June 28, 2002

Dacre, New Zealand's first big-hitter

The Ces Dacre Files: Part One

Ces Dacre was a pioneer in New Zealand cricket, the first professional to make his mark after playing for New Zealand, he qualified for the Gloucestershire club in 1930. Upon his return to New Zealand, he wrote a series of articles on his career for the long defunct New Zealand Observer. CricInfo New Zealand editor Lynn McConnell has used these articles as the basis of this feature series on one of the legends of the New Zealand game.

In a country which has produced some notable big-hitters, Nathan Astle, Chris and Lance Cairns, John Reid, Bert Sutcliffe, Bruce Taylor, Ken Wadsworth, Jock Edwards and Craig McMillan, Ces Dacre was head of the queue, and by New Zealand standards, well ahead of his time.

After touring England as vice-captain of the 1927 team, a tour on which he became the first New Zealander to score a century at Lord's, he returned to England to play for Gloucestershire, for whom he qualified in 1930. During his first season he repaid the English county's support by scoring 233, his highest score in a career which included 24 centuries.

Thriving in the county scene, he became regarded as one of the bigger hitters in the game, and in 1931 led the country for the most sixes hit over the summer, 32 of them. It wasn't just a fluke, as on the 1927 tour he hit 21 sixes and in the season of 1932 he hit 16.

Although Dacre never played Test cricket, he did fashion an outstanding record and scored 12,230 runs at 29.18 during a 21-season career.

A product of Auckland's North Shore, his Devonport school team won the Auckland primary schools' championship for seven years in succession. It was in these first years in cricket that he developed his taste for the big hit.

"During my school career, we had some big hitters in the sides I played with, and it gave me great delight to see some of the senior players pepper the roofs of houses or even break a few windows. But in a year or so my turn to do the same came along, and many a ball I hit into a fowl yard and scattered the hens in all directions," he recalled in his reminiscences in the New Zealand Observer.

"I remember one old lady giving me a little advice when I became a nuisance to her garden. It was my first year as captain of the school eleven, and that year I had a great year with the bat. I had batted ten times and made seven centuries, including a 200 not out at Victoria Park, and every run run out.

"This Saturday morning I was well on my way to three figures when the dear old lady came and asked me to take the school team to town every match as, much as she admired my cricket, she hated to see a dozen or so young boys sitting on the fence ready to retrieve any lost ball and so destroy her vegetable garden."

While at primary school, Dacre was coached by four different English professionals, A E Relf, Frank Shacklock, Dick Pearson and George Thompson. He regarded Shacklock as the pick of them.

"The Notts player was a very thorough coach with boys, and I have seen him stand beside a boy for at least a couple of minutes until he was satisfied you had played the shot correctly."

Dacre's march through the grades was impressive and he played his first senior match at the age of 14 and scored his first century for the North Shore side, against Waitemata, at Victoria Park.

"The late Ted Sale was my captain, and I remember to this day how he came to me and congratulated me on my performance. I was very thrilled at the time, as I knew every word he said to me came from the bottom of his heart. He was one of nature's gentlemen."

That same season, after scoring 184 in another senior game, he was invited to travel to Napier and Gisborne to play for E C Beale's XI, and scored 83 and 48 at Napier.

It is a reflection of the pre-World War One times Dacre grew up in, that the notion of playing at home on the back lawn was frowned upon by his mother.

"Just before tea the whole family would arrive in the backyard ready for the fray. The only other dissenting voice would be raised by my mother, who would tell us we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves for playing on the Sabbath. But we generally made amends by escorting her to church."

Dacre said that while he was always playing cricket he didn't take it that seriously during his youth, except when playing against his brothers and sisters. But he did remember one other occasion on the way home from a game for his North Shore fourth grade side.

"I was strolling home and stopped to look at a match that was being played between two soft goods houses. One side had batted and the other team, one man short, had about 35 runs to get. Suddenly a gentleman came up to me and asked me if I played at all, so I said I played a bit. 'Well son,' he said, 'will you be our last man in?' I accepted his offer, donned a pair of big pads (they were nearly as big as myself) and in I went. I got the required runs and a few more as well, winning the match by one wicket. Delighted at beating their rivals, the winning eleven carried me off the field shoulder high, and could not do enough for me. They tried to persuade my father to let me go to the Masonic Hotel for dinner, but there was nothing doing."

During the winter months after dabbling in hockey at school, he took to soccer where he found he was not only a natural left-footed player, but also good off his right foot. His progress was notable and once making senior grade, again as a young player, he became a permanent fixture in the Auckland team. Selection for New Zealand followed in 1923 when the side toured Australia.

"We had a very successful tour that year, as we beat the Aussies in two Tests out of three ... There was no love lost between the New Zealand team and Australia. It was only a season before that an Australian team visited New Zealand, and in some of the games some hard words were used, so when we sallied forth to Australia the following winter we knew we would have to take some of the same medicine. We got some good gruellings up in the mining towns, but we never took it lying down, and what we got we gave back.

"The last test match the Aussies were really after our blood, but we won a great game by 4 to 3."

But Dacre, who acknowledged he played the game hard - hard enough to have the nickname 'Dirty Dacre', was not a great one for practice and he recalled that several times selectors asked him when he was going to turn up for practice. "I was always deaf to such inquiries ... But somehow I always managed to crawl into a side."

On another occasion he was approached by a selector: "I remember one poor selector giving me a good shake-up and telling me about all the other poor fellows doing their training in earnest, so he came to the conclusion that he must leave me out for the next rep match. I only smiled and started to walk away, but on the spur of the moment I turned and said: 'You can't leave me out of the side, as you must have someone who can put in the boot.' He had to laugh and called me a few harsh names, but I was still in the side for the next game."

Part Two: Dacre makes his mark on the New Zealand cricket front.