Graeme Aldridge: ‘a domestic stereotypical seam bowler’

Day one at Seddon Park, Northern Districts doing battle with Canterbury. The sun is out, the crowd has creeped into double digits, and ND have just brought up their hundred for the loss of two.

Graeme Aldridge, ND’s bowling coach and a man who took over 150 top-level wickets at this ground alone, is talking about his career. It traversed 16 years, 123 First Class appearances, a handful of international call-ups and god knows how many domestic records.

But thanks to the selective memory that only immortalises televised matches, a splash of the average punter’s schadenfreude, and the sheer absurdity of the situation, Aldridge’s career is remembered for more-or-less one event:

“I just remember that game was probably the best I’d bowled in a T20…”

He pauses to watch Todd Astle amble in – it’s full, straight, and Dean Brownlie gets pad in the way. The umpire’s finger is raised. Northern Districts are three down.

“…up until that ball, obviously. In terms of what happened – god knows what happened. I was putting the ball exactly where I wanted it, and then there was no pressure on me at all – 12 off one.

“For whatever reason, I’ve missed where I wanted to put the ball by about four or five foot. Then didn’t react well for the next ball obviously, I put one in the slot and Dre [Andre Adams] put it over the ropes. I guess the biggest thing is that you lose the game for your team.”

And it was rare that Aldridge let the side down – his career encompassed eight of his province’s domestic titles, exactly half of those the side has managed since inception in 1956. It’s testament to the influence he’s had that Grant Bradburn – who played alongside Aldridge at the tail-end of his own career, only to become Northern Districts head coach a few years later – describes him as “A brilliant role model.”

“He never cut corners in his preparation,” Bradburn recalls, “and always earned the right to succeed with a work ethic that was built on doing the hard yards.”

It seems strange to say of the Northern Districts wicket record holder, but Aldridge was almost invariably unlucky with selections. For virtually any other side, he would never have missed a game. Instead he played for a province that showed off Simon Doull, Alex Tait, Scott Styris, Joey Yovich and Daryl Tuffey, followed by Ian Butler, Mark Orchard, Brent Arnel and Tim Southee, only for those bowlers to be succeeded by Bradley Scott, Trent Boult, Jimmy Baker and Scott Kuggeleijn.

And because he was either the youngest, oldest, or had the least international caps, Aldridge always seemed to be the man omitted. Or, at the least, settle for a smaller share of the wicket bounty.

It all began back in 1999, when he made his First Class debut against Wellington at the Basin Reserve. It was a game for beginners – Hamish Marshall and the perennial underperformer Grant Donaldson made their first appearances in the whites too.

“I remember playing a few Bay [of Plenty] games with the Hart brothers [Robbie and Matthew], and that sort of gave you an insight into what it’s all about. Then I think I got invited to a pre-season camp with ND, which was nothing like they are these days – it was a couple of nets two or three days before the first game, probably.

“I remember having a meeting with Chris Kuggeleijn, who was coach at that stage, and Robbie Hart and they sort of said, ‘what are your thoughts for the season coming up?’ If I remember, I said ‘I dunno, I’m probably three or four injuries from getting a crack, so I’ll just train hard’ and all that sort of stuff. And I remember them saying ‘well nah, actually you’re pretty close, so prepare yourself as such’. That was helpful, so that when I did get my chance I was reasonably comfortable in that environment, and ready as I could be back in those days to go.”

But it didn’t all go smoothly: although he was tidy in one-day cricket, Aldridge struggled a little at First Class level, taking 1-75 on debut, and ending up with six wickets at 45.8 apiece in his four games that summer.

“The first season, I just wasn’t fit enough to play four-day cricket. I found that out pretty quick. I think I niggled both hammies over the course of that season.”

The following season, Aldridge got his first taste of demotion, failing to get a single First Class appearance over the season, and a grand total of two overs in limited overs cricket.

