Thoughts on sporting matters….

I’m not a sporting fanatic, for a lot of reasons I’ll write about one day, but I do follow the major games.

Boxing Day last week found me thinking back to the NZ sporting event most suitable for turning into a film: the Boxing Day cricket test against South Africa in 1953.

First heard of this when I was about 10, travelling on a Hereford Breeders tour with my parents. We stopped off at the site of the Tangiwai Railway Disaster (Mum and Dad were great ones for NZ history and it enlivened those long road trips) and they mentioned this in passing.

The sheer ‘Play on and no excuses’ attitude gives one pause for thought after the past year’s results. For grit against the odds it is right up there with Buck Shelford playing on with a split bollock.

This is cribbed from the SilverFern web site:

Firstly from The Hindu

Sutcliffe’s superb innings of 80 not out in trying circumstances in the Johannesburg Test against South Africa on the Boxing Day of 1953 had immortalised him. It would not be out of place to recall Sutcliffe’s tour de force the like of which the world of sport has not come across too often.

The hosts batted first and posted a total of 271. The visitors were in all sorts of troubles against the fiery Neil Adcock and cunning David Ironside when they began their reply. As if that were not enough, Sutcliffe, batting two down, took a fearful blow on his left-ear from a vicious Adcock bumper in the morning session.

He had to be rushed to the hospital where he had fainted twice while undergoing treatment. He was even complaining of “double vision”. So it was announced at lunch that Sutcliffe would not bat again.

However, with the Kiwis tottering at 81 for 6 on a greentop, the left-handed Viking had to come back and try to rescue them. Indeed, when Sutcliffe, looking “dazed” and “far from well”, emerged from the dark tunnel onto Ellis Park, 23,000 Proteas rose together to applaud the man and his sheer courage. Fortified by “a large dose of whisky”, and knowing South Africa still led by almost 200 runs, Sutcliffe walked “shakily” to the wicket. Little did those present at the ground know that they were going to see one of the greatest innings of all-time.

After paying respect to the first two balls that he faced from Ironside, he moved into the third and hit it sweetly over the square-leg fence. The rampaging, wrecker-in-chief Adcock was brought back on the firing line. But Sutcliffe struck him behind point for a boundary. The Kiwi was very much in his groove now despite having problem sighting the ball correctly.

Hugh Tayfield had his first ball smashed over the long-on fence for a huge sixer. The ace offie dropped his length but the maestro moved back and hit him for a four. In about half an hour Sutcliffe and Frank Mooney added 50 runs. But Ironside bowled Mooney (35) with an inswinger and dealt two more crushing blows to the Kiwis who were then precariously placed at 154 for nine.

But this particular Test appeared to have been made for the men of courage and character. The South Africans, who had begun to troop off the field at the fall of the ninth wicket, had to stop as they saw Bob Blair, the Kiwi fast bowler who had stayed behind in his hotel room mourning the loss of his fiancee, who was one of the 149 unfortunate victims of the dreadful New Zealand train disaster at Tangiwai on the Christmas Day, come out of the pavilion.

Blair had been following the proceedings through the radio commentary and he thought he could help Sutcliffe add a few vital runs. As Blair reached the crease, an eerie silence fell across the whole ground. Their team-mates, looking down at the poignant scene from the glass windows of the dressing-room, wept “openly” and “without shame”.

As Blair stumbled taking the guard, still struggling with his gloves, Sutcliffe himself went to appreciate and encourage him; and with the most natural gesture put a warm arm around his comrade. Before he faced his first delivery, Blair passed his gloves across his eyes in the “heart- wringing gesture of any small boy, anywhere, in trouble, but defiant.” It was the most touching sight imaginable on a cricket field. There was Sutcliffe who had taken physical knocks and had come back for more. And there was Blair whose world had falled about and yet he was prepared to carry on his duty. Any true soldier would have felt proud of Sutcliffe and Blair on that day.

