HOWARTH, HEDLEY JOHN, who died of cancer on November 7, 2008, aged 64, was perhaps the best spin bowler to play for New Zealand, at least before Daniel Vettori. He came from a cricketing family - his father George built a practice pitch in his back yard - but emerged only slowly, struggling at first even to get into his club side. And when he was finally picked for Auckland, he was often underbowled because the Eden Park pitches were so dead. But in 1969 he was chosen to tour England and, on a tour when his seam-bowling colleagues faltered, Howarth's left-armers emerged as the least ineffectual weapon in a rather thin armoury. "He just relished it and got better and better as the tour went on," said his captain Graham Dowling. Howarth himself said he enjoyed the chance to find a bowling rhythm, denied him by New Zealand's intermittent first-class fixture list.
He was not about to go short of bowling: New Zealand toured the subcontinent on the way home. In just over three months, Howarth played his first nine Test matches and bowled 436.5 overs. He had his share of success too: in Nagpur he bowled New Zealand to their first Test win in India with a match analysis of 53-16-100-9. In the first innings in Karachi, his five victims included Hanif Mohammad, playing his last Test. And his five wickets in Lahore were vital to New Zealand's first win over Pakistan.
Howarth offered height, turn, variation and, above all, flight, plus big hands and considerable agility which enabled him to specialise in return catches. Like his contemporary Bishan Bedi, he positively relished being hit over the top - it was just a sign that the batsman was falling into the trap. "Hedley had the ability to make the ball seem to be where it wasn't," said his younger brother Geoff. He also had a remarkable work ethic, and bowled his heart out throughout the five-Test series in the Caribbean in 1971-72. His figures for the series were 338-100-703-14. Although West Indies, with a string of top batsmen, won every toss, the series was drawn 0-0. "We saw a lot of Howarth's bowling," said Garry Sobers, the West Indies captain, "and we never really figured him out." But some said Howarth left his flair in the Caribbean: he was less successful in England in 1973. Even so, several counties were interested in him, a tempting proposition at a time when New Zealand cricket was barely even semi-professional, but he ultimately opted for home, his young family and his father's wholesale fish company.
Though he carried on playing until 1979, the business began to take over. He had always been involved: even on match days in Auckland, he would get up at five (maybe earlier if it were a Test match to allow more preparation time) and head off to the quayside to put in a pre-match shift, mucking in with the staff and using his big hands to gut and chop before turning up in his battered van for the day's play. Team-mates often noticed that the match ball had a curious fishy smell. In retirement, while brother Geoff made a living from county and Test cricket, Hedley ran the firm - switching its focus to exporting shellfish - and turned out sometimes in club matches for North Shore.