Goodbye, Sebastian Flight.

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Other games, they tell me, have their like felicities and their crowns of thorns. No cricketer believes it; no cricketer, if he is honest, will admit that of all the pleasures he may dwell upon in the evening of his days, any one will return with the poignancy of those vanished hours on the summer field; for we can, to the very end, partake of other delights, of reading and music and wine and conversation and candlelight and even of love. But sure as sure, the day will come too soon when (happily he never knows it) the cricketer hits a ball for the last time, bowls a ball for the last time, fields a ball for the last time, and for the last time walks home with his companions to the pavilion in the evening glow, his sweater flung across his shoulders.

– Sir Neville Cardus, Second Innings.

When a player, especially someone who gave 18 years of service to his nation, retires from cricket, it becomes difficult to stop a tribute from sounding like an obituary.

For many of us, however, the retirement of Daniel Vettori following the Cricket World Cup has felt like a death knell to cricket as we know it. It becomes increasingly difficult to refrain from lapsing into cricketing despair. Just as when WG Grace died, or Sir Donald Bradman retired, the topography of our sport’s landscape has changed for good.

In referencing Grace and Bradman, I am by no means attempting to compare Vettori to those two. Despite my admiration for the man – often bordering on hero-worship – I am realistic about where he sits in the cricketing pantheon.

His service to New Zealand was less like Sir Richard Hadlee’s, and more like that of Hadlee’s father, Walter. Vettori has aspired to, reached, and sometimes surpassed Sir Richard’s records and achievements, but he’s never been the pure match-winner that Sir Richard was. For Vettori to equal Sir Richard in that domain, he would’ve had to have bowled like Warne and batted like Botham.

Instead, Vettori was more like Walter. The dour, gritty, unrelenting opening batsman who gave decades of service to Canterbury and New Zealand, Walter never acceded to pain, never surrendered without a fight, and never stopped short of due diligence as an exponent of true sportsmanship.

As captain, Walter remains one of New Zealand’s best. He never had the tactical genius of a Brearley, but much like Stephen Fleming and Vettori himself, he planned carefully and meticulously. His effort and passion could never be doubted.

When Vettori became captain, in rather egregious circumstances in late 2007, he became captain with a strict tagline. Four years he would be captain, Vettori said honestly, and then he would pass on the skippership to someone else. He was the stopgap, allowing New Zealand Cricket to fill the gaping void of no longer having Fleming at the helm.

Despite having significant notice, New Zealand Cricket were not ready for his relinquishing the captaincy. The shoot-out between Taylor and McCullum should never have occurred; one or other should have been groomed for 24 months previous, so that the new captain would be ready.

It was as though New Zealand Cricket expected that Vettori would simply keep going. Just as darts fans expect Phil Taylor to roll up and win again and again, accepting that Vettori’s time might come to an end was difficult for fans, and administrators, to accept.

When Gideon Haigh wrote about Vettori, all the way back in 2000, he referred to “Vettori’s virtues as a bowler”. They were “his height, his attacking line, and his artful use of the crease’s full width.”

“[H]e has the air of a 1920s Oxford aesthete,” Haigh wrote; “perhaps he should be nicknamed Sebastian Flight.”

Haigh was full of praise for the barely-21 year-old left-armed finger spinner. He hoped that “we might still be watching this delightful bowler in 2020.”

He was five years off the mark; injuries take their toll on the best of prophecies. Vettori, following significant problems caused by back injuries sustained as a teenager, remodelled action and technique just a couple of years after Haigh’s assessment. He no longer had the same turn, he didn’t have the same willowy fluency.

Yet Vettori continued to perform. He no longer turned the ball far, but he kept doggedly at it. Variations of pace, twisting circulations of flight, he became much like Wilfred Rhodes of a century before. For Rhodes, Neville Cardus told us, spin was an accessory after the act. Rhodes’ subtle variations and intelligent design would leave a batsman “intellectually worn and weary”.

