Geoff Allott will always be remembered for the 1999 Cricket World Cup. New Zealand made the semi-finals, and it was in no small part thanks to Allott’s 20 wickets.
As equal-top wicket-taker for the tournament – alongside Shane Warne – Allott’s performance was one that stayed as a New Zealand record until the recent semi-final against South Africa, where Trent Boult bettered the mark.
It was, in fact, on that Tuesday morning that I was fortunate enough to speak with Allott – about the 1999 World Cup, but also about his career as a whole. We discussed the emergence of the left-arm pace bowler as a force at this current World Cup, and about the impact the World Cup has had on New Zealand in 2015.
“I live with that moment, constantly.”
It was a poignant quote, given New Zealand’s potential for exit from the World Cup later that same day. As things transpired, New Zealand won one of the great matches against South Africa, but lost heavily in the final to Australia.
“That’s the frustrating thing,” Allott said of the loss to Pakistan 16 years ago. “I think I actually only took one wicket in the last couple of games. So, you know, I didn’t finish as I had started. And I guess that’ll always be with me, the frustration that I couldn’t quite get the job done at the end.”
Nonetheless, to get as far as they did, and to have a bowler perform as well as Allott, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Hearing Allott speak, anyone would swear he was just a bit-part cricketer who never made much of an impact. “From my point of view, I’m only very marginally talented, I didn’t have the great talent of a lot of others, it was just an incredible couple of months to go over there and be equal-top wicket-taker with Shane Warne. Again, a hero of mine.”
It doesn’t do justice to how well Allott performed – he was New Zealand’s top wicket-taker, bowled the most overs, had the best strike-rate, and had the second-best economy rate after Gavin Larsen.
On the subject of the major factors in his success, Allott said that the hard work from the team and backroom staff leading into the tournament made the difference.
“I think it comes back to preparation, to be honest. I’d had a stress fracture in my back a few months before that, and I got to spend some time re-inventing my action. And that assisted with the development of swing. We knew the conditions were going to be conducive to swing bowling early on in England, we knew the Dukes ball had more of a raised seam than the Kookaburra, and so we utilised those advantages, and I think it all just fitted in place.”
Allott also paid a tribute to New Zealand’s team psychologist: “Gilbert Enoka had put a huge amount of work over a 12 month period with a group of players, preparing us for that World Cup.”
Gilbert Enoka, as most will know, was hugely influential on that team for the series following the World Cup – the 1999 tour of England. It was an incredibly historic series, and one that every Kiwi remembers. Allott played the first two Tests, only to have yet more injury problems from then on.
A loss in the first Test at Edgbaston seemed to suggest bad omens for the Kiwis, especially with the match being grasped from the jaws of defeat by a youthful nightwatchman – Alex Tudor, who hammered his way to 99 not-out to change the game.
“Quite a bizarre feeling in the first Test, because we were actually in a great position to win that game.”
The way the match had developed – 21 wickets on the second day alone – meant a result was inevitable. Indeed, the match was completed in two-and-a-half days. New Zealand had made 226 in their first innings, after a lower order recovery saved them from complete embarrassment.
New Zealand then had England 45-7 by lunch on the second day, with Allott having claimed Alec Stewart leg-before with the third ball of the day. He also picked up Graeme Thorpe reasonably briskly afterward. England recovered to 126, but New Zealand certainly had the upper hand.
“There was always going to be a result. Unfortunately, we got cleaned out in the second innings with our batting, and that enabled them to get a sniff.”
England were made to chase 208, and Allott again picked up Stewart early – bowled for a duck, this time – with Alex Tudor sent out as nightwatchman.
But when the third day rolled around, there was “sunshine with a breeze and no hint of swing,” as Don Neely put it in Men in White.
“Tudor, Alex Tudor, played a remarkable innings. We probably didn’t bowl, again, as well as we could have to him. But take nothing away from him at the time, it was an outstanding effort. One in which it was highlighted that the aggression of a player can turn the game of cricket on its head. And he did that.”
That match could quite easily have derailed that 1999 campaign. Although New Zealand had won a three-Test series in 1986, it had been heavily rain affected. New Zealand had won a total of two Tests in England up to that point, both in different series. 1999 was a chance for New Zealand to prove they could compete against England, in England.
“It was one of those things where we understood the importance of the tour, so to go one-nil down after one game was tough to take initially. But we had to rebound pretty quickly, and we knew we had a sniff – we knew England at the time were going through a few changes of their own. So they weren’t settled, and there were still questions being asked of their team make up. So we knew we had an advantage there, and the pressure that’s on the home team at Lord’s is significant as well.”
That Lord’s Test will, indisputably, remain one of New Zealand cricket’s finest triumphs.
Dion Nash and Chris Cairns bowled superbly in the first innings, backed up by a stoic century from Matt Horne in the New Zealand innings. An all-round bowling performance saw England rolled for another sub-par total in their second innings.
And New Zealand chased down the required 60 with nine wickets to spare.
“To play in that game, that historic win at Lord’s,” Allott stated absolutely, “is – no doubt about it – my highlight of my career. And, I think, if you asked most people who played in that series, it’s certainly the highlight of their careers as well.”
The passion shown by the players – and reserves – during that Test was evident throughout. It remains just as obvious when speaking to Allott today. The fondness with which he speaks of Lord’s, July 1999, paints a picture of just how much it meant to the New Zealanders.
“The significance of winning for the first time – of representing your country – at a place such as Lord’s, there can be no better.”
For Allott, however, international cricket was never all rosy. He missed the final two matches of that series, and only played for another twelve months. Injuries piled up, and took their vengeance. It seemed a long time earlier that he had been thrown into the Test side against Zimbabwe in 1996.
