How New Zealand made me neglect my French exam
I've always enjoyed watching New Zealand. Especially the current team, arguably their finest. Along with every other non-Aussie, I was rooting for them in the World Cup final in Melbourne at the end of March: this summer, only the most dedicated England fans could have begrudged them a share of the annoyingly short series. It's not just the attacking batting, although that's what catches the eye: I'm not sure I've ever seen such collective fielding excellence, which often led to three men tearing after the ball towards the boundary. And Trent Boult is a real handful with the ball.
New Zealand's displays this summer brought to mind an against-the-odds performance from my youth - one that, as we'll see, threatened to derail my school exams.
Until the 1970s, New Zealand were usually heavily outgunned in England. The honourable exception was the 1949 side, captained by Richard Hadlee's father Walter, which drew all of that summer's four Tests, and brought about a change in thinking. Those were three-day matches: previously, only Australia were thought worthy of the full five days, although South Africa usually got four. But after the New Zealanders' plucky performance, all Tests in Britain were scheduled to last five days - something that rebounded on England the following year, when they lost 3-1 to West Indies.
However, apart from Hadlee's band (which boasted several fine batsmen in Martin Donnelly and the young Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid), New Zealand's results weren't great. The 1958 side was arguably the weakest touring team ever to tour England; only rain prevented a 5-0 whitewash, with Tony Lock taking 34 wickets at 7.47. Five times New Zealand were bowled out for less than 100; in the third Test, at Headingley, England declared at 267 for 2 and won by an innings. The 1965 and 1969 teams were despatched with more whimpers than bangs too.
New Zealand had still never won a Test against England, home or away, so the arrival of the 1973 team didn't raise the temperature too much, although Glenn Turner scoring 1000 runs before the end of May in the warm-up games did at least boost their public profile. When the Tests came, though, Turner's form had fizzled out: in the first one, at Trent Bridge, he scored 11 and 9, while his opening partner John Parker - who I'd seen get a few runs for Worcestershire (though not as many as Turner) - failed to reach double figures in either innings.
A peculiar Test match thus unfolded at Nottingham. England's batsmen hadn't set the world alight in making 250, but their seamers made that look more imposing by shooting the tourists out for just 97. England's second innings was strangely lopsided: eight batsmen were dismissed in single figures - but in the middle of that Dennis Amiss made 138 and Tony Greig 139, sharing a stand of 210. The youthful Ask Steven was distinctly unamused when Geoff Arnold at No. 11 ruined what might have been a unique scorecard by making 10 not out.
New Zealand were thus left with a record 479 to win, in more than two days, and the early loss of Turner and Parker didn't bode well. But then things started getting interesting - and started to impinge on the preparations for my French O-level exam, scheduled for the final day. Who, after all, could be bothered about irregular verbs, and that pesky business about whether nouns are masculine or feminine, when Greig was bouncing in to bowl, or Arnold was wobbling his seamers around?
From an unpromising 130 for 4, New Zealand were soon well past 200, thanks to a fine partnership between their captain, Bevan Congdon, and the British-born Vic Pollard - probably the finest Test player to emerge from Burnley pre-Anderson. They batted for most of the fourth day, and slowly the miracle seemed possible. Congdon, old-fashioned of technique and hairstyle, seemed immovable, and reached a career-best 176 before, in a major blow to New Zealand hopes, he was bowled by Arnold just before the close.
All the commentators seemed to call him "Bev" Congdon, and the habit stuck with me. Until a couple of years ago, when I mentioned him in an article and received a pained email from a Kiwi: "One of my pet hates! Congdon was always Bevan not Bev in NZ. Not sure why the English media always called him Bev!" Duly chastened, I've tried to give him the full Bevan ev since.
The next morning the French textbooks were still not getting much attention as Pollard reached his maiden Test century, in the course of a stand of 95 with the ill-fated wicketkeeper Ken Wadsworth. As the total inched towards 400 - less than 100 to win! - I remember giving serious consideration to calling in sick for the exam. But I did eventually tear myself away - it was supposed to be one of my better subjects, after all.
But it was hard to concentrate on dictée and les neiges d'antan when, not too far away, there was a Test match in the balance. Luckily the master invigilating that day was also a cricket lover; he'd been at school with Tom Dollery, Warwickshire's captain when they won the Championship in 1951. And he put my mind at rest by sidling round mid-exam and - probably breaking every known rule - surreptitiously showing me a piece of paper: "England won by 38 runs."
Yes, unseen by me, New Zealand had made it to 402 for 5 - just 77 short of the holy grail - but then England's persistent seamers claimed the last five wickets for 38. Still, 440 was the highest losing fourth-innings total in a Test at the time (it has since been surpassed, although New Zealand remain the record holders, with 451 against England in Christchurch in 2001-02). And they showed their performance was no fluke, in the next Test, at Lord's: Congdon followed 176 with 175, and Pollard made another century. This time they managed to draw. England took that series, but New Zealand were clearly pushovers no more. A Test victory over England finally came, in 1977-78, and in 1983 they recorded their first win on English soil.
And, dear reader, I passed.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2014. Ask Steven is now on Facebook