of the double - 100 wickets and 1000 runs in a county season. In the old days, of more expansive county seasons, the double was a top allrounder's pass mark. By the time Hadlee achieved it, it was a rare and almost impossible treasure. His love affair with cricketing life in Nottingham showed in his overall career. This came in three periods. In his first 10 Test series pre-Notts, Hadlee took 76 wickets. In his last eight series after Nottingham, Hadlee secured 76 wickets again. In the 15 Test series during his 10 seasons with Nottinghamshire, he took 279 wickets.

Hadlee returned to life in New Zealand at the peak of his powers, and with another jab from the critics' pens. He was in his mid-30s by this time, and his long and successful Notts experience convinced him that he must re-fashion his playing style. So he shortened his run, discarded a consistently high speed and concentrated on working the batsmen out rather than blasting them to kingdom come. The critics bemoaned the lack of a 90mph opening bowler, but Hadlee won that argument by showing the improved mastery of his new medium-fast style. It was still potent enough to get two five-fors and one ten-for at the cost of 14 per wicket against India, and 16 (with one five-for) on his last tour, to England, in 1990.

This was a fascinating end to his long and valiant Test career. And, being Hadlee and not a stranger to the statistics that grew like sturdy oaks in his career, he would add another. When he had Devon Malcolm lbw at the end of the England second innings at Edgbaston, Hadlee proudly pointed to the fact that he had taken a wicket with his last ball in Test cricket.

His knighthood had, of course, come earlier in that tour; he was the first active Test player to be so honoured by the English monarch - and his friends reckoned that Walter wore the same smile for a week. There were, of course, New Zealanders who maintained that Walter himself had laboured so long for his great sporting love that only a baronetcy would have been sufficient.

Hadlee carved out his long and lustrous career with singular determination, which sometimes had him at odds with his fellow players, and even some of the national cricket hierarchy. A curious fact is that during his long career under half a dozen or so leaders, Hadlee was never made captain. There were two semi-official reasons. One was that he had some radical ideas about how the game could or should be played, which might have resulted in self-destruction. The other was that he spent so much of his time and effort on his own behalf that he might not be the right kind of team leader.

There were several examples that Hadlee was on one field and the rest of the players on another.

During the 1980s, the New Zealand players pooled any prize money and divided the loot evenly at the end of the series or tour. During a home tour Hadlee won a run-of-the-mill Toyota car, and this was turned into cash and spread among the players. In Australia in 1985, after his brilliant bowling in the 2-1 Test series win, he won the prize for the international cricketer of the Australian season, even though the New Zealanders missed the final one-day tri-series. This time the prize was an Alfa Romeo car, much higher in class than the modest Toyota. As the New Zealanders headed for the airport and home, the word came around that Hadlee wanted to keep the car. This caused a panic meeting in the airport lounge, which only left the team divided for and against breaking the old tradition. The argument went on and into the public view. When it appeared Hadlee would put the car-value cash into the pool, he found that might be a taxation problem. Instead, he said he would pay for all team members to have a week's holiday at a Lake Taupo time-share. The decision was rushed through as a home Test was on the point of starting. So Hadlee got his Alfa Romeo and it appears very few players used the time-share offer.

Two years later, he caused another division among the Test team ranks. Between the second and third matches against a strong West Indies side, a Hadlee column appeared in the national red-top local newspaper, Truth. In the article Hadlee sharply criticised the New Zealand team's attitude. In a later book Ian Smith, the New Zealander wicketkeeper at the time, said Hadlee chipped the New Zealand players "for sloppy practice habits and tardy attitude". "This did not go down well with the boys. Such criticism should remain within the team. To air it publicly, especially at such a critical part of the series, was virtually unprecedented," wrote Smith.

Jeremy Coney, the captain, spoke in the dressing room against Hadlee's comments, but dressing-room time was running out and the players had to take the field, with Hadlee among them. To the onlookers something looked odd. Coney had decided not to speak to Hadlee on the field. If Coney wanted to instruct Hadlee about playing tactics, they were relayed by John Wright and, later, Martin Snedden. Hadlee was not impressed with his short opening spell, so took himself off, and Wright had to pass the information on to Coney. But the team recovered from the drama. Hadlee returned to take 6 for 50 - three of them from slip catches by Coney, and the New Zealanders' mood improved, if not completely, by the fact that they won the Test by five wickets.

Having such a strong attitude about his own cricket, Hadlee was bound to be a majority of one from time to time. But as the years roll by and other New Zealand candidates bid for greatness, they will have to improve on his heroics in that marvellous 1970-90 reign. With cricket changing its shape year by year, with Test cricket being squeezed into corners not required for one-day matches, it may well be that not even the finest New Zealander of the future will surpass the Test deeds of Richard Hadlee.

Don Cameron is a writer based in New Zealand