Dion Nash, ‘I decided I was going to prove them wrong’ (part 1)

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“We got hammered in the first Test, absolutely hammered. We were nowhere near good enough. Graham Gooch got 200, I’d never seen anyone get 200 before. … I remember at the end of that Test thinking, ‘how we are ever going to get this guy out?’ ”

It was 1994, and Dion Nash was yet to establish himself as a regular in the New Zealand side. Leading into that year’s tour of England, he was seen as something of a fringe player – he’d played just three Tests, only one of them in the previous 18 months.

His selection for that tour certainly didn’t signify a certain slot in the XI; that came courtesy of injuries to several frontline quicks. No Simon Doull, no Danny Morrison, no Chris Cairns. Suddenly, Nash was required to step up. Between the rain-affected one-day series and the first Test, New Zealand played two tour matches – against Yorkshire, Nash took none for 106, and New Zealand lost by an innings.

The first Test saw him finish with two wickets, at the cost of 153 runs – a heavy New Zealand loss didn’t bode well for the coming matches.

But against the odds, Nash grabbed 11 wickets in the second Test, with 6/76 in the first innings and 5/93 in the second, the best bowling by a New Zealander against England. He also scored 56 with the bat which made him the first cricketer ever to complete the double of ten wickets and a half century in a Lord’s Test.

Nash extracted bounce and sharp movement from a slow wicket that deceived even the best English batsmen, including Gooch and Stewart in both innings. The only hindrance for Nash and New Zealand was that they were unable to clean up the English tail. The English batsmen twiddled and delayed after tea on day five and wasted valuable sunshine.  Inevitably, bad light forced Ken Rutherford to take his fast bowlers off and, eventually, the Test ended in a draw.

Praise for Nash’s performance was unanimous. Even the notoriously dour judge of the game, Fred Trueman, suggested “a star was born”.

“I think it was a great Test series, and 1-0 probably doesn’t reflect how good it was. I think a 1-1 draw might have been a better reflection of how the series went. … [But] I never ever questioned my ability again or have anyone question that again. So, for me personally it was a great series but as a group, we did deserve slightly better.”

Later in the year came a tour of South Africa; a challenge at the best of times, and for New Zealand it ended up even worse than could’ve been predicted. New Zealand became the first team in the 20th Century to lose a three-Test series from one-nil up.

Things had started so well for the Blackcaps. At Johannesburg, the Proteas were set a formidable target of 327. The game was won for New Zealand when the South African batting order crumbled. The last seven South African wickets fell before lunch for 39 runs. Matthew Hart who took career-best figures of 5-77 was brilliantly complemented by Doull, with 4-33.

Nevertheless, New Zealand seemingly lost their focus and intensity when they lost six one-dayers on the trot. They lost the next two Test matches and thus they became the first team since England in 1888 to lose a three-match series after winning the first Test. Nash suffered a side strain and intensified the injury by trying to return too soon, meaning he played just one Test.

“I cannot be held responsible for first Test, which we won [laughs]. Actually what went wrong was, it was a strange tour. We played one Test and then we had a one-day quad-series with us, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. It was six one-dayers after one Test and it was a massive break. And then we went on to play the second and third Test after the one-dayers. It was a weird set-up.”

“The team internally fell apart, the coaching staff and the senior players weren’t seeing eye to eye.”

However, that series made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. As a coach, Geoff Howarth was unsuccessful in trying to maintain impetus and discipline. It became a tour in calamity, and rifts were evident within the team. The tour was heavily punctuated with ill-discipline and off-field disobedience.

The tour party split into groups. The entertainment and the ill-discipline included late-night drinking and a pot-smoking episode. A large number of the team partook in cannabis. The attempted investigation saw almost all players deny it, with only Nash, and the equally young Matthew Hart and Stephen Fleming ‘fessing up. With the strange set-up of the tour, the length of the tour, and being away from home over Christmas all starting to add together, it wasn’t long before things went awry.

“The team internally fell apart, the coaching staff and the senior players weren’t seeing eye to eye, they were at odds in fact. And the team unravelled. And few of us, few of the younger ones got caught smoking pot at the party. And, you know, we were definitely there, and we definitely smoked pot, but we were three of the eleven guys who were doing it.”

They took the full rap, because no one else owned up.