“Then the second season, I remember that I only bowled two overs, but I was with the squad I reckon about 90% of the whole season. A lot of carrying the drinks and that, and that was down to, I guess, me not being that good at the time, and then the likes of Daryl, Doully, Alex Tait. We had a lot of all-rounders that bowled, Mark Bailey bowled a lot in one-day cricket, Beags [Grant Bradburn] obviously. It was just a combination of things, but I wouldn’t have changed any of that for the world, because I was still involved with the squad. And it was still, without playing, a hell of an opportunity to keep improving my game, and learn.”

The worst part was missing out on a trophy, with ND claiming the Shell Trophy (as the Plunket Shield was then called), as Aldridge sat on the sidelines as 12th man.

With Simon Doull’s injuries keeping him out the picture and Scott Styris and Daryl Tuffey in the New Zealand camp, 2000-01 was Aldridge’s chance to make a return. Although his end figures for the season were unflattering, he picked up his maiden First Class five-for – a relief, because as Aldridge says, “by then you’re wondering whether you’re good enough.”

The biggest thing was fitting into the culture, which was pretty unique. As Mark Richardson describes it, “It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with Northern Districts. I admired them for the way they used to play their cricket, but I hated playing against them. They were hard work – as individual players, a lot of respect, but as a team, man, they used to know how to wind you up and get underneath your skin.”

And while Aldridge notes that much of domestic cricket is “way different” now to what it was when he started (pinpointing professionalism, Twenty20, and the number of matches played), Northern Districts itself hasn’t changed: “I think the basics of the game are much the same though, certainly in how ND goes about playing and the culture we try and make. It’s been built on year after year, and that’s pretty similar to when I first started.”

For Grant Bradburn, Aldridge was making a pretty immediate impact on the side.

“Coming into the ND side in the late 90’s captained by Robbie Hart, G had plenty of experience around him to learn his craft. In a pack that included Daryl Tuffey, Simon Doull, Scott Styris, Joey Yovich, G very quickly became Mr Reliable in the attack and carved himself a fantastic reputation and record.”

Reliability became even more a part of Aldridge’s performances in 2001-02, with 23 wickets at 22.9, at an economy of 2.49. But despite it being ostensibly the season that saw Aldridge’s bowling click into gear, he doesn’t remember a thing.

“My memory for cricket is terrible … In terms of the season, I would not remember at all.”

He does remember Northern Districts’ one-day victory over England, though. Admittedly, less for his own 2-39 and “more for Simon Doull’s innings than anything else”. Doull, trying to turn himself from a quick to an opening bat, hit 80 off 47 against an attack that included Hoggard, Caddick, Gough, Collingwood, White and Snape. Not to be sniffed at.

For Aldridge, his bowling simply developed further – and with Ian Butler invaliding himself into four years of obscurity, Doull, Robbie Hart and Grant Bradburn retired, and the likes of the Marshall brothers, Scott Styris and Daryl Tuffey all getting international honours, he became an increasingly senior member of the Northern Districts unit.

Despite that, he was never an overly conspicuous member of the dressing room. As Bradburn puts it, “[He’s] a man of few words but when G chose to speak up in the team environment, those words typically hit the mark clearly and concisely.”

By 2004-05, it was his own chance to get recognised for the level above: he already had 88 First Class wickets for ND, coming at a shade over 30 apiece, and was given the call-up to play for the Major Association XI against Sri Lanka.

What could’ve been a triumph of Northern Districts’ talent development, with three of the four bowlers selected (Aldridge, Joey Yovich and Bruce Martin) all from ND, ended up as much less. Rain played such a role that Sri Lanka didn’t even have a chance to bat.

So it took until the beginning of the following season, when New Zealand A toured Sri Lanka, for Aldridge to get his chance. And he bowled well; in his only First Class appearance of the tour, he took 4-29 – including the wickets of Avishka Gunawardene, Chamara Kapugedara and Jehan Mubarak.

But overall, when he did get the call-up (be it for the New Zealand Academy, New Zealand A or New Zealand Black) Aldridge never really lived up to what he was capable of.

