SPIN: A New Zealand story

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The end started with a text.

In one regard, it was a “we’re short, can you play on Saturday?” affair, and yet it was also infinitely more regal.

The crowd – albeit a crowd of just over a dozen – were begging for an encore.

Their hero fulfilled their wishes, and strode back to the stage (or, at the least, limped forward).

Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s coach and captain, had schemed the most unlikely of schemes. A 35 year-old, half retired, nearly crippled veteran of 111 Tests was to re-emerge as the cameo cricketer he was once employed to bring an end to.

More than 17 years prior, Daniel Vettori had leapt in front of Grant Bradburn, Campbell Furlong, Matthew Hart, Mark Haslam, Greg Loveridge, Mark Priest, Glenn Sulzberger and Paul Wiseman to secure a Test slot. Most of these cricketers were bit part players, offering a bit with the bat, a little with the ball; perhaps a soupçon of specialty in one regard or the other.

Vettori’s selection in 1997 blew this away. No longer would New Zealand’s spin stocks emanate from the Dipak Patels or Shane Thomsons of this world; it was time for a pure spinner.

This occurred because Vettori was good enough to fulfil such a brief. But as he got older, Vettori merited a place as a specialist bowler less and less. Despite his guile, his smarts, his undisputed ability to wear down a batsman, few other nations could have afforded the liability of a spinner averaging 34.

But his batting improved, through grit and eccentricity alike, and he eventually became a cricketing figure respected – if not adored – the world over.

In late 2014, a long time after the giddy heights of debuting as an 18 year-old in February ’97, Vettori made an explicitly “one-off” return to the Test side.

He wasn’t there as a specialist batsman: an injury-laden senior citizen with the ability to make annoying runs wouldn’t cut it ahead of the other contenders.

Nor was he there as the frontline spinner. Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig did that; Vettori merely gave those two a spell.

A few overs here; a few overs there. Can you stick out a few overs with the bat? Great. Thanks Dan.

He had become a walk-on cricketer, and might not even earn a speaking role.

It drew to a close an epoch of New Zealand spin bowling, which was definitively slammed shut in March the following year. The Vettori Era was over, and New Zealand were left with the merry-go-round of nearly okay spinners that had been trialled and considered as Vettori’s career had come to a stuttering, shuddering, stop-start conclusion.

***

New Zealand has never had a great history of spinners. The first man to twirl a ball in anger, Bill Merritt, was considered the finest these islands produced, by many judges, until the advent of Vettori.

A true leg-spinner – with all the associated foibles – Merritt set a number of records which stood for decades. Most wickets in New Zealand, most wickets for New Zealand, these were the numbers that were Merritt’s.

But Merritt played far fewer matches for New Zealand than he should have done.

The politics of the time mixed unhealthily with the reality of life during the Great Depression. After New Zealand’s tour of England in 1931, Merritt breached his New Zealand Cricket Council agreement not to play in England for at least two years.

Rishton, a Manchester club, were the beneficiaries. New Zealand certainly emerged the losers. Although playing only sporadically in First Class cricket, he took over 1000 League Cricket wickets, coupling it with more than 7000 runs.

“My decision to come to England was dictated by business reasons,” Merritt explained, “and when it is realised that some members of the New Zealand team are without employment at all, I do not think I can be blamed.”

He’d still had ample time to take 212 First Class wickets for New Zealand, twelve in Tests, and was well liked and respected.

The illustrious Walter Hammond described one of his variations as “a leg-break which struck like a cobra, one of the nastiest balls I have had to deal with.”

So given the few standouts who followed, its unsurprising how highly Merritt has been regarded for quite so long.

The man who did follow, aside from batting all-rounders of the ilk of Giff Vivian and Roger Blunt, was Doug Freeman.

Another leg-spinner, an 18 year-old Freeman was New Zealand’s youngest Test debutant when he played against Jardine’s Englishmen in 1932/33. Unfortunately, despite setting a record that stood for near 65 years, Freeman did little else – he took 1/169 in his two Tests, and played just one further First Class match.

That final First Class match, in the same calendar year as his two Tests, saw him take just one wicket – that of a number nine batsman – as he received just 15.1 overs against Auckland.

Freeman moved to Fiji, and subsequently wasn’t seen in big cricket again until 1954, when he toured New Zealand with that Pacific Island’s side.