“And I think when that sort of happened, I think it sort of split the team as well. And the senior players probably blamed the coach and management for the lack of control and I know some of the younger players felt ill at ease with other players – the ones who had owned up with those who hadn’t. So it was a really strange time. That’s a classic example of how a good side with internal issues becomes a bad side pretty easily.”

When they returned to New Zealand, the NZC board was compelled into chastising the players again after it got into the media. Once again no one else took the blame, but rather than being dealt with entirely in-house as was the intention, the three players got punished twice – and received a suspension the second time around.

“We’d only ever had really good press, we’d been sort of young stars and heroes coming through – and all of a sudden, you get this taste of other side of the media and the unfairness of it. We are not escaping the fact that we obviously have done something stupid on a cricket tour, but there was definitely unfairness in the way it was handled. And three of us were hung out dry, and there is a lot of resentment, bitterness and unfairness again when you get exposed to that sort of thing.

“What people are saying in the media, I felt it was unfair and a slur on my character but you can’t fight it. At that age, when you’re that young you don’t understand that. But in the end, that only lasted a short amount of time and once get back playing, again you just decide there is only one way to go. I decided I was going to stick it up to everyone and show that I’m not what they think, and not what they’re saying, and prove them wrong.”

Nash displayed his maturity by being one of the three players with enough integrity to confess he had done what he’d done. Look back, Nash feels he can hold himself highly for the way he conducted himself.

“When I look back, how I handled myself through that time, I’m really proud of myself. I was stupid, it was a stupid act. At the same time, I feel like I can, along with probably only Stephen Fleming and Matthew Hart, I think we’re the only three people that can hold our heads up and say we were honest and that we were actually good team-mates. I think that it was an experience that later on, when Stephen Fleming in particular and myself were more senior players, I think we would like to think that we might have handled that better.”

“To go back to the Home of Cricket, it was just huge”

Nash secured a contract with the county side Middlesex after the South Africa tour, replacing Desmond Haynes as one of the foreign players. Nash played a massive amount of cricket in 1995, combining his commitments with the national side with his County contract, and balancing all of that with appearing in New Zealand’s domestic season. It was a significant stage in his progress as a cricketer.

“Very excited. Yeah it was huge. I got offers for me to go to Cambridge and Oxford as well and about three or four other counties. But, to go back to the Home of Cricket, it was just huge. So I was very, very excited. For the first year, I was absolutely pumped. It was the best time.”

The hefty workload for the Blackcaps, combined with the domestic games and poor management of his training, started to take its toll. Nash carried on with his county season, and with New Zealand’s tour of India in October and November, but by then he was shattered, both physically and mentally. Perhaps, Nash was starting to pay the price for too much cricket.

“Unfortunately the second year I got injured, just before going there. I didn’t really understand – it was the first time I had a serious injury, and the difference between a pulled side muscle and proper injury was, at that age I really couldn’t determine or happened to even know what one was out from the other.”

“The second year was a real disappointment”

Because of the excruciating pain in his back, Nash was struggling to turn up and bowl. He was only able to complete two games for Middlesex, before returning to New Zealand. Initial scans didn’t show anything severe, however, once back home, stress fractures were detected in his lower spine.

“So the second year was a real disappointment and quite hard. It’s not a place for a professional sportsman when you’re injured, it’s very tough. You’re taking money from a club, they expect you to perform and when you don’t know what’s wrong, the doctors don’t know what’s wrong, and you’re having scans, and you’re on the sideline, and it’s a strain on everybody. And I didn’t enjoy that. That was a pretty tough learning experience that goes through as a young guy.”

It was an incredibly serious injury – it could, very easily, have been the end of Nash’s career. As will be discussed in part two, Nash almost gave up on playing for New Zealand. He’d reached the stage of focusing on making it back to First Class cricket, and even that as a specialist bat.

Had it been the end of Nash’s career, he would’ve been little more than an asterisk in history. A couple of noteworthy performances hidden in Wisden, but little more.

But it was a theme throughout his career; Nash decided to prove everyone wrong.

The story could have ended after an injury in the mid-1990s, but it started 25 years earlier.

“It had been a pretty meteoric rise, I was still very young and I guess at that stage, I think I would have been 18, 19 something like that.”

Nash was born on 20 November 1971 to Paul and Joan. He grew up in Dargaville, a town of little more than a regional service centre north of Auckland. Nash was always interested in taking up sports, be it rugby or basketball, but it became apparent that he would excel at cricket. During his younger days, Nash had a fondness for bowling fast. By 1989, Nash received a sports scholarship at Auckland Grammar School.