“To be honest, when I look back, I never really thought I was [in line for higher honours] – I always wanted to, and I trained hard, and did everything I could, but it was always in the back of my mind with the next step up, whether I was quick enough. That’s the thing I always look back now, and I think I was that domestic stereotypical seam bowler, who just puts it up there and lets the wicket do the work, I guess. I was always trying bowl as quick as I could, I just couldn’t bowl any quicker.

“So that was always in the back of my mind. I think that probably affected my performance when I did go up a level, I maybe doubted myself too much. That’s what I look back on now, definitely for a sustainable, long career, I was always struggling in terms of pace. I think I had the skill to do it, but that difference is a big step up, and there’s not many guys that survive for a long period bowling in the mid-120s, on a good day in the 130s.”

It meant he continued to run in for Northern Districts, through the bad times and the good. Sometimes those changes of fortune were in quick succession: 2005-06 saw Aldridge cost 48 runs per wicket during a season in which ND went winless in four-day cricket.

Few would’ve bet on the transformation in 2006-07, when they won the Plunket Shield (then the State Championship) and Aldridge claimed three five-wicket hauls – his first in six years – on the way to 33 poles at 25.8 for the summer. In the final, where Northern Districts only need a draw to claim the title, they struggled on first innings – making 319 in reply to Canterbury’s 443 – but soon batted the Cantabrians into submission.

“KJ [Karl Johnson] produced a very flat wicket, and I think we mucked up in the first innings a little bit with the bat. Then it was about trying to take time out of the game with the ball, making it hard for them to score. And I just remember they surrendered — and it literally was a surrender — at tea on the last day. It was a tough game to prepare for, because we talked about trying to win the game and being positive, but you always knew in the back of your mind that all you had to do was draw.

“It was all about one substantial batting performance, and whether it happened first or second innings was irrelevant really. Our little Welsh mate [Glamorgan import Alun Evans, who scored a century to claim the draw] did well.”

***

I should admit to certain amount of bias when it comes to Graeme Aldridge’s career – many years of being cricket mad as a kid, watching him run in from the City End (which meant watching a hell of a lot of very good batsmen nick off to slip), meant it was fairly inevitable I’d be a fan.

Aged about 12, I watched ND being decimated by Central Districts in a Twenty20 match; the scorecard showing 99 all-out still feels awfully raw, and the demolition job done by Ian Blackwell and Kieran Noema-Barnett was a sight to see.

Yet, despite the 78 run loss, I went home happy – Aldridge, fielding on the mid-wicket boundary as a sweeper, signed the back of my bat (a classic Kookaburra Kahuna, for the record). Despite some of the names playing in that game (Watling, McGlashan, Arnel had played for New Zealand already; Hodge was a very well-known face; T. Boult already being touted) the medium-paced journeyman – who took 1-24 off four – was the only character of interest.

The following year, my first at high school, saw Aldridge fill in as a reliever teacher to supervise an English test. Suffice to say my marks weren’t great that day.

As he admits, Aldridge wasn’t quick quick. He was brisk, and some days was noticeably a yard quicker than his usual, but he relied on smarts, wit and skill. He had enough shape, swinging the ball away from the right-hander, and always seemed to know what he was doing.

On green decks – like the Seddon Park of yore – he could be near unplayable, and his combination with Brent Arnel was probably the best bowling partnership in the country. But he was at his best on flat decks. God knows how many times he’d work a batsman out and deconstruct his entire game over a few overs – sometimes he’d pry the dismissal, sometimes luck would go the batsman’s way.

In his very last season (in fact, his last game at Seddon Park) he gave Hamish Rutherford a lesson in how to play cricket. Rutherford, who had carted everyone to reach 50 off 55 balls on a very, very flat (ex-ODI) deck, looked certain for big runs. Instead Aldridge got one to lift just a fraction more than the Test opener expected, prising an edge from fairly hard hands, resting in the safe mitts of Joe Carter.