That was after the conclusion of the Second World War, an event which cut New Zealand’s cricketing itinerary after that 1933 series against England to just three further Tests until the mid-1940s – on the 1937 tour of England.

That tour of England saw Norman Gallichan and Denis Moloney trialled with the ball in the tour games, but given few chances in the internationals. Gallichan got just one Test, while Moloney played as a specialist batsman, bowling just two of his 407 tour overs in the three internationals.

Giff Vivian, and even Martin Donnelly, provided the filler when more slow bowling was required, with pace bowlers John Dunning and Jack Cowie taking the brunt of the overs.

After the war, New Zealand and Australia engaged in what was later denoted a Test match, but certainly fell well short of that tag in terms of quality.

New Zealand debuted leg-spinner Cecil Burke in this match, and he went on to tour England in 1949 – taking 54 wickets. But before that tour, and indeed on it, Burke was to be overshadowed.

Thomas Browning Burtt. It’s not a name remembered as well as the other major spinners of the 1940s, with Jim Laker, Eric Hollies and Jack Young (to name but three) the players more in the public eye – then, and to some degree now.

Burtt’s tour of England in 1949, where New Zealand lost just one match (a record only trumped by the Australians of the previous year), saw him take 128 First Class wickets, at an average of just 22.

It was a display of brilliance equal to the Kiwi headline acts of Sutcliffe, Donnelly, Hadlee, Wallace and Cowie.

He was no young spark, at the age of 34, but he had the perfect qualities for a spinner: still-youthful exuberance, coupled with the sage wit of an elder.

“I realised spinning the ball was so important,” Burtt recalled of his 1949 successes. “In England rollers were a dime a dozen. You had to really spin the ball to make an impact.”

He played for New Zealand through to 1953, when he was controversially omitted in favour of promoting youth. It was an indisputably poor decision, proven beyond doubt by the results, and was harsh treatment of a man who lived to bowl, and bowled with life.

The tour of South Africa in 1953/54, a rare five-Test series for New Zealand, saw four spinners tour – none of them Burtt. Eric Dempster and William Bell, the two specialists, took 3/341 between them, while all-rounder Matt Poore bowled 19 overs, taking one for 75.

Only Geoff Rabone had any success with his bag of tricks – but he also trebled as captain and opening bat, leaving him having to fulfil far too many roles. And when he suffered an injury between the third and fourth Tests, missing out on the last two internationals, New Zealand were shown to be lacking.

In the bats-a-bit-and-bowls-a-little-less department, Rabone was replaced by fellow off-spinner John Sparling. He was a valuable player but never really good enough to command his place with either discipline, meaning it was something less than a surprise that he drifted out when still in his twenties.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw new characters enter the scene: Narotam Puna and Allen Lissette, both omnipresent Northern Districts stalwarts, would have played countless more times for the national side if they hadn’t played for the unfashionable country bumpkin cousins.

Instead, over the decade from the mid-1950s, New Zealand had an abundance of leg-spin, with both Alex Moir and Jack Alabaster fighting for the role in the side. Those two took 77 wickets between them with Alabaster playing Test cricket until the early 1970s.

New Zealand’s spinners were backed up in the form of the Lancashire-born Christian, Vic Pollard. His 32 Tests saw him pick up 40 handy wickets with his off-spin, adding an extra string to the New Zealand bow.

Pollard could have been more as an all-round cricketer had religion not dominated his life. He didn’t play on Sundays, became a long-standing teacher in Christian schools, and stood for Parliament after the turn of the century under the bracket of the Christian Heritage Party.

But as Moir faded from the Test side as the 1950s drew to a close, and the more impressive wrist-spin cousin Alabaster drifted in and out of the side from the early 1960s onwards, their role was acquired by the unassuming left-arm spin of Bryan Yuile.

He took just 34 Test wickets, but found a niche for himself in the New Zealand side of that time, tying batsmen down.

The bespectacled Yuile never looked a cricketer, and certainly held other matters above sport – like Pollard and several other notable New Zealand sportsmen, he wouldn’t play on Sundays. But he proved himself an efficient foil for the fast bowlers, and carved himself a place in Kiwi cricketing legacy.

Even if his best spell, 2/4 from a remarkable 16 overs, was rather unflatteringly described by his captain as “absurd”.

