South African tour set up MacGibbon's career
As New Zealand's inexperienced bowling attack contemplates the tough job ahead in the Test series against South Africa, they could reflect on how another New Zealander Tony MacGibbon used his opportunity to stake a niche in the game.
Before he went on the 1953-54 tour to South Africa, New Zealand's first, he had played three Tests and taken one wicket, South African Roy McLean, for 195 runs. But regarded as a bit of a tearaway, he was expected to be able to put his speed and his height (196cm) to good use on the pacy South African tracks.
MacGibbon learned in the first game that the nature of the South African pitches didn't allow for the waywardness that he had been prone to and while the side played the second match, he and manager Jack Kerr went away to work on a reduced run. It proved the makings of him. MacGibbon had always had an out-swinger. But as he worked hard on reducing his run from 21 paces to 16, he found he was able to bring the ball back the other way.
He chuckled at the memory of playing a New Zealand XI when the side returned from South Africa. "I bowled Zin Harris twice for ducks with balls that came back into him. He was used to me bowling out-swingers. I also bowled Harry Cave with an in-swinger," he said. Reducing his run gave him greater control and he became a much more effective bowler, a central plank in New Zealand's attack for the remainder of the 1950s.
A later generation of cricket fans would see the same effect when Richard Hadlee decided to stop spraying the ball at great speed with the benefit of world record-breaking control. "I always had been troubled with no-balling. I once bowled a 14-ball over, at Lancaster Park. But by reducing my run-up I was more controlled, and could think about what I was doing."
It worked so well for MacGibbon that by the end of his Test career in England in 1958 he had taken 70 Test wickets, a New Zealand Test record at the time. And South Africa was the start of it all. The conditions in South Africa were enjoyable, on many occasions the pitches suited the Kiwis, but equally a South African attack which featured the notorious pace man Neil Adcock, and the slow bowler Hugh Tayfield, proved too strong in the series.
But MacGibbon, who had started the tour with a Test average of 196.00, took 22 wickets at a cost of 20.63. Throughout his career, MacGibbon thrived in the touring environment and his cricket got better. "We didn't get the opportunities in those days. We had no exposure to top class players. That's what a tour does," he said.
Having a captain like Geoff Rabone had also been a boon to MacGibbon. "He helped me and he brought my confidence out. He was a great competitor and led by example. We should have got a lot more out of him in his career than we did. He had some guts. I remember one game when he was facing Adcock who was bringing the ball back into him. Geoff took the ball on his body and must have been hit 19-20 times between his knee and his shoulder down one side.
"I remember another occasion in Bulawayo when we dropped 12 catches, or certainly a lot of catches, in the morning session. Geoff got stuck into us during the lunch break and then the fourth ball after lunch the ball was snicked and went to him, and he dropped it. That caused a few laughs.
"But he would not have been out of place as a current captain. He tried to get a professional attitude into us. I remember in the third Test, at Cape Town, I got the first four South African wickets to fall. I thought I was going to get a bag of five but then had to watch Geoff pick up the next six," he said.
Rabone broke his foot before the fourth Test and missed the last two Tests. MacGibbon was in no doubt that New Zealand could have won the fifth Test had Rabone been available and able to use his particular captaincy skills to the side's advantage.
Adcock was a problem throughout the tour and while MacGibbon's 22 wickets were a New Zealand record in a series, Adcock took 24 for South Africa. Slow bowler Tayfield was another and in the fourth Test when New Zealand was dismissed for 79 he had taken 6 for 13. "He bowled what I called off-straighters with a pronounced off-spinner's action and our batsmen played for spin that wasn't there," he said.
So quickly did MacGibbon adapt to his new style of bowling that he began what became a happy knack of picking up quality batsmen. Jack McGlew was always a prime target for the New Zealanders after his double century in the season previous on New Zealand soil. MacGibbon got him five times out of nine innings in the series; he was not out and run out once each. "Roy McLean you had to get rid of early too. Russell Endean was another and he batted us out of that fifth Test."
The players were aware of the divide between black and white during the tour and the shantytowns made an impression he remembers still. He also recalled travelling from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth by train and passing through the tin shacks of a town outside Cape Town. "Geoff Rabone looked at the scene and said, 'That's what a New Zealand land agent would describe as a veritable sun trap.'"