It didn’t look dramatic, and seemed a fairly anticlimactic end to a very aggressive knock, but Aldridge had bowled to expose Rutherford’s weaknesses: pushing forward, hard, to a ball that wasn’t quite there.

In the second dig, he picked up Rutherford again – this time angling across him. It led to a five-wicket haul, the bowling performance Aldridge says stands out to him: “I guess that’s the one I remember the most, because it’s the last one that happened.”

He took 39 wickets over the 2014-15 season, at a cost of 26 each. He counted two five-fors amongst them, and was seemingly the pick of Northern Districts’ bowlers. But, at the age of 37, he decided to call it a day.

“I didn’t make the decision easily. But once I’d made it I was happy. It wasn’t calling for me to go out on top or while I’m still bowling well, it was just how it happened. For me the winters were the hardest thing, finding consistent work and training to get ready for the summer, it just became too hard for me. Something I always did quite well was to get ready for the summer, having a massive winter training-wise. If I played a season where I knew I hadn’t prepared well, it would just be a long season, too hard.

“And it was just time to go.”

Aldridge retired with a lot of numbers behind him – the third-most First Class appearances, most First Class wickets, and most one-day appearances for Northern Districts; the most wickets in New Zealand domestic one-day cricket for anyone.

While he’s always considered team titles the most important indicator (“I’ve always said why we play is to try and win trophies”) Aldridge says he’s “definitely” proud of his personal success: “in the changing room there’s a few honours boards and that, and you see your name up there and you get memories back.”

“The best thing for me was being able to do it over a long period, in terms of the First Class level anyway I stood the test of time, I guess, and was able to adapt. Maybe didn’t adapt as well as I could’ve in T20 stuff. But you adapt to the way the game changes over the years and you can still be successful.”

But those team titles were at the forefront of Aldridge mind, and although the four one-day titles ND picked up were meaningful, the Plunket Shield has always been the pinnacle of NZ domestic cricket. The three he was involved with (excluding his specialist 12th man role in ’99-00) came in the space of six seasons; and on each occasion, Aldridge had season figures to be envious of.

After 2006-07, and Alun Evan’s final heroics, came 2009-10. ND won the double, picking up the one-day trophy to go with their Shield title. It was a comprehensive season; without a final, ND’s huge lead on the points table was all they needed.

In 2011-12 it was tighter, with ND scraping home ahead of country cousins CD by bonus points alone. And both times Aldridge was key; 42 at 23 in ’09-10, and 28 at 26 in ’11-12.

“I think with ND – we talk about titles, and we’ve had a lot of Blackcaps. But I think the best thing we’ve done is, with our Blackcaps, we treated it as a bonus when they’re with us. The rest of us just got on with things – when they weren’t there we could cover them, and when they were there they were always fantastic.

“And obviously won a lot of games on their own, the likes of Kane and Southee and Watling, they’ve won games for ND on their own. But our ability to just get on with it when they’re not there is what’s helped us the most.”

In between the successes of 2009-10 and ’11-12 came a personal triumph: Aldridge’s only international call-up, playing on the limited overs tour of Zimbabwe in late 2011.

With Tim Southee out injured, Aldridge stayed on for the one Test; and with Jesse Ryder, Kyle Mills and Andy McKay all dropping out rapidly just before the game, he was one of only 12 men standing. It would be the only time he’d get so close to a Test cap.

“I wouldn’t say disappointed. It was only a one-Test tour, and I wasn’t actually in the Test squad to start with. I think Southee was supposed to come over for the Test after his injury and he didn’t quite recover, so I just stayed on. Realistically I don’t think I was ever in line to play.

“I think on the morning of the Test there might have been discussions whether we play another seamer or another spinner, and they ended up going with Jeetan Patel. Nah, disappointment isn’t it, nah. I mean I’d love to have played, but. I think the thing that sits well with me when we talk about even the 12 off one and whether I wanted more international opportunities and all those extra things, the thing that sits well with me is I’m pretty happy that I did everything I could in preparation to be successful. Some days it worked and some it didn’t. I think it makes it easier, at the end of your career, to be happy with it.”

