23 December 2019

In Black And White

BY ANDREW RAMSEY

The New Zealand men’s team may have only graced the Sydney Cricket Ground twice for Test matches in almost 50 years, but those moments are celebrated in perpetuity within the ground’s famous visitors’ dressing room.

High on the wall, framed behind glass, is a calico nameplate salvaged from the historic scoreboard used when Bevan Congdon’s team made their first pilgrimage to the SCG, during New Zealand’s maiden Test tour in 1973-74.

That it reads R. Hadlee tells its own tale.

The first look for Australian Test crowds at the man who would become the game’s leading wicket-taker and his nation’s greatest player, came when (the now) Sir Richard Hadlee, then aged 22, played alongside his older brother Dayle.

By the time New Zealand returned for their second Test visit to the SCG, 12 years later, a new electronic scoreboard had been installed as part of the ground’s ongoing development, with the Clive Churchill Stand nearing completion.

The reduced capacity meant that match drew an aggregate crowd of 37,540 — fewer than the SCG attracted on each of the first three days of the 2017-18 Ashes Test, highlighting the New Year Test’s standing as Sydney’s biggest annual sporting event.

There were, however, other key characteristics of the venue that remained stubbornly intact in 1985.

The second Test of that historic summer may have been scheduled for late November, but the SCG wicket block had seen more than its share of winter traffic. While it had farewelled the Bledisloe Cup competition the previous year, it hosted Wallabies rugby Tests against Canada and Fiji.

The Sydney Swans played 11 home games in an eventful season in which they were bought by the flamboyant Geoffrey Edelsten, and rugby league enjoyed a famous year, partly because Canterbury won their second consecutive premiership, but mostly because of New South Wales’ 21-14 defeat of Queensland to secure their first State of Origin series win.

Even by SCG standards of the time, the dry and denuded pitch that confronted the trans-Tasman rivals in 1985 was so demonstrably a spinner’s deck that both teams opted to play a solitary specialist quick. Filling that role for Australia was current SCG Trustee Dave Gilbert, who was preferred to Craig McDermott, with all-rounder Simon O’Donnell providing new-ball support alongside spinners Ray Bright, Greg Matthews and Bob Holland.

New Zealand’s selection was even bolder. Not only did they deploy occasional trundler (and star batsmen) Martin Crowe as Hadlee’s pace partner, but also summoned former gravedigger turned off-spinner John Bracewell from across the ditch and rushed him straight into the starting XI.

The Kiwis had good reason for believing Hadlee could carry the assignment single-handedly, even on a surface tailor-made for the tweakers. Two weeks earlier he had destroyed Australia at the Gabba in Brisbane, with his 9-52 in the first innings unsurpassed as the best return by any bowler — visiting or home-grown — in more than 140 years of Tests on Australian soil.

Given Hadlee’s heroics had led his team to victory by an innings and 41 runs in Brisbane, Australia’s selectors faced some difficult decisions, which explains why one of that panel, ex-captain Greg Chappell, held a lengthy pitch-side discussion with then skipper Allan Border and his deputy, David Hookes, on match eve at the SCG.

The trio’s concern escalated the next day when, having been sent in to bat, New Zealand openers John Wright and Bruce Edgar ground out 79 for the first wicket before the spin factor turned the match.

Holland’s six wickets restricted the visitors to 293, with Bracewell contributing an unbeaten 83 batting at number 10. Australia fared worse, posting a 66-run deficit as minimal bounce and pace meant return catches were almost as prevalent as bowled and lbw dismissals, as players battled to time the ball with any surety.

Holland took a further four wickets and Bright three in New Zealand’s second innings of 193, before rain and failing light compelled Australia to make haste in their victory chase of 260, which they reached with four wickets to spare.

The glaring anomaly on the scorecard was Hadlee. Spinners claimed 25 of the 34 wickets to fall to bowlers yet Hadlee, in conditions he had no right to enjoy, snared seven of the remainder (with Gilbert picking up 2-63 from almost 30 pinpoint overs).

Hadlee went on to more conducive conditions in  the series decider at the WACA, where he claimed a further 11 wickets and carried New Zealand to their first — and to date, their only — Test series win in Australia.  His 33 wickets (at 12.15) remains the benchmark for  any bowler in a three-Test series during the past 100 years and his name is forever linked to the deeds of that golden summer.