The following summer provided only two Tests against an England team, which had just routed Australia courtesy of its fast bowling demon Frank Tyson. It is best remembered as the series in which New Zealand was dismissed for 26 at Eden Park. But MacGibbon has never forgot facing up to speedster Tyson.
"It was in Dunedin. I played back to him, because John Reid always said you should play back in that situation. It was a perfect back-foot defensive shot but I still hadn't got my bat down by the time middle wicket was knocked out of the ground. I think it might have been the first ball I faced against him."
MacGibbon rated Brian Statham as well. "Statham didn't let you have a rest. Five balls out of six were right on line so that if you missed you would be bowled. You couldn't score off him. He got a lot of wickets for Fred Trueman because they would decide to get their runs off him and take a few risks to get them."
If South Africa was a cricket paradise then MacGibbon's next tour was cricket hell. It was New Zealand's first trip to the sub-continent and the illnesses the side suffered made this year's injury-plagued South African trip look like a luxury outing by comparison. MacGibbon found it especially hard as Indian and Pakistan pitches did little to encourage his bowling. He wasn't helped by treatment for a stomach illness that was completely the opposite of what he needed. "It was very difficult for us. They were doing their best for us and were extremely hospitable."
But the food preparation, particularly when out of the main centres was the problem and all the New Zealanders struggled at various times. "At one stage I went to sleep with a couple of pillows behind me while I stayed on the loo all night."
By the time the tour finished and he had picked up 14 wickets in eight Test matches, at an average of 58, he learned he had dengue fever. "In the second innings of the last Test I had felt not quite right and had a splitting headache while I was batting. I was then picked to play against Combined Universities at Nagpur and was sitting beside John Reid waiting to bat. I remember saying to him, 'God, it's got cold.' And he looked at me and said it was 93 degrees."
Coming home from the tour he missed the first Test against the visiting West Indies but was included for the next three games and was there when victory was finally achieved in a Test match. It must have made up for what had been a harrowing season for all concerned. MacGibbon was a key contributor with 4 for 44 in the first innings and 35 in New Zealand's second innings.
"I can still see Noel McGregor under that ball that got Everton Weekes and Jack Alabaster probably said more prayers than he ever had in his life," he said. Weekes was out for 31 and the biggest obstacle to a New Zealand victory was removed. "Weekes would compare with the best batsmen of today. His concentration and footwork was superb, it really was," he said.
Throughout his career, MacGibbon developed a happy knack of picking up quality batsmen. In the first innings of the fourth Test against the West Indies he added Gary Sobers and Weekes to his list. However, it was during that two Test series with England the previous summer that he began a liaison with England captain Peter May that continued through the 1958 tour when May ruled supreme with the bat. MacGibbon dismissed May twice in Dunedin, and then picked him up four times in England, in six innings. Only Richie Benaud, with eight dismissals, took May's wicket more often in Tests.
"He [May] had an outstanding season. He scored 2200 runs in a season when they lost 11 playing Saturdays. He was the first guy who played off his front foot to a ball 12 to 15 inches off the ground and played it all along the ground. He would get his feet and bat into position quickly, and then delay his shot," he said.
Not surprisingly, May didn't rate as the hardest batsman he bowled to. Australian left-hander Neil Harvey took that honour. "He played everything so late. You would think you were through him and just when you expected the ball to hit the wickets, it would be hitting the boundary."
Team-mate Bert Sutcliffe was another who was difficult to get past. As he looks at New Zealand in South Africa preparing for the Test he said the injury situation could best be described as "shambolic". "[Chris] Cairns, [Geoff] Allott, [Dion] Nash and [Daniel] Vettori are top international bowlers. You take the corresponding bowlers out of the Aussie side and we'd be all smiles," he said.
MacGibbon admits he is a great supporter of Allott and believes Cairns is a good attacking bowler but that it was difficult for him because as an all-rounder he had to try and do as well with the bat as he did with the ball all the time. "Vettori is better now than Hedley Howarth was and he is just coming into it.
"Stephen Fleming has been a great disappointment to me. If you take all his scores of the last two seasons and there are not as many big scores as there should be. I don't know whether it is the captaincy but I remember that Lord Cobham told John Reid, if he wasn't enjoying his cricket as captain he should get out of it. "I do feel for Chris Harris. He's been talked into letting himself think he's not a Test batsman and that's bad," he said.
MacGibbon's career was a classic example of taking his chance as it occurred. His capacity for picking up key wickets is an asset New Zealand could use over the next few weeks in South Africa.