The XI that took the field for Allott’s entrance to international cricket, in the midst of all the turbulence that followed Glenn Turner and Lee Germon taking control, contained no fewer than four debutants – Nathan Astle, Robert Kennedy and Greg Loveridge joined Allott in donning the black cap for the first time.
A lot people were rubbed up the wrong way by the Turner/Germon administration, but not Allott. Of Germon, his skipper during his Test debut, he said that “[t]here were no issues there at all.”
“To just be given the opportunity,” Allott said, “having only played two First Class games for Canterbury, was an amazing experience. I look back on it now, and I probably think I was underdone in terms of experience, but just to get that opportunity was wonderful. I was playing, at the end of the day, with some of my heroes.”
The coach Allott worked with for the majority of his international career was Steve Rixon, the former Australian wicket-keeper. “With Steve Rixon also coming into the mix, there was a real re-focus about where we wanted to head. He was an incredible coach, and whilst we probably had to understand that we needed to do things better, and harder, and improve, I think that’s probably one of the changing points in New Zealand cricket.”
Under Steve Rixon, Allott was forced to improve and change dramatically as a bowler. The 1997/98 tour of Australia was a gruelling one for New Zealand – they were hammered in the Tests, brutalised in the tour games, and had little to celebrate.
For Allott however, the tour match against Victoria was the scene for his only five-for in a First Class match for New Zealand. It even included the illustrious names of Matthew Elliott and Dean Jones. I asked him if it was a day he remembers fondly.
“Yeah, I do. That’s great history actually, you’re probably the only one in New Zealand who would know that stat! I was pretty delighted at the time. But having said all that, the Australian tour was a very tough tour. And very early on in my Test career, I was missing a major skill – the ability to swing the ball back to the right handed batsman.”
And it was that inability to bring the ball back that led to Rixon making one of the key changes to Allott as a cricketer: “It was during that tour that Steve Rixon pulled me aside, and I ended up being dropped for the third Test. He basically said to me, ‘look, you need to go away and develop an in-swinging delivery’. And so I literally went out the back in Hobart and tried a whole lot of things in desperation, including putting a third finger on top of the ball instead of the normal two. And of all a sudden, the ball started to swing.”
In Allott’s own words, “it probably regenerated my career, certainly in the one day game … it made a huge difference to my overall career.”
“I was very grateful in the end, even though it was painful to be dropped, the longer-term thing was that I was then able to swing it.”
These days, Allott runs his own company – QualityNZ – and is a board member of New Zealand Cricket. He was the General Manager of Cricket for NZC a few years ago, but resigned following the disastrous series whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh in 2010.
Allott had retired from cricket in March 2001, having last played an international match in November the previous year. “At the end I was having to have injections prior to every game just to get on the field. That was my own choice, to have the injections, there was no pressure from New Zealand Cricket or anything like that. Unfortunately, because of the pain, it got to a point where just to numb it out I was literally just prior to going out onto the field having a four inch needle shoved in my back. That was just to trying to stay on the park.”
“At the end of the day,” Allott told me, “when you start realising that you’re not contributing to the team as you should be, I think it’s time you have to pull stumps. And that was, for me, one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make.”
Why did he then decide to move into the administration fields of the game? “I love the game, quite frankly, and the game’s given me a huge amount.”
“After I was finished playing, I coached senior cricket in Christchurch for a couple of years, because I felt I could hopefully contribute in the capacity of club cricketers. I very much appreciated and recognised that I was one of those club cricketers, who was very, very fortunate to get a couple of lucky breaks that gave me an international career. And I think that’s really important that you keep that in mind whilst you’re playing, that you’re not too far off just being that club cricketer.”
“For me, it was just an opportunity to give back to the sport.”
He again speaks of how fortunate he has been to be able to involve himself with the boards of Canterbury and New Zealand cricket, and of his opportunity as General Manager of Cricket with NZC. Of his current role, as a board member of New Zealand Cricket, he says that it’s been an “incredibly special time.”
He hopes that can “continue to contribute into the future.”
It’s no wonder then, that he has been so stoked with the response from the New Zealand public surrounding the World Cup.
He speaks of how this team is totally committed to the cause, and how the World Cup allowed a reengagement with the public after the events of two years ago, when there was “quite a bit of pain”.
“Everyone’s been brought along with it for the last 12 months … it’s been wonderful.”
And as a left-arm bowler, I couldn’t help asking what he felt about the impact left-armers have had on this World Cup – Trent Boult, Wahab Riaz and Mitchell Starc, among others.
Have recent changes to batting theories played into the hands of left-armers?
“One thing the left armer does bring is an ability to change angles. And that’s a significant factor. The more acute your angle, the smaller the margin of error. The risk increases for the batsman.”
He speaks also of how he believes the standard of batsmanship has increased, and how bowlers have had to adapt.
Angles and variations are the key, Allott says. Especially if your bowler at the other end is a right-arm outswing bowler. “And that’s where, I think, the combination just works beautifully for Tim Southee and Trent Boult, and it’s why they’ve been so successful as a parternship.”
He agrees with Sir Richard Hadlee’s assessment that they will be our best ever bowling pair “100%”.
“We’re seeing the bowlers with the variations, the slower balls, the slower ball bouncers. Because they can’t rely on reverse swing, they’ve had to work on the changes of pace and changes of angle.”
He says that this is an exciting time in cricket, with both batsmen and bowlers inventing and adapting superbly in a real battle for supremacy.
“That’s one of the great things about cricket. There’s the opportunity, despite the history, to change the game.”