After yet another selfless defensive innings, Wright would sign off saying that he felt sorry for the folk who had paid to watch © Getty Images|
The mood was merry that night in 1978 when Geoff Howarth's centuries in both
innings saved the third Test
against England at Eden Park and gave New Zealand the deserved dignity of a one-all drawn series.
Dick Brittenden, that marvellous cricket-writer, had finished his 1500 words or so
for the Christchurch Press, I had delivered my smaller tribute to the New Zealand Herald, and we were sipping our first ale of the evening when this fresh-faced young man approached, his eyes bearing a gleam that did not come of alcoholic prompting.
"Gee, hasn't this been a great Test - Geoff getting two hundreds, New Zealand played
well, all the lads are happy. And I get to meet you two gentlemen who write so
well about sport."
So began 30 years of delight in the generous, genial, and very often memorable,
company of John Geoffrey Wright. Formerly of Northern Districts, Auckland,
Derbyshire and New Zealand, followed by coaching Kent and India, and now mustering
his energy for what could be his most important task of all - the revival of New
It should be noted that some three weeks before that flattering meeting, the same
Wright had made his Test debut
against a howling gale and a furious Bob Willis (the adjectives are interchangeable) with the umpire Bob Monteith the only person present not to agree that Wright had got a first-ball fine edge to Bob Taylor.
By lunch Wright was 23, by stumps 53 not out. His boyish hopes of a maiden Test
hundred disappeared so fast, his dinner-time comment was: "If that is Test cricket,
you can stick it."
In passing it should be noted that only two English cricket correspondents covered
the tour: John Woodcock and Michael Melford - were there ever two more charming men
in any press box? - and rather than fulminate about Wright's not out, they restrained
their joy until Geoffrey Boycott (acting captain vice the injured Mike Brearley) was
dismissed for 77 in only 442 minutes. They rose and clapped their notebooks together
in a joyous chorus: "He's out, he's out."
That was Wright's second great stroke of luck. The first had come as the lad from
the sublime farming country north of Christchurch moved up the traditional lines of
private school, to farming, to cricket. But the batting door to the Canterbury team was jammed shut by Cran Bull, Peter Coman, Bevan Congdon, Barry Hadlee, Brian Hastings, Vic Pollard, Murray Parker and Keith Thomson.
Away up in Gisborne, John Guy, a superbly gifted left-handed batsman and analyst who
never really recovered from a bitter argument with John Reid during a tour
of South Africa earlier, was forming a strong sub-division of Northern Districts cricket,
about as far as you could get away from headquarters in Hamilton.
Guy, an expert judge of talent, had already picked up Rod Fulton, of similar North Canterbury background to Wright, who also had found there was no room for him in the Canterbury side. Guy was soon to hire Howarth when the gifted youngster, after having started well with Surrey, could not be assured of paid transport to and from his Auckland home.
So the Wright career was soundly based in the Gisborne sunshine, followed by a brief
acquaintance with Kent, and then a long and invaluable apprenticeship with
Derbyshire. Wright's sunny nature was sometimes clouded-in by some aspects of being
in a struggling county, but he realised that the regular flow of matches was the ideal method of forming the right technique.
Wright was so often New Zealand's bulwark against threatening disaster. Never a
glamorous role. And he himself often signed off yet another selfless defensive
innings by saying that he felt sorry for the folk who had paid to watch.
But among his 12 Test hundreds there stood the brilliant beacon he lit at Lancaster
in 1982. New Zealand, slaughtered by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in the
first innings, were being tweaked out by Bruce Yardley and Allan Border in the
follow-on. Wright, so often the dutiful squire, this time was the gallant and
defiant knight on horseback. He distributed 26 fours in his six-hour innings of 141,
many of them with the sort of flowing left-hander's cover-drive that David Gower would be proud to own.
In 1985, Wright had ample opportunity to show his gritty defence in the West Indies
against Malcom Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh, while
trying to shepherd the novice Ken Rutherford at the other end. Two draws, a loss, and then the fourth and final Test
at Sabina Park. Wright by this time seemed to waddle to the crease, padding and armour-plating swaddling his body.
He scored 53 from 138 in the first innings, seeing Jeremy Coney suffer a broken arm
in the process. Came the follow-on and Wright emerged wearing everything except a deep-sea diving suit. Did he dig in? No, he had had enough. It was Sabina or the Blue
Mountains, so to speak. The blade flashed and ten runs absolutely poured in - c Dujon, b Garner, 10, from 12 balls.
If only Wright had realised that the West Indies quicks were tired and did not want a
follow-on. Geoff Howarth, in his last Test before Surrey and then New Zealand began
to pension him off, played one of his best Test innings for 84, Jeff Crowe chimed in
with a glowing 116 from No. 3, and Wright, who had been battered by the fast
bowlers for so long, watched from the sidelines.
Alas, normal service resumed next morning. After the Howarth-Crowe four-hour stand
for 210 was finished, New Zealand quickly lost seven wickets to the refreshed
bowlers and were defeated by ten wickets.
Wright survived, and sometimes even enjoyed, the challenge of the fast bowlers'
bouncers. He loved his helmet, but wondered whether a box was equally
essential. "Over the course of a lifetime I figure I'll get more use out of my
brains than my balls." His first biography was dedicated "to my thigh pad".
In search of the perfect technique he once glued his batting gloves to the
bat-handle. "Quite successful when hitting the ball, a problem when running
between the wickets."
|Rod Marsh did not really appreciate Wright stuffing prawns into the fingers of his keeping gloves. Marsh did not realise until he opened his coffin at the SCG some days later, and out in the middle had to listen to Wright demanding he stand deeper and deeper because the pong was so awful
I most admire Wright for his friendliness, his humour, his genuine love of cricket
and its players. When times were cloudy, he always had a deep fund of
good humour of the "gee-whiz" or "cor blimey" variety to buoy his team's spirits.
I feel certain he does not have an enemy in the game he has so adorned.
Mind you, Rod Marsh did not really appreciate Wright surreptitiously stuffing prawns into the fingers of his keeping gloves while the two enjoyed a social beer after a match at the WACA. Marsh did not realise until he opened his coffin at the SCG some days
later, and out in the middle had to listen to Wright demanding he stand deeper and deeper because the pong was so awful.
Wright could be totally obliging to the travelling reporter, and also, as
before the third test at Edgbaston in 1990, greet each of three rainy pre-match days
with the rock-solid assurance that he would field if he won the toss, and then decides (or
perhaps Richard Hadlee whispered in his ear) to bat.
Wright's position among New Zealand's batting elite is secure. His captaincy was
always interesting, his touring customs often mischievous, but there was never a
doubt that he was a fiercely patriotic and loyal New Zealander eager to make the
most of his assets.
And New Zealand needs Wright's skill and leadership now. He has worried about the
flawed technique of too many New Zealand batsmen in recent matches. He is in a
holding pattern at the New Zealand Cricket high performance centre, while John
Bracewell's curious coaching path sidesteps towards its probable end. Wright is closing in on 54 years, most of those crammed with cricketing experience and expertise. Only fools would let him escape.
Don Cameron is a writer based in New Zealand