Hadlee partly attributed his success to an inspired move in the practice nets. His coach, Glenn Turner, placed a rubbish bin where an officiating umpire might stand, and encouraged his star bowler to deliver the ball from as close to the trash can as possible, without brushing it. It meant Hadlee was able to bowl from impossibly close to the stumps in matches, where he effectively snaked his right arm behind the umpire’s back prior to release.

“I bowled wicket-to-wicket, got the ball to swing and seam away and always felt that if the Australian batsmen had weaknesses it was on or about off stump, with the ball moving away,” he recalls of that series.

However, Hadlee had benefited from even more salient advice earlier in his career, gleaned from a surprising source.

During Australia’s two-Test tour to New Zealand in 1977, Hadlee sought out fast bowling rival and legendary Test quick Dennis Lillee for a post-game chat. While Hadlee nursed his preferred soft drink and Lillee downed a beer, the Australian imparted some wisdom that his young counterpart never forgot.

Lillee outlined his training approach, dietary demands and the mental strength he utilised in his rise to the top of their shared craft — and to drive his comeback from a career-threatening back injury.

“When things were going badly wrong, I’d think ‘what would Lillee do?’,” Hadlee has subsequently revealed when asked for the secret to his longevity and success.

“And the answer was always that he would not give up.”

Later, when Hadlee overtook Ian Botham (who had passed Lillee’s career tally of 355 wickets) to become Test cricket’s most successful bowler, Lillee would describe the New Zealander as “the first truly professional fast bowler I saw”.

That pivotal exchange between the pair of acknowledged greats reveals much about the nature of the sporting relationship between Australia and New Zealand. While it remains ferociously competitive — whether in both rugby codes, on the netball court or through the women’s cricket rivalry that has yielded some epic Rose Bowl contests — there resides a deep similarity of spirit.

Forged from similar colonial roots, into which is woven a history of shared experiences and collective ambitions, the on-field rapport between Australia and New Zealand is as unique as it is uncompromising.

Like most close bonds, it has known its stress points. Perhaps none more incendiary than the underarm bowling furore of 1981. But while commerce and common sense have dictated New Zealand plays cricket at home during the marquee Christmas-New Year period in recent decades, their 2019-20 return for Boxing Day and New Year in Australia could not have come at a more appropriate time.

The Black Caps’ cricket fortunes have risen to mirror the golden era overseen by Hadlee and then Crowe. Moreover, they are cited as exemplars for the manner in which the modern game should be played — fiercely competitive and audaciously skilled, but tinged with humility and humour.

To prove that results need not take a back seat to character, New Zealand has reached the past two men’s ICC World Cup finals and — but for some wretched fortune and a contentious adjudication process at Lord’s — they would currently wear the crown of global champions.

But that success has not been restricted to whiteball formats. Prior to this summer’s campaigns against historic foes England and Australia, New Zealand sat second on the ICC’s global Test rankings — behind only India, with England third and Australia fifth. That rise has been driven by stroke-makers of the calibre of captain Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor (who posted a career-best 290 on New Zealand’s previous Test visit to Australia in 2015-16) and Tom Latham.

More potent still has been the Black Caps’ bowling, with Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner all among the 20 top wicket-takers in Tests during the past five years. Their strength sets the scene for a delicious match-up against Australia’s batting prowess led by old hands Steve Smith and David Warner, and quality newcomers such as Marnus Labuschagne.

The pace bowling rivalries that pit Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood head-to-head with New Zealand’s kings of swing are also worthy of the decades’ wait. And while Nathan Lyon may dream of an SCG pitch as spin-friendly as that rolled out for the nations’ previous Test meeting in Sydney, he’s realistic about the challenge that awaits.

“New Zealand have some world-class players and I think they’re close to being one of the best teams in the world,” says Lyon, Australia’s most-capped contemporary Test player, who wasn’t born when the teams last met at the SCG.

“They’re a well-balanced unit, and they play in very similar conditions to here back in New Zealand.

“So the pace isn’t going to worry them, and the bounce isn’t necessarily going to worry them either.

“With them having Kane Williamson and us having Steve Smith, there’s two pretty good batting line-ups right there, and they’ve got a good bowling attack  with Southee, Boult, (Matt) Henry and Wagner just  to name a few,’’ Lyon added.

“So it’s a pretty talented team they bring over, but we’re excited about the challenges and it will be great  to have them back at the SCG for a Test match.”