***

Bruce Martin, New Zealand’s left-arm spinner, tosses up another delivery. Mominul Haque, the latest subcontinental prodigy, steps forward and drives it down the ground.

Four more to the total.

Martin was always in Vettori’s shadow: never quite the bowler Vettori was, Martin was also cursed with a less ideal cricketing personality than the Northern Districts golden child.

It was the mental side of the game, rather than lack of talent, that saw Martin drift out of teams and eventually the game as a whole.

And when he was getting mauled by very inexperienced Bangladeshis in late 2013, with the crowd’s roars dwarfing Martin to almost non-existent, there was something that clicked into place: so that’s why the selectors never tried him before.

While his Test figures wrote Bucko off as incompetent – his annihilation at the hands of Ban. Gla. Desh. the icing on a not particularly enticing cake – Martin was just one of a whole roster of capable spinners who had the misfortune of circumstance and timing.

Vettori’s final Test (before the surprise return) was against the West Indies in 2012. Having bowled over 50 overs in the West Indian first innings, Vettori broke down post-match and missed the second Test.

No new specialist was employed, with the role of main spinner instead going to Kane ’15 What?’ Williamson. The following series saw Jeetan Patel come in, and perform very adequately.

Unfortunately for Patel, the tour of South Africa saw his career torn to shreds in the eyes of countless New Zealanders – not through his performance with the ball, but instead due to his terror while facing Dale Steyn.

Given the fear-inducing, pants-packing, night-terror-triggering hold Steyn has had over most top order batsmen, Patel’s reactions were probably fair. But the same Court of Media, presided over by Judge Sensationalist, that has recently pronounced Chris Gayle guilty of war crimes, also found Patel guilty of criminal negligence and first degree wimpishness.

Todd Astle, an exceptionally talented leg-spinning all-rounder, has received just one Test – as the second spinner, in Sri Lanka – despite his form and record. Perhaps the selectors will return to the sunglass-adorned Cantabrian in due course.

After the horrors of the Republic, with Astle overlooked and Patel still backing away when it came time to board the plane home, Martin was brought in for the home Tests against England.

This decision, although persisted with, appeared a little shaky when it was the elbow-kinked displays of part-timer Williamson that almost brought about success at Eden Park. Regardless, Brendon McCullum’s theory of team collectivism meant Martin couldn’t be criticised if his comrades succeeded.

So came a return ticket – the trip to Britain. But spin rarely gets a look-in anyway, so Martin’s injury in the first Test saw him replaced by a seamer for the second.

When they followed on to Bangladesh, Ish Sodhi got his call-up alongside Martin. It’s hard to term the Test selection of a bowler with a First Class average on the wrong side of fifty a meritocratic one, and much easier to term it self-indulgence by the selectors.

He eventually drifted out of the Test side having been decimated by Shivnarine Chanderpaul, India and Pakistan alike. His rip-roaring wrong’un couldn’t save him from the eventual axe. But he does have talent. Now rebuilding through New Zealand A, domestic and international limited overs appearances, Sodhi will almost certainly return to the five-day side eventually.

By that stage, he might be ready for the call-up.

When the selectors were rebuffed by Jeetan Patel – who, arguably with merit, placed his Warwickshire contract above another temporary national role – they decided to plump for Mark Craig.

A little known off-spinner, not overly secure of his position within the Otago four-day side, Craig was a surprise selection. And despite one seven-for (giving him ten in the match), Craig’s done little else – he’s taken no other Test five wicket hauls in his 13 Tests, and averages in the mid-forties with the ball.

The most dispassionate observer would likely term his selection as being in the ‘controversial’ basket. And that might be a generous evaluation.

With all-rounder Mitchell Santner carving a consistent slot for himself in the New Zealand side, it seems that in the short term at least, specialist bowlers might be on the outer.

It’s interesting to note, in the context of just how poor New Zealand’s spin crop has been on the world stage, that no New Zealand spinner with four or more Test wickets has done so at a better average than Santner’s 31.00 for his current haul of six.

All these names emerge without even beginning to look at some of the other spinners considered to fill the between-Vettori cracks. Tarun Nethula was a one-day specialist deemed the future Test hero until the yips got a stranglehold.