His first national age-group selection came soon after that, aged 18. He came into the Northern Districts side in the 1990/91 season, having qualified through the age-group and Northland ranks. His debut, late in the summer against Auckland, saw him show enough to be brought back into the side the next season.

Coming into the Northern Districts side at such a young age must have been overwhelming.

“I was confident in my own ability, but I was very nervous. It had been a pretty meteoric rise, I was still very young and I guess at that stage, I think I would have been 18, 19 something like that. I was definitely a little overwhelmed, but they [David White and Matt Maynard] definitely made me welcome. At the same time, it’s a competitive environment. There is always a little bit of pressure on a younger player when he first gets in. There is always a bit of tension. First thing you gotta do is prove yourself. I don’t really feel like I did that well at Northern Districts, I played okay but it probably wasn’t until I went to Otago that I made my mark.”

“By the time I got back in, I was a much better cricketer. And a much harder cricketer.”

Nash was selected for New Zealand’s tour of Zimbabwe in 1992/93 – having played just one List A match, and three First Class games.

He made his international debut on October 31, in the first one-dayer at Bulawayo. New Zealand won by 22 runs, however Nash’s opportunities in that game were few; he scored three with the bat and bowled only one over. Nash’s Test debut came in the Second Test of the same tour at Harare, just two weeks short of his twenty-first birthday. On his Test debut, he picked up two wickets in the match which New Zealand won by 177 runs.

“I wasn’t expecting it, obviously. I had had a very good tour with the Under-20 team in India, and we had had a few injuries and I guess, I just felt that suddenly my name was in the scene and even though it was after only three games, there was just a bit of talk around I guess. And I think what happened was there was just a few injuries and they took a punt and put me on the tour. I was way too young. It was a tough experience and the probably the best I can say about it, is it left me wanting more. When I came home, I was promptly dropped after I think about three games.

“When I came home, I had a season of just sort of really wanting to prove myself. Because of course, all the other older players around the First Class scene were all trying to pick on me and bully me because I hadn’t earned my spot. So I pretty quickly became everybody’s target in the first full season after that tour, and you know that hardened me up a lot. I felt like taking on everybody and it wasn’t that much after that I was back in the side I think; 1993 I got back in the side, ‘94 maybe. But anyway, it was a full year out. By the time I got back in, I was a much better cricketer. And a much harder cricketer.”

“Both times that we have had World Cups, it definitely raised the awareness of cricket. And there has been a bit of passion for the sport develop and left behind from it. So it definitely has helped.”

Nash was brought into the NZ team camp in the time immediately after the 1992 World Cup. New Zealand were on the brink of a first ever World Cup final but were undone by Inzamam Ul Haq’s heroics in the semi-final. Nevertheless, their brand of cricket seemingly captured the imagination of a small but a proud sporting nation and rejuvenated the reputation of New Zealand cricket in the process.

“I think anytime that you have a World Cup in your own backyard, everybody shows an interest. I think the country is bound to get behind things. And of course, you tend to play better in your own conditions, you get a little bit motivation. So both times that we have had World Cups, it definitely raised the awareness of cricket. And there has been a bit of passion for the sport develop and left behind from it. So it definitely has helped.”

“It was a tough decision because you obviously leave all of the selectors and all the people who know you best. But it was a very good decision. And again I think it helped me develop as a human and as a cricketer.”

After that tour of Zimbabwe in 1992/93, Nash moved to Dunedin, playing for Otago, studying at the University of Otago, and leaving Northern Districts behind. He did not play make his international comeback until 1994 which gave him adequate time to complete his degree.

Nash caught the selectors’ attention after a string of eye catching performances in the domestic arena during the 1993/94 season which included a five-for against his former team Northern Districts. He was eventually recalled to the national side for the series against India.

“Yeah, I felt like, to be honest, I needed to get away. It was down there at the University so that was the first thing. And it was a long way to lead a double life. It’s one end to the country to the other. And I just felt while I was at the University, I was better off committing to that area and staying down there. It was a nice clean break as well for me, so I could start afresh and prove myself all over again. It was a tough decision because you obviously leave all of the selectors and all the people who know you best. But it was a very good decision. And again I think it helped me develop as a human and as a cricketer.”


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