On February 5 1996, a new breed of cricket was launched in New Zealand as an NZ Selection took the field against an All-Stars XI. The sides would each bat for two innings, but it wasn’t a Test. The two sides would each have a total of 20 overs to bat, but it wasn’t a T20. The brainchild of BLACKCAPS’ legend Martin Crowe, this was Cricket Max.

The game was designed by Crowe to keep alive the game’s traditions and highlight the best skills in the game. Initially, bowlers were given an extra stump to aim at as reward for years of bowling outside-off. Batsmen were given the Max Zone straight down the ground, an area where runs were doubled and they couldn’t be caught. Many of the rules came and went during Cricket Max’s short lifespan as it tried to find a place on the cricket scene but it was intended to be a fast and exciting spectacle for fans.

NZ Cricket Museum collection, Terry Baines Photo
The 1997 Max Blacks side that played the English Lions. L-R: Bulfin, Larsen, Spearman, Priest, Chandler, Howell, Barnes, Twose, Bailey, Kennedy, Douglas, Tait, Pickard.

There was a serious push from the top for Cricket Max as a format in New Zealand, meaning its rise was rapid. On the domestic scene, Cricket Max was part of the New Zealand summer in the 1996-97 season following a trial the year before. In 1997-98, Cricket Max’s second season began with the travelling roadshow-like schedule seeing over 30 games played from November to February in venues as diverse as Whitby, Rotorua, Waikanae and Wanganui. It also included a challenge shield to be competed for across the season: the Lance Cairns Shield.

With the heavy backing from above, international Cricket Max was also fast-tracked onto the schedule. In October 1997, the English Lions’ side took on New Zealand in a 3-match series, with New Zealand taking it out 2-1. In that series, Phil DeFreitas recorded the best bowling figures in international Cricket Max, claiming 5 for 38.

In 1999, international Cricket Max was again part of the New Zealand Summer, this time New Zealand beat the West Indies’ Caribbean Calypsos by 8 wickets at Lancaster Park. In that match, an icon of 1990s’ New Zealand domestic cricket achieved his claim-to-fame: Carl Bulfin grabbed a hat-trick, removing the fairly impressive trio of Lara, Chanderpaul and Campbell.

The last Cricket Max international was played in 2002, resulting in another win for New Zealand’s Max Blacks, beating India by 21 runs. As with previous Cricket Max internationals a giant of the game was part of a record, this time it was Sachin Tendulkar claiming Cricket Max’s highest international score of 72, off 27 balls.

With ever-changing rules, trophies and formats, Cricket Max constantly struggled to find its place in domestic cricket but some players found a natural liking to the new format. Craig McMillan hit Cricket Max’s first century, making 103* against Otago in the 1996-97 season. McMillan was followed to the century mark by current international umpire, Chris Gaffaney, who was the only man to score two Cricket Max tons, 100* and 103. Craig Spearman and Richard Petrie, other icons of 90s cricket, also topped 100. For the bowlers, Hamish Barton was the first to hit the highlight reel, claiming 4 wickets in 4 balls during the 1996-97 season. Carl Bulfin (6-44), Mayu Pasupati (5-18), Warren McSkimming (5-30), Lance Hamilton (5-15) and Matthew Walker (5-3) also chimed in with 5-wicket bags. The best bowling in the format, however, belonged to current BLACKCAPS’ bowler, Kyle Mills, who claimed 6 for 25 in the 1999-00 season. One bowler who won’t have any fond memories of Cricket Max is Otago’s Nathan Morland, who once saw one over return 50 runs.

The programme for the 1997 Cricket Max International Series included the rules.
The programme for the 1997 Cricket Max International Series included the rules.

Crowe’s dream was for a game that provided an “exciting result in 3 hours” with “far more scoring than ever before and also the potential for electric defensive work in the field”. In spite of these ambitions, Cricket Max never really found solid ground in the hearts of cricket fans – Don Cameron repeated a joke that “at some grounds […] it was a better idea to introduce all the spectators to all the players” rather than the other way round. Although the 6000 people who turned out to watch Auckland play Wellington at Ericsson Stadium during the 1997-98 season might be an argument against that.

Cricket Max fizzed out with a whimper during the player’s strike of 2002-03, replaced by the growing force coming out of England that was T20. Although it might be a cricket format relegated to pub quizzes and old almanacs, Cricket Max did leave a legacy for today’s T20 game:

  • Nicknames: the Max Blacks existed before, and after, the BLACKCAPS name
  • Portable lights: in the 1997-98 season portable floodlights were used for the first time
  • Friday night cricket: Cricket Max was most comfortable as a TV product that helped fill the live sport slot on Friday nights for SKY