Roneel Hira went from burgeoning talent to Twenty20 specialist to batsman who dabbles in the art of left-armers.

Nick Beard was up to New Zealand A before his action caught up with him, while Otago teammate Nathan McCullum never rose past one-day journeyman.

Tim Johnston has so far failed to grow past the talent he displayed before turning 20, still trying to secure a place in the Canterbury side now.

Luke Woodcock never got given a Test chance, and probably rightfully so, despite his abilities as an everlasting all-rounder for Wellington.

Batsmen who could bowl, the likes of Aaron Redmond and Rob Nicol, were given chances at various stages without displaying enough in either discipline to retain their positions.

From the moment Vettori stepped down as captain, after the 2011 World Cup, there was an immediate jostling of position for the spinners who would succeed the man. Unfortunately, as of 2016 – starting the fourth year without Vettori as a serious presence in the Test side – the man who has won the right to succeed Vettori is… no-one.

***

Long before Bill Merritt turned his wrist over in New Zealand’s first Test, spinners were appearing for the national side. In what is the first match played by a semblance of a nationally representative XI (albeit one regarded by many as too skewed to count as the first New Zealand side), the opening bowler was William Robertson, off-spinner of some distinction.

February 1894, at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park, saw Robertson take 6/76 and 4/73 in a losing cause against New South Wales, following up the sublime form he’d shown to lead Canterbury to victory over the tourists just prior.

Admittedly, given the hints and hisses that the New South Welsh had indulged in some degree of tanking – losing the game against Canterbury in order to lengthen the odds against the New Zealand XI – his displays in the earlier match may have to be taken as a little synthetic.

Regardless, a ten-wicket haul in New Zealand’s first representative match was a huge feat, and with the New South Welshmen playing for victory and handsome betting rewards, it was against a determined batting line-up.

So it was no surprise that he retained his spot two years later, when New Zealand played their next match, against the same opposition.

This game saw another off-spinner enter the fray – Otago’s Alex Downes.

Let us give Daniel Reese the say: “Downes’ bowling always commanded respect from the greatest batsmen who visited New Zealand. His off-break, varied by a faster ball going with the arm, was cleverly used by him, and when the wicket suited him, he was often unplayable.”

Reese himself was a superb left-arm spinner, at one point being scouted as a possible Australian Test player, and later hand-picked by WG Grace for his London County side. All-rounder, captain and later a notable administrator, Reese’s impact on New Zealand’s cricketing lore is undeniable.

Don Sandman and Cyril Alcott were the men who followed Reese into the New Zealand spin shoes, after Reese played his final match for the national side just before the Great War.

Sandman was the man who, as illuminated in this piece by the New Zealand Cricket Museum, somewhat directly led to the departure of Clarrie Grimmett from this country. While a great loss, Grimmett’s cricket developed immensely in Australia, so it’s hard to deny that his leaving these shores was the right decision in the end.

***

The map of Merritt-Burtt-Alabaster and Yuile carried New Zealand through until something of a blossoming of spin bowling talent in the 1970s, which erupted in the 1980s. It started in 1969, with a man by the name of Hedley Howarth.

Howarth – elder brother of esteemed New Zealand captain Geoff – was an admirable left-arm spinner who started off with a bang, only to quickly alter his inclinations towards journeymanism after his debut series.

His theories were uncluttered: “That’s what bowling is all about,” he once claimed. “Rhythm.”

A slow start to Howarth’s career had been dismantled by a remarkable run between 1966-67 and 1968-69, where he took 75 First Class wickets at an average under 17. So it was no surprise that he toured England, and then the subcontinent, in 1969.

His only two Test five-wicket hauls came on that first trip away, when he was at his most incisive.

In 1972, his sharp edge was blunted by the mirror-like West Indian wickets. He bowled 338 overs across the five Tests, and although his wicket-taking ability was less than penetrating (he averaged a shade over 50 with the ball), his dedication to the cause was a key component in the 0-0 drawn series.

“We saw a lot of Howarth’s bowling,” said Garry Sobers, the West Indies captain, “and we never really figured him out.”

Sobers’ own battles with Howarth was something for the connoisseurs.

Things slowed down for Howarth from there. He was hard to score off, but struggled more with the challenge of getting players out. His end figures – an average of nearly 37, an RPO of barely over two – were telling.

