One would be surprised if the book in the picture were not the biggest ever written on cricket, in terms of height and weight. The ‘monster’ weighs “21-and-half kilos” and needs a separate table for itself. When it was presented at Lord’s, John Arlott called it a “pocket battleship of a fleet”.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knew more about New Zealand cricket than the man holding the book, or much more in volume about cricket in general. Don Neely wrote Men In White, a comprehensive history of New Zealand cricket, played first-class cricket for Wellington and Auckland, led Wellington to the Plunkett Shield in his first year as captain without the services of John Reid, Bob Blair and Bruce Morrison, became a national selector, and is now the NZC president.
It took Don five years to write this book, juggling his business tours with writing, which involved research from world over. He doesn’t know how many words he wrote – and literally wrote, for he didn’t use a typewriter.
But he does remember the book has 1600 photographs, each of which is a story in itself. There are about 50 words to each caption, adding up to some 80,000 words just in photo descriptions. Within two weeks 1200 copies of the limited edition had been sold.
Don is the most prominent historian in the country. But he will be given a tough fight, when it comes to history, by his wife Paddianne, who is herself an archivist and has worked hard with him on many of his 30 books. Between them, Don and Paddianne are an encyclopedia of cricket history, delightful anecdotes, and refreshingly a present-day perspective.
Ask them about Eric Tindill, the oldest surviving Test cricketer, and they will tell you how Tindill – at 98 years and 109 days - is a few months short – 215 days to be precice – of becoming the longest lived Test cricketer. Don also remembers that the last two or three oldest surviving cricketers have been from New Zealand. The last was Don Cleverly. “There must be something in our water,” he says. But it’s not just numbers that matter to the Neelies.
Paddianne remembers a call she got from a lady enquiring about the whereabouts of Sid Ward, who is now 102. They tracked him down and discovered he had played with Tindill. A special reunion was arranged.
These two men had played their cricket and rugby (Tindill played both cricket and rugby Tests, and also umpired in both) together in the 1930s, and met again after an average lifespan gone by. The correspondent on the phone, by the way, was Ward’s niece.
Paddianne and Don’s meeting also had something to do with cricket. Don used to play with Dave Crowe, who was Paddianne’s cousin. And Dave was Martin and Jeff’s father and Russell Crowe’s uncle. When the Neelies’ son was getting married, Crowe senior tried to scare the bride. “You need to have cricketing blood to get into this family. We have the Crowes, the Neelies. What do you have?”
Not realising that this was a joke, she went to her father and told him of the predicament. The father told her to ask Crowe if WG Grace would do. And this was no joke, because her great grandmother was a first cousin of WG’s and she didn’t even know of it. The marriage went on, and the Neelies’ granddaughter is named – well – Grace. Now that’s a cricketing family.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo