New Zealand’s WHITE FERNS have scored their share of notable firsts. One of the finest was their Test victory over Australia in January 1972. Accomplished two years before the New Zealand men achieved that feat, it was made sweeter by having been achieved on Australian soil and in the face of great adversity.
The New Zealand Women’s Cricket Council had hoped for a full tour of Australia at the end of the 1971-72 season. The Australian authorities, however, decided the Kiwis were not strong enough to merit more than a single Test so a South African leg was added to the itinerary. This caused immediate controversy with the annual interprovincial tournament being targeted by anti-apartheid demonstrators and the team’s departure from New Zealand becoming an undercover operation. In a tumultuous time for sport and political relations, many of the players felt unfairly singled out by protestors. This generated the tight-knit, resilient team spirit that would show through on the field. Led by the experienced Trish McKelvey, and with a nucleus of players already hardened by the 1966 and 1969 Test series against England, the tourists were well equipped to make Australia pay for underrating them.
They remained undefeated – if not always convincingly so – through the twelve games leading up to the Test. Erratic fielding was their main failing, although Vice-Captain Bev Brentnall’s outstanding wicketkeeping helped compensate. Right-handed opener, Judi Doull, spearheaded the batting with solid support from McKelvey, Shirley Cowles, and Janice Stead. The bowling relied heavily on Jill Saulbrey’s tireless medium-pace. Her marathon spells of nagging line and length tied up one end, helping leg-spinner, Jackie Lord, off-spinning all-rounder, Elaine White, and wily slow medium-pacer, Pat Carrick, to snare wickets at the other. These nine players, plus young medium-pacer Liz Allan and batsman Lynda Powell, comprised the Test eleven.
The match began at Melbourne’s St. Kilda ground on February 5 1972 and was played over four consecutive days. Up to this point, three days Tests were the norm in women’s cricket and this shift was aimed at attracting more spectators. Despite having eight new caps in their team, the Australians expected to win easily. Their captain, Miriam Knee, was the most experienced player on either side and they boasted a fearsome fast bowler in Tina McPherson, who was over six feet tall and often played in men’s teams.
New Zealand won the toss and decided to bat on a lively wicket. What followed was disastrous. Left-arm spinner, Lesley Johnston, whose selection at age 34 had been derided by the Australian press, took 7 for 24 as New Zealand were bowled out for just 89 in the first innings, and they ended the first day 20 behind with only two Australian bats back in the dressing room.
Inadvertently, however, a pair of proud Australian parents were about to inspire an historic victory for the visitors.
When the team arrived in Sydney, they were billeted with opposition players – captain Patricia McKelvey staying at the home of Tina McPherson, the six-foot fast bowler mentioned earlier. The Melbourne Test would turn out to be McPherson’s last and her parents had made the journey to support their daughter.
With the first day being so one-sided in favour of Australia, McPherson’s parents stood at the gates to the field to say goodbye to McKelvey,
“I came off and these two were standing on either side of the gate, and I as I went through the gate I stopped beside them and they said ‘we’re down here so we can say goodbye, there’s no point in staying any longer, it’ll be over in two days’”.
When her team asked her later that evening who the pair were, McKelvey relayed what she had been told on the boundary. The conversation inspired the New Zealanders who went out the next day – which happened to be Waitangi Day – with a steely determination to turn the match around. Their resolve was helped by the Australian’s cavalier attitude. They batted like millionaires, apparently confident of wrapping the game up quickly. Catches stuck, runs were saved, and Carrick (6/79) and Saulbrey (3/45) suddenly seemed unplayable. Australia were dismissed for 129 by lunchtime, leaving New Zealand just 40 runs behind with plenty of time to set a challenging total.
Doull and Stead began circumspectly, cutting down on their attacking strokes but they were rewarded with a century opening stand. By the end of play,the score had reached 159 and just one wicket (Doull for 56) had been lost. The same gritty determination was maintained throughout day three as the New Zealander’s sought to bat their opposition out of the match. In the end they made 335, with Stead scoring a fine 95 and Powell 66. There was only time for Australia to knock just two runs off their deficit when stumps were drawn.
The Australian players were shocked at being unable to dismiss New Zealand cheaply and, from the start of the final day, it was clear they intended to play for a draw. Runs slowed to a trickle as their openers managed 25 in the first hour. The slow-play tactic was to no avail as Saulbrey removed both openers in a single inspired over before lunch. This started the rot. When she took a brilliant catch off Lord to dismiss the Australian captain for a duck the result became inevitable. Wickets fell regularly as Carrick (3/56) and player of the match Saulbrey (4/50) repeated their Waitangi Day heroics. In the end Australia mustered only 152 all out.
“We were so excited”, McKelvey said later, “that we did an exhibition haka in front of the stand”.
The Australian press and players were in disbelief, the New Zealander’s ecstatic. After seventeen attempts they had won their first Test match, by the emphatic margin of 143 runs and with an hour to spare. It was also the first Test victory by any New Zealand side over our nearest neighbours – the BLACKCAPS would have to wait another two years for that honour. The tourists carried their good form on to South Africa, where they continued unbeaten, winning one Test and drawing the other two.
Their successes ensured that women’s cricket could no longer be ignored by the New Zealand cricketing establishment. The 1972 New Zealand Cricket Almanack became the first to include reference to the women’s game.
A version of this article, written by Adrienne Simpson, first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2010 edition of the New Zealand Cricket Museum newsletter. It has been updated with information from this interview with captain Patricia McKelvey.