These were near-amateur cricketing days, and by the end of his Test career, which drew to a close in 1977, other things had taken precedence. Where brother Geoff took up a County contract with Surrey, barnstorming as one of the first New Zealand professionals, Hedley instead turned down English offers. His family and the Howarth wholesale fish business were the priorities.

Regardless, his Wisden Almanack obituary’s line (he passed away at the far-too-young age of 64 in 2008) that he was “perhaps the best spin bowler to play for New Zealand, at least before Daniel Vettori” illuminated how highly regarded he was.

His great skill, as brother Geoff intimated, was that “Hedley had the ability to make the ball seem to be where it wasn’t”.

He was undeniably the pick of the New Zealand tweakers in the 1970s, with the others who played alongside him certainly second-fiddle.

David O’Sullivan was one of those second-fiddlers. A fairly simple left-arm spinner, O’Sullivan didn’t have great success across his eleven Tests – but he did have one moment in the sun. At the Adelaide Oval, with Australia rattling their way to an innings victory, O’Sullivan managed to put himself among a very exclusive group: New Zealand spinners with five-wicket hauls.

The Central Districts tweaker took 5-148, but it was one good performance among a disappointing Test career – albeit one that might have had more joy with further opportunities.

John McIntyre might have been something – for Auckland and Canterbury, he racked up superb First Class stats – but would never get a look-in ahead of Howarth, O’Sullivan and later Stephen Boock, as yet another left-armer.

In 1976, an off-spinner took the fore: Peter Petherick. Making his Test debut aged 34, having made his First Class debut just a year earlier, Petherick managed to grab a permanent slot among cricketing lore.

Only Maurice Allom before, and Damien Fleming since, have matched Petherick’s debut hat-trick. It was an illustrious trio to boot – Javed Miandad, Wasim Raja and Intikhab Alam.

Petherick played only a handful more Tests, ending with 16 wickets at an average on the wrong side of 40.

He returned to domestic cricket, which had only ever come about by chance, and continued to perform strongly for several more seasons. Not many men have taken nine wickets in an innings, but Petherick managed it against a particularly strong Northern Districts batting side.

But even domestic cricket had come about by chance. A rural mechanic, he was called up for an Otago trial match, and his captain Warren Lees wasn’t immediately struck:

“I walked into the dressing room and there was a guy in the corner reading the paper. I put my bag down and said ‘good morning’ to everyone. He was smoking a cigarette, reading the paper and he didn’t say anything. I went outside where the guys had gathered and I said ‘who’s father is that?’. I thought it was one of the young guys in the trial’s father.”

He was regarded as a great character, but was also a great bowler, and his 189 First Class wickets came at the very admirable average of 24. And to think what could have been if he’d been discovered before his mid-30s.

As Petherick faded, and Howarth called it a day, so Boock rose. The current New Zealand Cricket President, Stephen Boock had an eclectic career marred by always being in the back seat.

He was a very correct, very proper and absolutely orthodox left-arm spinner, but as Packer’s cricket boomed, and limited overs became the game of unlimited ambition, so Boock faded to unfashionable.

Despite that, he was capable of very good performances, and through the late 1970s and 1980s, he managed to coincide himself with some great team moments. He debuted, in 1977, in New Zealand’s first Test victory over the Brits. He played in the first Test series victory over the same.

And the English were certainly favoured opponents – when they racked up a massive total at Trent Bridge, Boock took 2-29, off an astounding 28 overs.

Even today, Boock sits as the fifth-top Test wicket-taker among New Zealand spinners. Only Vettori, John Bracewell, Howarth and Dipak Patel sit ahead – with the latter two by slim margins.

Boock, unfortunately, had a career that coincided with New Zealand management averse to spin, and a cricketing world that shunned it. So when, during the 1980s, New Zealand afforded themselves the luxury of a spinner, it was more likely to be the quicker, angrier, more pace-like John Bracewell.

Bracewell’s job was to complement those who were there. The Richards – Collinge and Hadlee, Ewen Chatfield, Lance Cairns, Martin Snedden, and later in the ‘80s, Willie Watson and Danny Morrison.

Pace played Caesar, and it was the job of the spinner to feed Julius his grapes.

In that regard, Bracewell was someone out of place. He didn’t really play to complement – although his strike rate looks poor in comparison to Warne or Murali, it was exceptional for the 1980s. He was an aggressive wicket-seeker, not a plod bowler.

