June 28, 2002

Dacre backgrounds 'The Bill Cunningham Incident'

The Ces Dacre Files: Part Three

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.

The case of Bill Cunningham's treatment on the 1927 tour of England remains one of the more intriguing aspects of New Zealand's early cricket history.

Cunningham, a fast-medium bowler from Canterbury, was regarded as one of the best bowlers in New Zealand. But in England he suffered a case of what now would be called, in golfing terms, the yips, that delicate state where players can no longer sink their putts.

It is a little like left-arm slow bowlers losing their action, the most notable recent example of which afflicted Mark Richardson who had to remodel his career as an opening batsman.

Ces Dacre was a close friend of Cunningham's, a relationship that developed on the 1925/26 tour of Australia.

Initially, after leaving New Zealand and before suffering his bowling problems in England, Dacre said Cunningham was the wag of the party. Another factor in his decline was also the problems suffered in his relationship with the aristrocratic captain of the side Tom Lowry.

A member of a prominent Hawke's Bay run-holding family, Lowry had studied at Cambridge University, and had played for the MCC and Somerset, so was well known in English cricket circles. His background was significantly different to that of the working-class Cunningham and problems developed between the two which were not helped by Cunningham's loss of form.

Lowry was described by the tour's correspondent O S Hintz as "a man of complex personality."

Cunningham later claimed: "We [he and Lowry] were the best of friends in Australia, but he turned against me. To my mind, he was prejudiced against anyone from the working class. I was involved in the union movement ... Besides, my father came from Ireland, and that did not seem to please Tom."

At one stage of the England tour, Dacre was required to take Cunningham to Lord's for him to work with Patsy Hendren to see what was happening with Cunningham's action.

"Cunningham was a little upset when I informed him about going to Lord's for practice, and promptly went back to the hotel and sat down for the rest of the morning. After some persuasion I got a taxi, and off we went to Lord's to see the famous Patsy Hendren and his cure for our best bowler; but it was no good. Poor Bill was hopeless. He got that bad one could not bat in the nets against him.

"We tried him with a shorter run, but without effect. Patsy experimented with all kinds of ideas. What a blow to a side when they lose their stock bowler! We were relying on Cunningham to do big things. In New Zealand he was one of the best natural bowlers I have ever played against; but when I look at his performances and see that he took five wickets for 265 at a cost of 53 apiece, it shows you were up against it with only 14 players.

"It was not only the bowlers, but the batsmen also, who could not strike true form."

On a lighter note, Dacre also recalled the match against the Navy where the New Zealanders were housed in the officers' barracks. After one night at dinner he recalled, "... the last I saw of one well-known New Zealand player that night was when one or two lieutenants were folding him up in a big carpet square and rolling him up and down the floor."

On another match of the tour, against Yorkshire, Dacre, who did not regard himself as a serious bowler, was to taste the uncanny ability that Lowry had of making bowling changes of immense perception.

"I remember this match well as it was awful weather and the pitch a real dead one - what we would term in cricket language 'as dead as mutton,' and the ball taking what seemed to be about half an hour before reaching the batsman.

"Yorkshire in 1927 had a marvellous side - players like [Percy] Holmes, [Herbert] Sutcliffe, [Maurice] Leyland, [Edgar] Oldroyd, [Wilfred] Rhodes, and the late Roy Kilner. When I went on to bowl, the batsmen were well on top of all our bowlers, Percy Holmes getting 175 not out and Leyland 118. Then Tom Lowry came up to me and asked me to put my arm over. I laughed at the thought of me bowling against such good players as the Yorkshire side had. I was hoping the Yorkshire committee had got in a good stock of balls as I expected to receive the same treatment as my mates had good - 'stick oh' - but it was not to be. I found I could turn the ball fully a foot. One ball must have pitched fully six inches outside the off stump, and George Macaulay laid his ears back to give it a mighty swipe, but instead it knocked his off hob down.

"That day I got the wickets of Leyland, Kilner (for a duck), Rhodes, Macaulay, and their skipper, Major [Arthur] Lupton. My arm must have been a little higher than in those days than what it is today, otherwise the Yorkshire players might have complained to the umpire about my arm being somewhere under the sight-screen."

His figures of five for 35 remained the best of his 39-wicket first-class career.

Another statistical oddity of the tour was that in the last match, against HDG Leveson-Gower's XI at Scarborough, six of the New Zealand batsmen achieved their 1000 runs on the tour.

The trip home to New Zealand was marred by an accident as the team was leaving Sydney Harbour on the way home. Their ship, the Tahiti, ran into a ferry, the Greycliffe, cutting it in half. The ferry was known locally as the 'school boat' because it carried many schoolchildren at that time of day from central Sydney to their homes at Watson's Bay. Of the 125 passengers and crew, 50 were taken to hospital where 40 died, including many schoolchildren.

The Tahiti swept through the wreckage as one half of the ferry sank almost immediately. Many of the victims were dragged along by the bigger vessel and several were maimed.

The incident became a controversial one as the Tahiti was blamed for the collision by a marine court of enquiry, but two years later another court reversed the decision.

"It all happened so suddenly and right under our very noses," he said.

Almost immediately after landing back in New Zealand Dacre returned to England because Gloucestershire wanted him to achieve his two-year qualification as quickly as possible. He was required to play club cricket in that time, and appeared occasionally against touring teams and for the Players against the Gentlemen.

"These games I enjoyed very much, as the games were never taken very seriously and I had a chance of seeing some of the finest cricketers in England in action."

Dacre nominated Frank Woolley as his favourite batsman of the time he played.

"He flourishes that bat like a sledge-hammer, but what ease and timing the Kent man has."

Dacre was invited to tour the West Indies with a side picked by Lord Tennyson. And he recalled the Test match played at Kingston, the first of the series, where George Headley scored 356 against the side to better the 326 Andy Sandham had scored on an earlier tour.

"This innings to me was one of the finest I ever wish to see. He never lifted a ball off the ground until he was caught by Lord Tennyson at mid-off."

Dacre returned to New Zealand in 1937.

He died in Auckland on November 2, 1975.