June 24, 2014

The club that produced 25 New Zealand internationals

Not just that - Albion CC in Dunedin is probably the oldest cricket club in Australasia

Four of the current New Zealand Test squad cut their teeth at Albion CC © Will Macpherson

These are confusing - if heady - days for cricket in New Zealand. As modern legends have their names muddied and the game's recent history is put through the mangle, the picture for the current crop of Black Caps is more rosy.

They've blended inventive leadership, canny new-ball bowling and a highlights reel of spectacular catches, breaking records and winning series at home along the way. That Test-ready cricketers routinely appear from an apparently modestly resourced domestic competition is little short of a miracle.

Also extraordinary is the contribution Albion CC, Dunedin - said to be Australasia's oldest continuous cricket club - is making to this run. Mark Craig's impressive bow in Kingston two weeks ago handed him a number of new titles. It made him Black Cap No. 265, the first man to dispatch his first ball in Test cricket for six, and gave him the best figures (8 for 188) for a Kiwi on debut.

He also became Albion's 25th New Zealand representative. He's joined in the touring party by fellow Albionites Brendon McCullum and Neil Wagner, while a fourth, Brendon's older brother Nathan, will join up for the white-ball leg of the tour. Beyond those 25 - which include the likes of Andrew Jones, Martin Snedden and the Bracewell brothers - Albion's international roll of honour features Jonathan Trott, Clare Taylor, Rachel Pullar, three All Whites and six All Blacks.

Perhaps most incredible of all, six of the nine first-class triple-centuries scored by New Zealanders came from the blades of Albion batsmen. Bert Sutcliffe notched two, and is joined by Glenn Turner, Ken Rutherford (who famously brought up the landmark before tea at Scarborough in 1986), Mark Richardson and Brendon McCullum in Albion's 300-club, while only Craig Spearman, Peter Fulton and the first man to manage the feat, another Dunedin man, Roger Blunt, hail from other clubs.

"We've a rich history of Black Caps," Albion club president Grant Ford tells me with a healthy dose of understatement. "But to have four involved at once is unprecedented. Normally they're a bit more spaced out so it's really very unique. It's an immense source of pride for a club that's very family-based."

Six of the nine first-class triple-centuries scored by New Zealanders came from the blades of Albion batsmen

Passing through Dunedin, even with the All Blacks in town and the depths of winter - frosty mornings and not a cut strip in sight - upon the city, folk speak with pride and fresh memories of Craig's bow, McCullum's triple-ton, and the extension of Albion's impressive dynasty. In every conversation about the club, there's one name that continues to pop up: Warwick "Fox" Larkins - by all accounts the club's "heartbeat". As per the instructions of Ford (and the local publican), I get in touch.

When we meet the following day and he shows me the club's Culling Park home in St Kilda, it's immediately clear that 67-year-old Larkins' role hasn't been understated. First things first, why's he "Fox"?

"Oh, I once stupidly described my leggies as cunning and it's stuck ever since," he tells me, shaking his head. "I joined the club when I left school in 1963, played until about 2006, was president for 25 years and served on the committee for nearly half a century until I got sick of all the meetings and gave up last year. I was never much of a cricketer, just a real enthusiast playing in the lower grades. These days I still pop down on match days, do the teas and serve and have a couple of drinks at the bar."

As Larkins continues, all witty anecdotes and wisecracks, I realise I'm being shown Albion's world by an institution. I'm touring Downton with Carson, Old Trafford with Fergie, and Oxford with Morse. Nobody knows more than Larkins. The walls of the clubhouse are decked floor-to-ceiling with every form of cricketana imaginable - at a guess there are 200 ties, 50 caps, 50 jerseys, 20 bats, with photographs and signatures, from Wilfred Rhodes to the Don, filling the remaining space. Among the most curious items is the cricket shirt worn by Trevor Chappell when bowling the infamous underarm ball ("Rutherford pinched that," chuckles the Fox). Almost all of it has been accumulated by Larkins but naturally that modesty is back on show: "Glenn Turner has given plenty. I'm very grateful. All the stuff that was mine belongs to the club now."

The anecdotes that come with the memorabilia - some of it almost as old as the club - are priceless. There are the historical ones: Larkins tells me of Mark Cohen, the English member of the House of Representatives who founded the club, naming it after his homeland and generously donating to it to fuel his favourite recreational activity; and of German-born Harry Siedeberg, who fought prejudice to become New Zealand's billiards champion and a Black Cap between the wars. There's the move from the club's original home in North Dunedin, the jolly celebrations of the 125th anniversary in 1987 and the 150th last year. Sadly, the centenary celebrations happened weeks before Larkins joined the club.

So what of the oldest-in-Australasia claim? Larkins is proud but unfussed, and certainly doesn't crow about the record: "We're accepted to have been founded in 1862, although there's no records in newspaper archives until 1869, and the Otago Cricket Association and formal competition didn't emerge until 1886. I've contacted various clubs, including Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and while older clubs exist, none have been continuously active like Albion has. No one has ever disproved it and I guess until that happens, it stands."

Larkins is full of anecdotes. Whether they're of working as a gravedigger with Rutherford, meeting Colin Cowdrey at Arundel, or about the virtuosity, vim and vigour of the fledgling McCullums, speaking to the place's gentle patriarch is a reminder of the club's family feel. Unsurprisingly, Larkins is desperate to mark McCullum's triple (the first by a Kiwi in Tests) by uniting Albion's living triple-centurions. Albion sees little of "Baz" these days, but he played a game ahead of West Indies' Test series against New Zealand last November. The McCullums are a key part of the family, with father Stuart and uncle Grant, like Nathan and Brendon, having risen through the ranks.

There are still 16 junior and four senior teams playing at Culling Park, which, deep into the off-season, looks a little fluffy as it doubles as home to Dunedin Tech FC (surprisingly, soccer, not rugby). Despite the ground-share, Albion is the only cricket club in Dunedin with a private clubhouse.

There's one thing that Larkins keeps from me until we're just chewing the fat as he drops me back at my hotel. He has told of the summer spent watching his mate Glenn Turner play county cricket in 1972, when he befriended D'Oliveira and had a bat with Imran Khan. He has told of touring with New Zealand and scoring three Tests at Lord's, The Oval and Headingley in '78. ("I didn't deserve to be there but they trusted me and knew I wasn't some sort of gangster!")

But what he fails to mention until one of my myriad questions stumbles across it, is that he's one of the Albion 25. On the way home from that 1978 tour, New Zealand played the Dutch in Amsterdam and, having diligently scored 20 matches across three months, Larkins was given a shot. "There were some injuries and they gave me a game to be kind," he chuckles, self-effacing as ever.

Inevitably, there's a final yarn:

"I batted [number] six, scored 2 and nearly ran out Richard Hadlee! I called him through for a tight single and at the end of the over he came up to me and asked what the hell I was doing. I told him the fielder had picked it up with his left hand, so it was fine. He gave me a withering look and said, 'He's a bloody left-hander, you idiot!'"

For Larkins, with four of the club's most famous sons so far from home, there's just one missing item on the wall of the family home. "I'm desperate for somebody to get a picture of Brendon, Nathan, Neil and Mark together in the West Indies. That's the final piece of the jigsaw."