Bracewell won Tests for New Zealand, and was the first New Zealand spinner to take ten wickets in the longest format. He once took a six-for that commanded New Zealand to a victory over Australia, and stood up through utter aggression even when the spin didn’t grip.

He took 102 wickets in 41 Tests, averaged 20 with the bat, once made a Test hundred, and was only the second Kiwi after one R.J. Hadlee to double 1000 runs with 100 wickets.

His capabilities on-field were most noticed once he was gone.

And even when he was around, who else was there? Chris Kuggeleijn had a brief Test career but struggled in all departments, and was one of the first in the long line of 1990s bits-and-pieces cricketers.

Cliff Dickeson took plenty of wickets for Northern Districts in the late 1970s and early ‘80s but he himself concedes he was never an international-standard bowler.

Vaughan Brown ruined Richard Hadlee’s nearly ten-for, but contributed nothing else in a brief international career; while Wellington’s Evan Gray never got a chance to throw himself into international cricket.

Gray was unfortunate, bowling and batting his way to a career that still sees him at the top of many a Wellington record list, but probably never quite achieved what he could have done.

So it wasn’t until the Kenyan-born Brit Dipak Patel debuted that New Zealand had a spin successor.

Nairobi was never a great cricketing environment and – while he was a large figure in Worcestershire – the world of international cricket never really seemed within reach. Paving the way for Roger Twose some years later, Patel made the antipodean journey and made home in New Zealand.

Virtually as soon as he qualified, he was picked. The West Indies were the first to try out the adopted Kiwi.

He handled himself with aplomb, but was just a dependable batsman. His all-round skills came years later when his spin – turned to as a last resort – showed itself to be a talent New Zealand could bank on.

While he plied his trade from the middle order, many others came and went: Shane Thomson failed to produce the promise he’d shown as a teenager. Mark and Mark – Haslam and Priest – couldn’t deliver. Matthew Hart lacked that something.

It started to seem that New Zealand’s endless wheeler-dealing in cricketers who had many jobs – but all part-time – wouldn’t pay off in the spin department. Nathan Astle came good as a batsman who started as a niggly medium-pacer. Chris Harris did everything but specialised only in the infield. Gavin Larsen delivered the awkward medium-slow wobblies that New Zealand’s 1990s wickets cried out for.

Sri Lanka had found Murali; Pakistan, Mushtaq; Australia found one SK Warne; even England had Tufnell.

New Zealand? Well. There was Grant Bradburn?

***

Paul Wiseman was never a great spinner. That was evident from domestic up, and no-one (I suspect, not even he) would have claimed otherwise.

But Daniel Vettori needed a partner -and he was solid. Dependable. A perfect companion.

Sadly, those who could have been the partner came and went. Countless cricketers have disappeared into the dark pit of ‘what could have been’.

Mark Richardson was one: a terrifically talented left-arm spinner, Richardson got the yips. He’d started off well: in 1990-91, he took 15 First Class wickets at 22 apiece. His next ten came at 82.10 each.

“All of a sudden, my mentality went from just running in and wanting to bowl a great ball, to not wanting to bowl a bad ball – and that’s a really bad way of thinking. So it really did deteriorate very, very quickly over the following year.”

Richardson turned himself into a batsman. He was one of the few who refused to let his career be buried.

In 1996, the new big Northern Districts left-arm spinner was Jason Spice. He’d taken 31 Under-19 Test wickets, at an average of 19 – promise unquestionable.

He played five First Class matches for Northern Districts, but couldn’t prove himself: he averaged over 100 with the ball, was dropped mid-way through the 1996-97 season, and lost his place as the Northern Districts spin prodigy.

His replacement, one Daniel Luca Vettori, took his chance with both hands.

Spice was lost to rugby: he became an All Black and had top-notch careers in both New Zealand and Britain on the union field.

Meanwhile Wiseman took his chances well enough to secure a slot as more or less the first choice second-spinner from his debut in 1998 until about 2005, when Jeetan Patel took on the role.

Aside from a brief fling with an ageing Grant Bradburn, only Brooke Walker got a Test gig during Wiseman’s tenure, and Walker just couldn’t do it. Unsurprising then that he came and went, and then quickly drifted out of domestic cricket too – for those who get a taste of the international cricketing world, the level below is never quite as appetising again.

