Of the 31 men to have featured in a single Test for New Zealand, just three of them have tasted success. This week’s Limited Overs talks with one of those men, 1-Test and 10-ODI New Zealand rep, Gary Robertson.
Your story starts off with the fact that you have a younger brother who also played First-Class cricket: so I imagine backyard competitions growing up were pretty strong?
Yep, yep. The whole family enjoyed sport, so there were certainly some holes dug in the back yard, that’s for sure, used for endless batting and bowling.
So what was it that made you stick with cricket?
I guess, in the end, I had the ability. I enjoyed rugby a lot, and played age-group rugby as well, but it became reasonably obvious as I was just about completing secondary school that it was cricket that I had the best chance of going some distance in. So yeah, that was always the priority.
And being in the Central Districts region, you had the DA route with Taranaki, which led into CD age-group and Young New Zealand teams, so how did that all prepare you for the step up to First Class cricket?
It was good preparation, really. I played in all the age-group sides from a reasonably early age, I was playing for Taranaki from 16, 17 type thing, and they had Rothsmans and Brabin tournaments at that time. I made the adjustment reasonably quickly to First Class level I think.
And you also played in the UK, with Burnley and Buckinghamshire, which must have been a pretty good learning ground?
Yeah, I got the Young Cricketer scholarship to Lord’s so that was my first introduction to the UK. I went on that pretty much as soon as I left school, and then after that year at Lord’s I got a contract at Burnley for two seasons, which was all good experience. I probably got bowled into the ground a bit at Lord’s, but that’s what happened in those days, they didn’t look after people well. Associations weren’t as conscious of looking after players as they are nowadays.
In just your second season for CD (1980-81), you took 39 First Class wickets at 19, a nice introduction to that level.
In my first few seasons I did reasonably well at First Class level. It was during that season, or towards the end of that season, that I got picked for my first one-dayer, against India. That was my first introduction to the New Zealand scene. And then if I remember rightly the season after that I twisted my ankle really badly early on in the First Class season, and I didn’t play a lot that year, and my momentum stopped a little bit due to that injury. So then it was a while before I played again for New Zealand. But it’s the way it is.
With that ODI call-up, it came after just three domestic one-day games, and you took two wickets in a bowling attack including Hadlee, Chatfield, Troup and Snedden. It must have been an amazing bowling attack to be a part of?
Yeah, I enjoyed that. I was pretty young at that stage, but to be a part of that was very exciting obviously. And I had a reasonable game as well, so it made you realise that you could sort of play at that level. But as I say it was probably another two or three years after that before I got another crack.
In 1982-83 you went on the tour to Australia, but only played a few tour matches – and didn’t play in any of the World Series matches.
And that was followed by the Emerging Players tour to Australia if my memory’s right. We had a couple of experienced players [John F Reid] on it but the rest of us were all pretty young, and there were no ‘Test matches’ or whatever. But it was another introduction – to Australian wickets and all that type of thing, which weren’t the easiest to adjust to in those days, compared to what we played on here. All part of the learning curve, and also not long after that [1984-85] was the Young New Zealand side that went to Zimbabwe. That was a good side. I was coming off a good season when I went on that, but then I bloody got injured in the first tour game. I blew a rib cartilage which once again halted the momentum a little bit, but that was a great tour, there were some very good players on that tour, that’s for sure. And played a very good Zimbabwe side, when they had [Graeme] Hick, [Kevin] Curran, [Peter] Rawson. They had some very good players then.
And ’83-84, the season before that tour to Zimbabwe, you got another couple of ODIs – and did okay, but didn’t really get an extended stint. Was that disappointing to not be given a longer chance?
Nah. Well, yeah I guess, but the more I look back now, you become more realistic and I probably wasn’t quite doing enough to cement a place long term. Probably the biggest disappointment really is that I never got on a full England tour, which would’ve probably suited me, and been good from a development point of view. But I never got on one of those. You’re always coming in when someone’s got an injury or whatever, and you didn’t have a lot of time to find your feet. You had to produce it straight away. I never set the world on fire, but I didn’t go too badly in most of the one-day games that I played, but I didn’t set the world on fire. Same with the Test match really, I got smashed around early in that by [David] Boon, and then when we were looking to win the game in the second innings and we were rolling them, I never actually got a bowl in that second dig. Hey it’s cool, we won the game so you can’t complain, but yeah… In reality I sort of feel pretty proud of my career, I haven’t got too many gripes on the fact that I didn’t play more international cricket. It would’ve been nice, but that’s the way it is, and I never really put my hand up and said ‘you’ve got to pick me’. I hadn’t got on an absolute roll and taken five-wickets in an international and then been dropped or anything like that, so…
In that same season as you went to Zimbabwe, ’84-85, you won the domestic one-day title with Central Districts (CD). Given CD didn’t pick up too many trophies, I imagine that was pretty enjoyable?
Well not at that time [we hadn’t won much], we’d gone through a patch when I first started – gone through a dreadful patch really, hadn’t won anything for yonks. But yeah, we had a good side, and we had a bloody good culture, we got on well, and they were good times. Good times. And then we won the Shell Trophy a couple of years after that, when [Martin] Crowe was captaining, that was the year we won the three-day stuff as well. I loved my time with CD, there was certainly no thought of going anywhere else, as they tend to nowadays when people move around a lot more, with the money in it and that type of thing. I was CD through-and-through, loved my time.
