As Test cricket occupies 30 hours over five days there has always been plenty of time for spectators to discuss and compare players of different generations – even more so now with social media. This is one of the charms of the game and means that most spectators have something to add when it comes to selecting teams.
All selection is subjective and when you are attempting to assess players over a period of 74 years and 307 tests it is even more so. A major problem for the selection panel was that they had not seen most of the early players and therefore information was researched from writings by highly qualified critics who had.
Statistics collected over a long period of time paint relatively accurate pictures. From 1930 until 1950, ten Tests constituted a lengthy career. Today’s players are averaging ten Tests a year and therefore some of the modern players were judged adversely due to not having played enough games.
Consideration was given to the strengths of the opposition in determining what importance to place on runs: whether against a weak side or a lethal attack at the height of their powers. The same was considered with wickets taken against a strong batting side like Australia, as against Bangladesh (still very much a developing Test nation at the time of selection). In addition to these comparative elements, the panel also judged a cricketer’s talents and the impact they made in Test cricket in the era in which they played, as well as where the player excelled – at home or abroad.
As the pieces were being fitted into the final composition of the team, balance became a key word and it was then decided that Bert Sutcliffe would best suit our purposes batting at three. He opened in 41 test innings and batted between 3 and 6 in 35 other innings – but Bert is a rare exception and a batsman of his talent would have been in world class in any batting position.
Playing for Worcestershire for 16 seasons, Glenn Turner constructed an almost foolproof technique to augment his dispassionate temperament. Initially he accumulated runs, with maturity there wasn’t a shot he couldn’t play.
He is the only New Zealander to carry his bat through a Test innings – a feat he performed twice. He was the first New Zealander to score a century in each innings of a Test. And he is the only New Zealander to score two double centuries in a series (since joined by Brendon McCullum).
In First-Class cricket, Turner hit 34,346 runs including 103 centuries. Just 44 players have scored more than 34,000 runs and only ten of those have a better average than his 49.70.
It was true of Stewie Dempster that the bigger the occasion, the better he played. Of all the batsmen who have played ten Tests or more, his average of 65.27 is second only to Don Bradman’s 99.94.
The diminutive, squarely built, right-hand batsman possessed quick footwork, a complete range of strokes, and a determination to take the attack to the bowlers. He scored the first Test century for New Zealand, making 136 against England in 1930 on a fiery wicket after being hit on the head in the first over.
In New Zealand’s first Test at Lord’s in 1931 he made 57 and 120 and was compared to Bradman. Wisden rated him, “the best batsman produced by New Zealand and one of the best and most consistent in the world.” Dempster was the first New Zealand cricketer to receive international recognition.
Bert Sutcliffe was a menacing, attacking left-hand batsman whom few bowlers could contain. The keys to his batting were his exquisite timing, a keen eye, and fast feet. He enjoyed playing his cricket adventurously but with correct technique.
In England in 1949 he scored 2627 runs, a figure only exceeded by Don Bradman. In 1952, playing for Otago against Canterbury, he made 385 – at the time the 6th highest score ever and still 13th on that list.
In 1953, at the peak of his career, he received a well-documented injury that affected the remainder of his playing days. As a fieldsman he was fit to rank with the most distinguished outfielders of all time.
With 5,444 runs and 17 centuries in 77 tests, Martin Crowe was New Zealand’s most prolific Test batsman at the end of his career. He is also recognised as one of cricket’s most poised and natural stylists who delighted in pitching his talent against the world’s best.
Nine of his Test centuries were scored in New Zealand’s first innings, while his highest score, 299, was famously made against Sri Lanka when his team faced a deficit of 323.
In world cricket he is one of the elite who averaged over 50 in scoring more than 10,000 runs. His average of 56.02 is sandwiched between Walter Hammond and Ricky Ponting’s First-Class career averages.