As the play resumed, Sutcliffe continued his thrilling onslaught on the bowlers. Jack Cheetham, the South African captain, just did not know how to set a field for Sutcliffe who was really going berserk. The spectators, most of them South Africans, forgot their patriotism and rose deliriously as Sutcliffe lifted Tayfield for three soaring sixes before taking a single off the seventh ball to retain the strike as he wanted to prevent the tailender Blair. But Blair, as if taking a leaf out of his enterprising partner’s book, clobbered the eighth ball out of the ground!

Tayfield, who conceded 25 runs in that over, looked perplexed. Before being stumped by John Waite off Tayfield for 6, Blair had added 33 runs for the last wicket with Sutcliffe in only 10 minutes. Sutcliffe remained unconquered on a priceless, hurricane 80 which was studded with 7 sixes. As Sutcliffe and Blair walked off together, arm in arm, they were given a standing ovation by each and every person on the ground. It took several minutes for the terrific applause to die down even after the two had disappeared in the pavilion and in the arms of their grateful colleagues.

If at all there was triumph from tragedy on a sporting field, it was this. As Dick Brittenden, the noted New Zealand cricket writer said, “It was a great and glorious victory, a story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother’s knee.” The Kiwis still lost the Test despite the heroic fightback triggered by Sutcliffe. But it (the result) is hardly remembered today; what is still not forgotten is Sutcliffe’s vintage performance in grim adversity. Sutcliffe’s 80 not out continues to remain the greatest innings ever played by a Kiwi in the heavyweight division of cricket; and rightly so.

By Haresh Pandya Full Story

And now, from closer to home, Lynn McConnell on Cricinfo

If there was one moment in his career more memorable than several outstanding contenders, it had to be Boxing Day at Johannesburg in 1953 when the New Zealanders were coming to terms with the tragedy of New Zealand’s worst rail disaster at home when 151 people died on Christmas Eve when the overnight North Island express train ploughed into a river after a bridge had been washed out.

Original news of the disaster was worsened when one of the team’s bowlers, Bob Blair, learned his fiancee had perished in the tragedy.

New Zealand were playing the second Test against South Africa and Neil Adcock woke up in a mean mood. New Zealand were put through a fast bowling mill and Sutcliffe was hit on the head and taken to hospital.

Forty years after the event when interviewed, the memory of what happened next still brought a pause from Sutcliffe, a wipe of the eye and a lump in the throat.
Sutcliffe went back out to bat swathed in bandages and with Blair not attending the ground, everyone started to leave the field when the ninth wicket fell.

Sutcliffe recalled the moment: “It was quite an unreal situation. We all started to leave the field at what we thought was the end of the innings and there was Bob coming out of the tunnel to bat. He didn’t need to do it – we had saved the follow-on – but when he left the hotel to come to the ground he didn’t know that. You don’t expect a guy to appear like that.

“The whole atmosphere was unbelievable and you could sense the crowd asking themselves: ‘How would we feel if that happened to us?’ There was a stunned silence.
“Bob was all right till he looked at the other guys, who were crying. I said to him: ‘For goodness’ sake, what are you doing here? Throw the bat at the ball and get out.’ He played at the first couple of balls and didn’t know where they were. Then he hit a six and the crowd went wild. When we came back at the end of the innings they were jumping up and down cheering.”

Typically, Sutcliffe down-played his own role in proceedings. He hit 80, in a superb attacking innings and shared the world record for most runs in an over, 25, which was only beaten by another New Zealander Craig McMillan three weeks ago when he scored 26.

Sutcliffe continued: “We started to get dressed to go out field, but Boney [captain Geoff Rabone] came up to us and asked what we thought we were doing. We replied we were going out to field, but he said there were a couple of other guys who would do that.
“A local bloke came along with a full bottle of whisky and asked us if we thought we could use it. We got two chairs and put them under the showers and just sat there. We got through the best part of a bottle in half an hour. It was just a reaction to what we had been through – we were the best part sober at the end,” Sutcliffe said.

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