Then with that Test against Australia you mentioned, [in March 1986], as you said you didn’t really set the world on fire, but you must still be pretty proud of being able to claim that you’re one of very few people to have a Test cap?
Absolutely, there’s not many people that get to play for their country, and there’d be very few around that have won every Test match that they’ve played in as well!
After that [April 1986], you went on a tour to the subcontinent for another few ODIs, where you were really economical with the ball, but struggled to pick up wickets – so was that just trying to adjust to the conditions?
Yeah, I struggled certainly in Sri Lanka. It was hard work from the heat and fitness point of view. The hottest conditions I’ve bloody ever experienced, trying to bowl over there. That was an eye-opener, as you say I didn’t disgrace myself and bowled reasonably economically, but it wasn’t easy to get wickets, that’s for sure. But that was a good tour, finished up in Hong Kong at the end of the tour, and we had a lot of fun there. New Zealand Cricket had sort of sorted that stop-over as an end-of-season thing, and we got looked after really well by the Hong Kong association and had a good few days there, after some fairly torrid times in Sharjah. We got hammered in Sharjah, I didn’t play the game but got rolled for stuff all if I remember rightly, 50 or something [64, vs. Pakistan].
The following season, as you mentioned, you won the Plunket Shield (then called the Shell Trophy) – so how did that team success compare to the personal success you’d enjoyed over the previous few years?
Oh yeah, the team is always bigger. To play for a fair few years and finally get to win that trophy, in those days the country associations always felt we were second-class citizens to a certain extent, so to get up and win the trophy, it was good times.
And then early 1989 you got another few ODIs against Pakistan, was that a recall you were expecting?
Christ, I’m trying to think back to it now. Pakistan… I can’t even remember what happened. But yeah, I was always in the mix, always in the mix from the one-day point of view. Because for a number of seasons there, especially early in my career, I was generally right up there as far as economy and wickets […] was concerned in the Shell Cup. I always sort of had my hand up as far as having a chance. Unfortunately, often those [international] games would go and it wouldn’t lead into another tour or that type of thing, so then you might have a winter off before you’d come back for the next lot, and you mightn’t have been at the forefront of the selector’s minds by the time the new season came around or whatever.
Later that year, November 1989, you went on the tour to Australia but only played a one-day tour game, not either First-Class match or the Test.
It was a short tour, it was a real short tour. They took me and Brendon Bracewell, as well as Chris Cairns. Chris Cairns was just a kid. To be honest, I should never have been picked for it, Brendon should never have been picked, but they were taking one young guy, they didn’t want to throw any other young guys in there, so they just wanted to take a few older guys who had a fair bit of experience and were in the mix. I wasn’t prepared, it was right at the start of the season, my body wasn’t up to it. I didn’t last too much longer after that. I was 12th man for the Test, but I didn’t play much, that’s for sure. I didn’t get picked for the Test match, and that’s probably a good thing because I don’t think I’d have performed very well to be quite frank.
That was your last season at First-Class level, drifting out at the age of 29 – what was the reason for that?
My body had fallen apart mate, to be honest. I was having lots of back issues, and I was really struggling. The seasons were tending to get longer, and I was alright early on, in the first day of a game, but as you got into the second, third day of a game, the second innings, I was really struggling with my body. So I didn’t want to hang around longer than I needed do. By then I’d played about 11 seasons or something so that was long enough for me. And there were younger guys coming through, and if you got to the stage where you felt that there were young guys there, talking about CD level, who could perhaps be playing ahead of me, then you’re better off to get out and let them go. That was my thinking anyway.
And I guess being still fairly amateur cricket, yet to be really professional, meant that you needed to focus on a life after cricket as well.
Oh yeah, precisely. Had to do that. There was still no money in it at that stage from the career point of view, so if you were working you had to get time off work, and that was getting harder. It wasn’t too much longer after that when some money came into it, but it was only if you were playing consistently for New Zealand that you could make reasonable money, but even that was a pittance to what’s going on nowadays.
So then, outside of cricket, what’s life been for Gary Robertson?
In my current job, I own this business with a business partner, and I’ve been doing this for 22, 23 years, pretty much from when I finished cricket. About a couple of years after I finished First-Class cricket I got into the travel industry, and it’s served me pretty well. A couple of adult kids, and that’s me now.
Do you enjoy being able to look back on what you did on the cricket field, for NZ and for Central Districts?
Oh yeah, as I say, I’m quietly proud of what I achieved. But it’s a long time ago now, and not many people can remember back that far! But from a personal point of view, yep, very proud of my career. But you can’t live on that for too long.
You don’t have too many people coming in and remembering you as Gary the fiery fast bowler?
It’s surprising, you get the occasional one who’s got a long memory. But nah mate, I wouldn’t expect it too much now, that’s for sure.
Undertaken by Devon Mace, Limited Overs is a series of interviews with former-New Zealand cricketers whose careers in the silver fern were fleeting. From their introduction to cricket, through their rise to the top, and on to life after pulling stumps, these are the players’ own stories. For more from Devon, visit Mind The Windows for cricket writing & @DVMace09 on Twitter.