January 3, 2001

Dick Brittenden - One of a special kind in cricket journalism

New Zealand's leading cricket writer has retired. Now retired in Christchurch's beach suburb Sumner he said he misses writing. Not surprising really, after over 50 years in the trade.

Dick Brittenden, author of 14 cricket books, is now a sprightly 83-year-old and still retains all his passion for the game.

Expect to see him, perhaps in the company of old friends such as New Zealand cricket legend Walter Hadlee, at club and provincial games this season. That's when he's not playing his beloved golf at the Waitikiri course in Christchurch.

On leaving Christchurch Boys High School, where he was a contemporary of Hadlee, he played second grade cricket for the Old Boy's team. Then, after war service in the RNZAF as a navigator in Britain and the Bahamas, he entered journalism in 1946. His editor at the time told him to "learn the trade." University courses were seen as an unnecessary extravagance.

He was sports editor of The Press in Christchurch from 1954, in the days when you had that job for as long as you wanted, and accompanied New Zealand sides abroad to most cricket playing nations in the world.

The Press Box at Jade Stadium, Christchurch, is dedicated to Brittenden and his work.

His books over the years constitute an invaluable New Zealand cricket record. His choice as his finest writing achievement is Bob Blair's test when his old phrase prevailed: 'cricket is more a projection of character than of mere results.'

On the 1953/4 South Africa tour "New Zealand wrote one of the most stirring passages in not just their own but the entire history of cricket," Brittenden wrote.

It was he who immortalised the Johannesburg test which straddled Christmas and in which, "on the morning of the second day, word was received that the fiancee of Bob Blair, the side's fastest bowler, had lost her life in a train disaster that claimed one hundred and fifty people."

It was the Tangiwai disaster which occurred on Christmas Eve, about the time New Zealand would have been taking the field after the lunch break on the first day of the test.

Brittenden wrote a description of Blair's and Bert Sutcliffe's, (who had his head "turbanned" in bandages after a Neil Adcock delivery had sent him to hospital) subsequent heroism. This was in his tour book Silver Fern on the Veld. It is now a classic passage in cricket literature.

In may ways this piece of writing made Brittenden's name, such was the power of his description. Does he still recall the game vividly? "I'll say," he replies emphatically.

It is Brittenden's style that makes him special. He didn't so much as report a match as write an essay on it.

His ability to infuse his cast with character, beyond facts and figures is legendary. His description of New Zealand's answer to Gary Sobers, Vic Pollard, as a 'puritan and playboy', does far more than his statistics to show his value to the team and portray Pollard's unique character.

Brittenden had the ability to produce a 'feel good factor', that a modern sports journalist such as The Listener's Joseph Romanos strives for. A good writer, but "a bit bitter," he thinks. Brittenden always found the positives with a warm infectious ease. "It's a different style today," he says wistfully.

He loves the poetry of Cardus or John Arlott, and feels there is no one worth mentioning as good as them writing today. A gap in the market for a young writer perhaps?

His words to prospective writers are simply "be keen."

Neville Cardus is the cricket writer Brittenden most respects. " I worship Cardus", he says. The master of the genre, who in many respects has a similar background to Brittenden, also worked for a regional newspaper.

The Manchester Guardian had a high reputation through writers such as Cardus, author of cricket classic, The Summer Game. The Christchurch Press, in the halcyon days of the 50's and 60's was bought by some Cantabrians purely for Brittenden's sometimes florid, but always delightfully instructive and scrupulously fair prose.

Brittenden was somewhat fortunate that his heyday coincided with New Zealand's development as an international cricketing force. His book, 'The Finest Years,' begins with New Zealand's first test victory, against the West Indies in 1956. It chronicles the graduation, always described using Brittenden's refreshing, perceptive technique, of the national team, from bud to full bloom.

He still has the ability to choose the right word, comparing John Reid's "more considered" approach to Chris Cairns' "swashbuckling" modern day play.

It's not Brittenden's style to give an uncharitable view of recent changes in cricket. He has few grievances with the modern game, seeing it for what it is; "a veneer of sophistication," that has replaced "the cloak of the cavalier" that distinguished the pre-war teams of Lowry and Page.

Having retired from all cricket writing last year, at the age of 82, Dick understandably misses writing, and is missed by readers.

However, when asked if he will write again, he smilingly replies "too old."