The closest Aldridge got to international cricket again was the Champions League T20 in 2014; with Northern Districts having won the HRV Cup during the 2013-14 summer (with Aldridge playing a limited role) the side got on a plane to India. And although he didn’t play a game during the tournament – Southee and Boult is a difficult opening partnership to dislodge – he still experienced the full brunt of the subcontinent.

“For me, as someone who played very little international cricket, it was different. Big crowds — I remember in that first game, running the drinks around and just the noise. I was thinking that I’d be absolutely shitting myself if I was playing. And that was me at 36 years-old. I think that gets forgotten, the pressure the likes of Kane and Southee and Boulty are under. I guess they get used to it after a wee while, but yeah.”

It was, Aldridge says, “a dream tour.”

Twenty20 was, though, Aldridge’s weakest link; outstanding in both four-day and one-day cricket, his record in the shortest format never quite matched up.

Perhaps, had he not developed his cricket in a team that was stacked with all-rounders, Aldridge could’ve developed his abilities with the bat enough to be considered one himself – it would certainly have given him a bigger role in ND’s T20 side.

“I don’t believe G’s ability with the bat was recognised early enough,” concedes Grant Bradburn.

“I look back now and compare it to the modern-day game of three formats, and I believe it was an injustice to G’s batting skills. There were so many all-rounders in the ND side at that time that it often meant a double-figure batting position for G. Given more genuine batting opportunities early on, I believe Graeme would easily be considered an all-rounder of quality today, in the same way as we now look at Corey Anderson, Jimmy Neesham, Ben Stokes and co.”

As for whether Aldridge himself thinks he could’ve improved his batting, he’s a lot more hesitant.

“I guess, yeah. I always wanted to do my bowling job first, though that’s not to say I neglected my batting. But could I have got higher in the order? Possibly. I batted seven, I think, in the four-dayers one year when Andy Moles was coach. I know, definitely, towards the last few years I neglected my batting too much. That was just the way it worked out I guess.

“Could I have got higher? I’m just trying back on some of the teams we had. We had a lot of all-rounders anyway. But whenever I batted I tried. ND was one of the first MA’s [Major Associations] over the years to make it really hard to get all 10 wickets. These days it’s quite common, but when I first started you could get a team seven down and 10 minutes later you’d have them 10 down. We tried very hard at ND to make it hard the whole way through, and I think we were one of the first teams to lead that thought process.”

At the end of the day, bowling was Aldridge’s first love – it’s why he’s become a bowling coach since retirement, looking after ND’s quick bowlers at the same time as head coaching the Bay of Plenty side. And while he enjoys the “relaxed environment” of the Bay side, “the niche of bowling coach is the one I’m angling for.”

Interestingly, it’s the same route as is being taken by Brent Arnel, who was Aldridge’s most constant bowling partner (especially through the second half of his career). They’re both having success off the field, but it will always be their on-field record remembered: “we took a lot of responsibility on to get the job done, I guess. And, without being cocky, more often than not we did a decent job.”

Although he’s keeping his options open, studying part-time at university and refusing to rule anything out, it seems coaching is the way forward for Aldridge – it’s “ideally, number one”.

Aldridge has much to be proud of in his cricketing life. Coming from a cricketing family – a father who played for Canterbury and Northern Districts, a brother who played representative cricket and signed as a ‘rebel’ for ND in the midst of the 2002 players’ strikes (“That was a bit of a laugh at the time.”) – meant that it was always going to be his sport.

But to go from that to setting countless records, playing for his country, and burgeoning into a successful coach is something that has required skill and determination far beyond what a cricketing heritage could provide.

Yet it always comes back to the team; whenever the topic drifts to Aldridge’s own abilities, the team results crop up again. Our conversation starts with the team and players he coaches and finishes with a slight reminiscence that wraps his career up nicely:

“[Winning a trophy] is the best time, the main memories I’ve got are what we did in the changing room after we’d won a title, those are the best times I can remember.”

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