Obituary, 2002

Bert Sutcliffe

SUTCLIFFE, BERT, MBE, who died of emphysema on April 20, 2001, aged 77, was the outstanding New Zealand batsman of the immediate post-war period, though many in England who watched that other New Zealand left-hander, Martin Donnelly, in The Parks for Oxford might pursue counter-claims. Perhaps, as R. C. Robertson- Glasgow noted, "Sutcliffe had a more powerful case in his strokes to leg" whereas "in defence, Donnelly always looked the surer". The splendour of their off-side strokes was, needless to say, a given, and their brilliant fielding never ceased to excite attention, with Sutcliffe in his element whether at short leg, in the slips or at cover. Both made manifest again in that austere era some of the more charming cricketing images of the inter-war years.

Tall and good-looking, fair-haired and enviably fit, batting in the classic manner, Bert Sutcliffe - his given name the homely choice of parents who had emigrated from Lancashire - might well have graced the pages of a novel featuring country-house cricket, not least in that he ever remained an affable man of steady temper. His blondness made him instantly recognisable, while, for the enthusiast, there was much that was identifiable in the shapely, clean-cut dispatch of his shot-making. When Walter Hadlee's New Zealanders visited England in 1949, determined to prosecute their case for an end to the insult of three-day Tests, it was in large degree thanks to Bert Sutcliffe that, with four sound draws, the slur was removed. He scored 2,627 runs in that pleasantly dry summer, including 423 at a marvellous 60.42 in the Tests; only Bradman, with 2,960 in 1930, had a higher aggregate on a tour of England. Patsy Hendren, observing Sutcliffe as he warmed up at Lord's in pre-tour nets, is reported to have said, "2,500 in a season if ever I saw 'em."

He made his first-class debut at 18, for Auckland against Wellington in 1941-42 and then spent two years at teacher training college before joining the army. Overseas service in North Africa and Italy found him playing cricket with English spinners Jim Laker and Peter Smith, and the experience would stand him in good stead when peace returned. His teaching career took him to Dunedin, where his 197 and 128 for Otago against the 1946-47 MCC tourists guaranteed his first Test cap a week later, in Christchurch. Putting on 133 for the first wicket with Hadlee, playing majestically until caught behind off Bedser for 58, he launched an illustrious career just as another was drawing to an end, for this would be the final Test of his boyhood hero, Walter Hammond.

From then until 1965, when he made his third tour of England, Sutcliffe played 42 Tests, making 2,727 runs with an average of 40.10 and a highest score of 230 not out against India at Delhi in 1955-56. He captained New Zealand in both Tests against the visiting West Indians in 1951-52, and again for the last two Tests in South Africa in 1953-54, having assumed charge of the touring side when Geoff Rabone was injured. If his form on this tour dipped below that expected of such a gifted player, there were still times, Wisden noted, "when he played in a manner to live in the memory of spectators". The Second Test at Ellis Park was one of them. Struck on the head by a bumper from Neil Adcock, he gallantly returned, heavily bandaged and pale, to score 80 not out in a total of 187, adding 33 for the last wicket with fast bowler Bob Blair in a partnership charged with emotion and sympathy for the New Zealanders. Two days earlier, on Christmas Eve, Blair's 19-year-old fiancée had been one of 151 people killed in a rail accident in New Zealand. A month later Sutcliffe pasted the Border bowling for 196, his only century in South Africa, but there were hundreds against Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria on the way home.

It has been suggested that his head injury at Johannesburg subsequently affected his Test batting. But he remained a genuine force in New Zealand cricket. Though he had been absent from Tests for five seasons, at the age of 41 he was included in the 1965 side to tour India, Pakistan and England. His unbeaten 151 at Eden Gardens was his fifth and last Test hundred.

In all first-class cricket, he hit 44 centuries in a total of 17,447 runs at a fine average of 47.41. His highest innings, among a series of heavy scores, was 385 for Otago against Canterbury at Christchurch in 1952-53 - at the time the sixth-highest score ever and, until the advent of Brian Lara, the highest by a left-hander in first-class cricket. He had previously made 355 for Otago against Auckland in 1949-50. Six more scores over 200 included 243, followed by 100 not out in the second innings, against Essex in 1949. He also took 160 catches and claimed a stumping. Bert Sutcliffe was New Zealand's first Sportsman of the Year, in 1949, and in 1990 was selected in the inaugural list for the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. The decision to name the country's new cricket academy ground at Lincoln the Bert Sutcliffe Oval was a deeply felt tribute to his heroic part in their cricket history.

© John Wisden & Co