It is the television, carrying matches live into the home, that shapes the consciousness of the Indian cricket fan today. However, growing up when I did, my window to the world was the radio. I first heard The Beatles on the BBC World Service’s Top Twenty programme, and it was on that same channel’s Test Match Special that I followed every stroke of a Test hundred at Lord’s by Garry Sobers.
That was in 1966, when I was eight. Three years later, New Zealand toured India for a three Test series, and I suppose I must have followed some of the cricket on All India Radio. However, no memories of that remain. But I do remember very clearly the impression that Kiwi cricketers made on me in the summer of 1973. I had just come off an intensive season of schoolboy cricket, playing every Sunday from February to April for my school’s First Eleven. When the summer holidays commenced, it was too hot to play cricket in my home town, but I could at least follow the game — and at a much higher level too — via the radio.
In this summer of 1973, Glenn Turner (picture) became the first batsman in 35 years to score a thousand first-class runs in an English summer before the end of May. He made these runs opening the batting for the New Zealand touring team, against a series of County Elevens. Back then, the World Service had a Saturday Sports Special, which ran uninterrupted on that day of the week from 5 pm to 11.15 pm IST, with breaks only for news. I heard several of Turner’s innings live as they unfolded on successive Saturdays, following the others via the BBC’s daily Sports Roundup, a bulletin, 15 minutes long, that summarized the important sporting developments of the past 24 hours.
‘1,000 runs before the end of May’ was one of the most select of all sporting lists. Its six members in 1973 included W.G. Grace, Wally Hammond and Don Bradman (who had done the feat twice). For a batsman from New Zealand, the most unglamorous of cricketing nations, to be in this sort of company attracted the admiration of otherwise patronizing English commentators, and it made a powerful impression on this Indian schoolboy too.
In June, a series of three Test matches between New Zealand and England began. The first match, played at Nottingham from June 7-12, 1973, was thrilling to hear on the radio, and must have been even more thrilling to watch at the ground. New Zealand were set a mammoth 479 to win in the fourth innings, and made a very good fist of it. I followed every run of their chase on the family radio, lowering the volume and placing my ears ever closer to the receiver after 9 pm, when my family went to sleep, staying on myself to listen till stumps were drawn at 11 pm IST.
It is now almost half-a-century since that epic Test match. But without looking at the scorecard I can tell you that the captain, Bevan Congdon, and the off-spinning all-rounder, Victor Pollard, both made centuries. I seem to remember that they batted in contrasting styles, with Congdon playing in a more orthodox fashion, in the V, and Pollard hitting across the line and in the air too.
Two summers previously, India had beaten England for the first time in England, after 40 years of trying. Unfortunately for me, that Oval Test of 1971 was played in late August, by which time I was in boarding school. I could not follow the match on the radio, and had to be content with reading about it in the next day’s newspapers. On the other hand, I followed every ball of this England-New Zealand Test of 1973, and thus have much clearer memories of how it played out.
Indian cricket fans had long condescended to cricketers from New Zealand. The two most salient facts about them so far as we were concerned were, first, that it was New Zealand who were responsible for the lowest ever Test score, 26 all out, and, second, that it was in New Zealand that we won our first Test series overseas. However, after hearing how Glenn Turner emulated Grace, Hammond and Bradman in scoring 1,000 runs before the end of May, and after closely following Congdon and Pollard as they almost chased down those 479 runs at Trent Bridge, I myself would never again take Kiwi cricketers less than seriously.
Three years later, in a Test at Wellington, the myth — shared by Englishmen, Australians and Indians alike — that the Kiwis were mere pushovers when it came to Test cricket was decisively shattered by a deadly spell of swing bowling by Richard Hadlee. After taking four wickets in the first innings, including those of Gavaskar, Amarnath and Vengsarkar, Hadlee demolished us in our second innings, his figures reading 8.3-0-23-7. India lost by an innings and some. While Richard Hadlee was the star, important roles were also played by two Kiwi heroes of the English summer of 1973, Glenn Turner and Bevan Congdon, who both scored half-centuries the only time their side batted.
No individual did more to make cricketers (and fans) of other countries treat Kiwis with respect than Richard Hadlee. He had as his indispensable ally his younger contemporary, Martin Crowe, who was, in his day, the best batsman in world cricket, just as Hadlee had been the best bowler. Crowe was also an outstanding captain, his tactical skills showcased in the 1992 World Cup, when he experimented by having his bowling attack opened by a spinner.
As readers might have guessed, this column was prompted by the recently-concluded final of the World Test Championship, which was won deservedly — and authoritatively — by New Zealand. It was nice that the Kiwis made it to the final ahead of Australia, the country closest to them in space, but whose condescension towards them has been the most marked. (After playing a Test in New Zealand in 1946, the Aussies refused to play against them for another 27 years.) And it was even more creditable that the Kiwis beat us in the final, for, apart from the massive discrepancy in population size, it is India which, in terms of financial muscle, administrative control and ability to bully others, is unquestionably the game’s sole superpower.
As part of my tribute to cricketers from New Zealand, let me choose an all-time eleven from that country. Opening the innings with Glenn Turner would be that brave left-hander, Bert Sutcliffe, who toured India twice, batting well on both occasions. At numbers three and four would come Kane Williamson and Martin Crowe, with the captaincy alternating between the two. Completing the ranks of specialist batsmen is Martin Donnelly, a magnificent left-hander of an earlier vintage, who scored hundreds at Lord’s for New Zealand against England, for Oxford against Cambridge, for Gentlemen against Players, and for the Dominions against England in the famous ‘Victory Test’ of 1945.
At six, seven and eight figure three very accomplished all-rounders. These are the wicket-keeper, Brendon McCullum, and the left-arm slow bowler, Daniel Vettori, both very well known to, and much admired by, younger Indian fans; and, after them, Richard Hadlee, who, apart from being a great fast bowler, could bat handily, left-handed, down the order.
Three places remain, and they must all go to seam and swing bowlers, from a country that has specialized in producing high quality practitioners of this type. At least one place must be reserved for a left-armer, and although Richard Collinge of the 1973 team has strong claims, I will go for Trent Boult of the 2021 team instead. With Boult must come his long-time partner in destroying batting line-ups, the right-arm swing bowler, Tim Southee. To fill the last place I choose Shane Bond, who was perhaps matched only by Waqar Younis in his ability to swing the ball late close to 100 miles an hour.
Here then is my all-time Kiwi XI, in batting order: 1. Glenn Turner 2. Bert Sutcliffe 3. Kane Williamson (captain) 4. Martin Crowe (vice-captain) 5. Martin Donnelly 6. Brendon McCullum (wicket-keeper) 7. Daniel Vettori 8. Richard Hadlee 9. Tim Southee 10. Shane Bond 11. Trent Boult.
If a mythical contest against an all-time Indian XI were played on a crumbling track in the subcontinent, the Kiwis would struggle against Kumble, Mankad and Ashwin, but if the match were played instead under an overcast sky in Southampton in July, I would back Hadlee, Bond and company to get the better of Gavaskar, Tendulkar and their ilk.