For Wiseman, it was always about trying to recreate his Test debut. Where 61 wickets at 47.59 – Wiseman’s final Test tally – certainly show why he was second in command to Vettori, things didn’t seem quite that way in 1998.

Playing his first Test at the ripe age of 28, Wiseman had picked up a solid two-wicket haul (plus a run-out) in the Sri Lankan first innings. If he could match that – or even approach it – in the second innings, he’d have done his job. After all, the lad a decade his junior was the one meant to take the poles.

Courtesy of a Fleming spectacular, the runs required for Sri Lanka were far beyond what could be expected of a team batting on the last two days of a subcontinental Test. Regardless, a draw was well within their reach – and would set them up nicely to unleash yet more spin, with Kumar Dharmasena coming into the side.

Sanath Jayasuriya dominated proceedings in the opening partnership but eventually, with the score on 70, Wiseman broke through. Marvan Atapattu the man out, having made less than a quarter of the partnership runs.

When Jayasuriya himself fell too, not long afterward, Sri Lanka were 89 for the loss of two wickets, with Wiseman snaring both.

Regardless, at 111-2 at stumps on Day Four, it was – surely – an inevitable stalemate?

Mahela Jayawardene and Aravinda de Silva. An almighty duo, and one which was capable of grinding New Zealand out of contention.

They’d started that grind with 36 overs together on the Sunday morning, getting them to lunch. They were one-third through the day.

Two more sessions to bat, with eight wickets in hand. For the classy de Silva, who had already stroked 71 off the 154 balls he’d faced, it seemed all too easy.

He took strike for the first over after lunch, to be bowled by The Prodigy. Vettori and captain Fleming tinkered with the field a little, the umpires and batsmen re-steeled themselves for another long session in the heat, and scorers put pens to the ready.

But ball struck pad, pad appeared adjacent, and finger was raised. It was the beginning of the end.

Wiseman eventually snared the never-ending Jayawardene: the Sri Lankan future captain had batted six and a half hours, faced over 250 deliveries, and eventually edged to Matthew Horne.

Romesh Kaluwitharana made a few, Niroshan Bandaratilleke batted time, but all tumbled.

At 4.15pm, about ten overs into the final session of the Test match, it occurred. While Muttiah Muralitharan’s dutiful resistance at the non-striker’s end remained unconquered, Malinga Bandara was less fortunate.

Dismissing him with the fifth ball of his 47th over, it had been a marathon performance for Wiseman. In conjunction with Daniel Vettori (3-101 from 51 overs), his 5-82 had won New Zealand a Test match. In the subcontinent, no less.

Those two had out aggressed, and out-strangulated, the Sri Lankan spinners – and there were plenty to compete with. Bandaratilleke, Muralitharan, Bandara, Ruwan Kalpage and Sanath Jayasuriya had all rolled the arm over, and not one could match the New Zealand pair on their second innings economy rates (both under two), nor could anyone square themselves with Wiseman’s figures.

***

“I actually came home and my mother gave me a message to ring Ross Dykes, which was a very big surprise.”

With round glasses apparently larger than the face they rested on, a mop of long hair, and an almost hesitant mannerism when trying to answer questions, Daniel Vettori’s live link from New Zealand’s capital city was broadcast across the country.

Appearing on the country’s major evening current affairs programme, Vettori had just entered the team camp ahead of his Test debut.

Meanwhile – elsewhere – grumpy players helped fill journalists’ word requirements, with Mark Haslam one of those most vocal about his treatment at the hands of the selectors.

“It would be stupid to say I want to see him there [Vettori, in the side]. But having been there myself, I hope they don’t screw him around. He deserves to have a decent chance.”

According to reports coming from Vettori’s home paper the Waikato Times, it was a stellar choice from the selectors – they were banking on someone who showed himself brilliantly capable and the decision was lauded.

Elsewhere, it was considered a return to the Turner-Germon era. In those days, only months prior, New Zealand played the likes of Geoff Allott, Greg Loveridge and Robert Kennedy without any care for experience, performance or notable competence.

With just two First Class matches behind him – and one of those a tour match, never the most intense of affairs – Vettori had been thrown into the Test side.

