Some years ago in early days of the ICC Annual Awards dinner, the ‘minor’ gongs were being handed out before the Cricketer of the Year and Team of the Year. The host read from his cue-card: “And now a very special award…The ICC Spirit of Cricket Award…”
At his table of 10 near the stage, Daniel Vettori rolled his eyes. He had a feeling of what was to come. And sure enough, New Zealand were the winners. Calling back a batsman wrongly given out – not running one out after a collision with the bowler. Something like that. The Black Caps won it every year. “Not a bloody again,” muttered Vettori to the laughter of the table as he rose to collect the…whatever it was.
It was a joke but there was a serious side to it. It was well and good to be recognised and applauded for playing the game cleanly and fairly, but Vettori felt his team was good enough to win more games than they were.
The notion that New Zealand’s cricketers are ‘nice’ guys is a myth. That’s just not the way it is in real life. At least, if it’s true, it’s a happy accident. They don’t set out to be nice. But ‘nice’ is what happens when you set out to avoid arseholery.
Whereas the Australian modus operandi for decades has been to incorporate as much arseholery into their play as possible and then justify it with results, the New Zealand ‘way’ is to concentrate on bat and ball and to remember that they are human beings first and cricketers second.
“They don’t tolerate ordinariness very well,” the Black Caps bowling coach, Shane Jurgensen, told me back in 2016. He wasn’t talking about half-volleys or long-hops, he was talking about “…not saying thank you to a waiter or a cab driver.”
Jurgensen is actually from Queensland but he fits in just like a Kiwi. He is undoubtedly ‘one of them’ now, being the thoroughly decent, considerate person that he is. Back in 2016, on tour in Zimbabwe, he asked if he could tag along when I said I was going to a friend’s braai on a rare day off. He bought meat and beers, helped cook, chatted to everyone and asked about them about their lives rather than talk about himself. He was very Kiwi. Natural.
Four years before that, on South Africa’s 2012 tour of New Zealand, I had a travel nightmare. The budget flight from Auckland to Napier was cancelled at short notice and no replacement was offered. Paying for a full fare was not a realistic option – freelance fees, and all that. So the Proteas operations and logistics man, Riaan Muller, arranged for me to make take the six-hour drive in the players kit van. We left at 4:30am. Riaan was outside the team hotel to introduce me to the driver.
A few years later, Riaan, who doubles as a physiotherapist/masseur, did not have his contract renewed by CSA. The New Zealanders, recognising a superb professional and a ‘good man’, immediately offered him a similar post on their team. Someone who could arrange the transportation of luggage and players, anywhere in the world, ease stiff limbs – and be courteous, patient and empathetic at all times. Why wouldn’t they want him on board?
Riaan and Shane were both there at the Southampton Bowl on Wednesday when New Zealand became the inaugural World Test Champions, but you almost certainly didn’t see them if you were watching on television. They are not men for the limelight. They work hard but adhere instinctively to the ‘team first’ philosophy which underpins the Black Caps.
They have a unique, pre-Test tradition. At a short evening function each player in the starting XI is re-presented with their cap by a guest. It can be a former player, occasionally a legend – why not use Sir Richard Hadlee if he happens to be around – but often it is somebody completely unrelated to the game, a professional in a different field.
Amongst the many jobs of long-serving team manager, Mike Sandle, is finding a suitable guest. In Bangladesh he sourced a Kiwi doctor who had been working in the most impoverished regions of the country for 15 years and had saved many thousands of lives. He spoke briefly of his work and then, as each name and cap number was read out by Sandle, handed the player their cap.
In Bulawayo in 2016, Sandle was facing his stiffest challenge. The tradition would continue, but his research was yielding few options. As a last resort, prompted by my new best friend, Jurgensen, Sandle invited me to the pre-Test function. On the basis that I’d commentated on almost 300 Tests. I think.
It was the moment he said “…Ross Taylor, cap number 234” and I was required to hand the great man the cap he had already owned for 70 Test matches, that stunned me. Actually, it wasn’t. It was the fact that Ross Taylor looked straight into my eyes, unwavering, and said ‘thank you.’ For returning him his own cap.
The players arrived in ultimate casuals. Slops, vests, whatever. It couldn’t have been more informal. Yet I’ve never experienced a more attentive, respectful audience of cricketers, and there have been a few. Even Tim Southee put his phone on mute and out of sight. Sandle had sagely suggested I keep my comments to ten minutes. I settled on five. They were, and will remain, five of the most inconsequential but happiest minutes of my working life.
There was a twist to the ritual before the WTC final when the players insisted that one of their own perform the task. Understated and modest, BJ Watling had to be persuaded to re-cap his team mates on the eve of his 75th and final appearance. He didn’t say much, as always, but his words were devoured amidst cheers and even a tear. He is, like the rest of them, no ordinary bloke.
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