Bert Sutcliffe, one of our greatest cricketers, would have been 85 today. Not having seen him play (obviously), and footage from that era being frustratingly thin on the ground, it’s left to the words of others to ascertain his greatness.
“[It was] some of the greatest batsmanship that is likely to be seen in a generation,” wrote a journalist covering Sutcliffe and Donnelly’s famous opening stand against Lancashire. “At one moment they skipped down the wicket like dancers, at another like sprinters from their starting blocks. Sometimes a short leap would seem to propel them with the sudden fury of a missile from a catapult . . . Sutcliffe was all easeful flow no matter how far he jumped to drive.”
No less an authority than Christopher Martin-Jenkins called Sutcliffe “probably, with Neil Harvey, the best left-handed batsmen of his generation in the world” in The Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers.
His most famous innings will always be the impossibly emotional 80 not out he furiously assembled in Johannesburg in 1953, pounding the bowling all around the park, including, legend has it, a number of sixes into the long-on stand reserved for ‘non-Europeans’, to the delight of that section of the crowd. He scored 25 runs off one over, equalling the world record which stood for nearly 50 years beyond there. At the other end that day was Bob Blair, the New Zealand quick wracked by grief after his fiancée was tragically killed in the Tangiwai disaster days before.
The event was made all the more dramatic as Sutcliffe was heavily bandaged after being struck by a savage Adcock bouncer earlier in the innings. While he was to make a number of scores after that day, including a fine century in India, Sutcliffe himself admitted “I lost my nerve after being hit by Adcock.”
His average shrank from close to 50 to a shade over 40, and as a result, perhaps, he has never quite been talked about in the same breath as the giants of the game. But certain scores ring out which suggest that he would scarcely have wilted in such company, including a pair of centuries against the MCC for Otago in 1949, and a monumental 385 for the same province against Canterbury in ’53, in an innings in which the other batsmen combined for less than 100 runs. He also played a large part in ending the humiliating tradition of three day tests for New Zealand during a tour of England in which he averaged over 60 throughout four drawn tests.
For that alone we have reason to be thankful. Sutcliffe is one of the key foundation stones upon which the current New Zealand side stands, the kind of spark, alongside Donnelly, Turner, Reid, Hadlee, Crowe and the rest, which allowed our side to believe that they could topple giants. With any luck, we can take the same spirit into the series with Australia on Thursday.
– Duncan Greive