“Flight was his secret, flight and the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical; every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; each over in collusion with the others, part of a plot. Every ball a decoy, a spy sent out to get the lie of the land; some balls simple, some complex, some easy, some difficult; and one of them – ah, which? – the master ball.”

Written of Rhodes, it could so easily have been an account of Vettori.

Many punters, commentators and players alike took pot-shots at Vettori’s lack of spin. It was not through a lack of want – Vettori’s injuries simply forced his hand. James Hopes told of matches in the Big Bash League where Vettori couldn’t get out of bed in the morning for the pain, but eventually got himself onto the green grass, bowled four overs of masterful control for next-to-nothing, and lumbered around the outfield in pain for the rest of the innings.

Mark Waugh once joked in the BBL commentary box that Vettori was like an old, trusty lawnmower. If you got him started, he’d do a brilliant job, but you had to keep him going for the four overs straight – take him out of the attack, and the lawnmower might not start up again.

Vettori didn’t let criticisms affect him. Whether it was Christian Ryan deploring his lack of spin, or Martin Crowe vehemently ridiculing his captaincy abilities, Vettori simply got on with the job. At a time when New Zealand went through coaches at a speed Usain Bolt couldn’t catch up to, Vettori spent half his time as acting-New Zealand head coach.

Captain, key bowler, rebuilder of innings, head coach. For a number of years, Daniel Vettori was New Zealand cricket.

And of a lack of spin? Pah! As Wilfred Rhodes once said of his later years, where the wickets tumbled despite his increasing inability to turn the ball, “If batter thinks Ah’m spinnin’ ‘em, well, Ah’m spinn’ ‘em.”

The transformation from spin to guile correlated with another development – from tail-ender to top-order. He’d always had talent with the bat; it’d especially shown through on the tour of England in 1999. Chris Cairns once proclaimed that Vettori would make a Test 100.

He ended up with six.

We all know the statistics – most runs and the best average for a number eight, seventh top run-scorer in Tests for New Zealand.

None truly encapsulates the stoicism and brilliance he showed as New Zealand’s saviour from around 2006 to 2012, however. With Stephen Fleming entering the twilight of his career, and Ross Taylor still to hit his prime, New Zealand went through a phase of throwing batsmen around left, right and centre.

You put your Sinclair in, you take your Guptill out, you put your Watling in, and you shake him all about.

He holds the world all-time record for most 50 partnerships for the seventh wicket onwards, and revived New Zealand innings with tireless regularity.

And somehow, despite the pressure on him, he continued to develop and become an even better cricketer.

He captained New Zealand to a Test match victory over England in 2008, made the Champions Trophy final in 2009, lead New Zealand to a World Cup Quarter Final victory over South Africa in 2011, gave Australia a good run for their money in 2010, and generally became the kind of fighting force they hadn’t been since the pre-John Bracewell era.

But just as Bert Sutcliffe missed the one Test New Zealand won in his career, so Vettori was never meant to defeat Australia in a Test. The one Test in his career where New Zealand defeated Australia, the Hobart Test of 2011, saw Vettori out injured. Despite being New Zealand’s best bowler – and batsman – in the hammering at the Gabba, his luck ran out again.

Perhaps if the umpire had heard the enormous edge from Steve Waugh’s blade ten years earlier, things might have been different. Instead, he retires with one notch missing to complete the set.

A committed leader, dogged batsman and determined bowler, Vettori remains one of the few players of the modern era to keep public and private lives distilled. No controversies ever saw Vettori’s name flood the headlines. His family have never been in the public eye.

He has always been the epitome of the Spirit of Cricket. He was never short on passion; but equally, he never let the heat of a moment distract himself from proper sportsmanship.

A true team man, family man, and consummate professional, Vettori said many times that stats and numbers drove him to succeed further.

Funny really, that the numbers alone will never do justice to his career. Goodbye, Sebastian Flight.


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