While Haslam was deposed from the squad, he wasn’t the unluckiest exclusion. Mark Priest had the weight of wickets behind him, while Matthew Hart had only a couple of years earlier bowled New Zealand to a Test win over South Africa. Even Campbell Furlong – whose innings figures of 7-72 outshone Vettori’s acclaimed 5-61 in the latter’s second First Class match – was a name bandied about.

Nasser Hussain, the English vice-captain, was entirely condescending of his selection.

“I bet he’s surprised. We’re not too worried about Vettori.”

The problem for the British was that they should have been worried about Vettori – especially Hussain himself, who edged Vettori to Bryan Young at slip in Hamilton to give him his first First Class wicket, and to the same fielder in the same position in Wellington, to give him his maiden Test scalp.

Vettori’s first fifteen overs – 90 deliveries – in Test cricket consisted of 74 dot balls, more than 82% of what he dished out.

So it went on. With Dipak Patel fading from the scene, and no other contender able to really push forward, Vettori became the mainstay.

360 Test wickets, 17 years and 4520 Test runs after getting his first international wicket, Vettori’s career drew to a close.

In the meantime, New Zealand had changed, developed, slipped backwards, and always jumped erratically between promise and abject failure. The man who usually gave reason for the former, and saved the team regularly from the latter, was Vettori.

Vettori contributed hugely to New Zealand’s series victory over England on the 1999 tour of Britain, enthralled Gideon Haigh in 2000, almost bowled New Zealand to a series win in Australia in 2001, and worked his way to an opening slot in the batting order for the 2003 World Cup.

But injuries kept every forward step weighted down. His bowling action lost its youthful flourish, and became more pinpoint-ably correct.

He started to struggle with form, although his selection for the World XI for the ‘Test’ against Australia proved the regard he was held in.

By 2007, he was the key man, and his elevation to captaincy was near-inevitable.

Over the next five years, with his side increasingly struggling at Test level, he became the team. No batsman was so dependable, no bowler so relied upon. It took its toll and the end came sooner for it.

But he led New Zealand to a Champions Trophy final – a stage cruelly stolen from him when he missed the game through injury – as well as a Test victory over England, several successful one-day series wins, and a World Cup semi-final; including the remarkable Quarter Final victory over South Africa.

Regardless, all good things have to conclude eventually. Even with his years of tireless service to the New Zealand cause, the Cricket Gods failed to reward Vettori with comfortable years of turning the ball with an increasingly lax action, and decreasingly sprightly steps. Unlike Warne, Murali or Herath, who played (or play) in or near their forties, Vettori is only a matter of a few months older than Adam Voges.

Voges continues to mount the case for why he should’ve played Test cricket for decades, not months, while Vettori will face pain even in the near social-outing of the Masters Cricket League.

In 2014, the end came with a text. It signalled the end of something – but possibly, the start of something else.

Nearly two decades prior, when the Vettori Age was yet to begin, he was seen as the future. But now, with the Sodhis and Santners – those who idolised Vettori – pushing their case, it’s hard not to feel that Vettori’s gone from presenting the future to filling the pages of history.

Even so, it’s only through looking at the other 120-odd years of New Zealand spinning history that we can truly appreciate just how large Daniel Vettori loomed.

 

ALL STATS CORRECT as at 12-02-2016, before the start of play in the first NZ v Aus Test. Test figures do not include the Australia vs World XI match, 2005.
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7 thoughts on “SPIN: A New Zealand story

  1. That’s a fantastic piece – based on such solid research and constructed thoughtfully, so as not to be a simple chronological survey. Also, many choice phrases that spice-up the narrative. Thank you.

    Chris

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My name is Valerie Martin & I am Bill Merritt’s daughter. Very interested in your story of ‘Spin’ as I am compiling and writing a book about my father’s life. I have lot’s of memorabilia including a hand written diary of the 1927 tour also several pages handwritten by Walter Hadlee about Dad’s time at Chch. Boys High. I was given your name by Jamie Bell when I was in Wellington for the Test last week. Valerie

    Like

    1. Hi Valerie, lovely to hear from you. Jamie mentioned that he’d very kindly given the piece a recommendation to you! Merritt is a character who has always appealed to me, especially given how disappointingly his international career ended. Do let me know if there’s any way I can help with the book.

      Like

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