John Reid was the complete all-round cricketer. Whether batting, bowling fast-medium out-swingers or off breaks, fielding anywhere or occasionally keeping wickets, he displayed great flair and natural talent. Reid captains this team.
He struggled early in his career to curb his aggressive tendencies. With maturity and the responsibilities of captaincy his game developed to such a stage that he would have been an asset to any country’s Test team. His two tours to South Africa in 1953-54 and 1961-62 saw him create records that still stand.
The greatest difficulty in assessing the skills of Martin Donnelly is that almost all of his cricket was played in England with a gap of six years owing to World War II. As a 19 year-old left-hand batsman touring England in 1937, The Times described him as a “cricketing Jacobite, always at his best when fighting a losing cause.” Wisden referred to him “as a star in the making”, and Gerald Brodribb thought that there had been few greater cover fieldsmen than Donnelly. In post-War England, Donnelly, along with Keith Miller and Dennis Compton, were the major cricketing attractions. Students at Oxford missed lectures to see Donnelly bat.
In four Tests against England he averaged 77.00, scoring 206 at Lord’s. John Arlott wrote that “he was as good as any left-hand batsman in the world,” a statement agreed by two England captains, WR Hammond and FR Brown. Teammates, Walter Hadlee and Bert Sutcliffe, both admired his powers of concentration and ability to meet the needs of the various situations of the game – the player best suited to attack or retrieve.
Throughout a test career that began when he was 19, Christopher Cairns had to overcome serious injury and continuous sniping of critics that rated him a good Test all-rounder who failed to live up to his potential.
From 1999 until the end of 2001, Cairns’ was involved in nine of New Zealand’s ten Test wins. He made major contributions with bat and ball in all games, five times capturing five or more wickets in an innings, as well as compiling a century and a match-winning 80 during the deciding Test at the Oval in 1999. Safe hands and a strong arm made him an excellent fieldsman in the deep.
Richard Hadlee’s Test career spanned 17 years. He began as a right-arm, slightly erratic fast bowler, and finished as the greatest fast-medium in the history of the game. Along the way he created a new record of 431 Test wickets. In a period of ten months, from 8 November 1985 to 26 August 1986, he mesmerised Australian and English batsmen unmercifully. In six Tests against Australia, three in each country, he captured 49 wickets. In three Tests in England another 19 wickets – a total of 68 wickets at a Victorian average of 17.32. He was aged 35 and was more feared for his skill and variations than he had been for his pace ten years earlier – a rare occurrence for a fast bowler.
An attacking batsman and talented fieldsman in gully and slip he is New Zealand’s greatest cricketer.
Once Ian Smith became confident of his own ability to play Test cricket he flourished into becoming the best wicketkeeper playing in any country. He had wonderful hand- eye co-ordination that saw him bring off impossible catches. He was totally reliable and undemonstrative in encouraging his fieldsmen and by tidying up wayward returns he revitalised fading performances.
An innovative right-hand batsman with a sharp eye, he played some electrifying innings, none more so than at Eden Park against India in February 1990. He scored 173 off 136 balls, at the time the highest score in Test cricket by a player batting at number 9.
In terms of Test cricket Daniel Vettori, having just turned 25 when this side was selected should be just commencing his career. Instead, his slow left-arm spinners bowled with loop on a tantalising length, and subtle variations of spin and pace had seen him capture 150 wickets (a number that would grow to 362 by the time he retired). He was the youngest spin bowler to capture 100 Test wickets.
Such was his potential that at the age of 18 years and 10 days, and with only limited First-Class experience, he became our youngest Test player. From the outset of his international career he has displayed innate cricketing intelligence combined with an ice-cool temperament.
Through scoring his first century against Pakistan in December 2003, and adding five more, he advanced his claims to be called an all-rounder.
Jack Cowie only played in nine Tests spread over 11 years, including a six year absence caused by World War II. He played eight Tests against England and one against Australia. The impressive feature of his Test career was the quality of the batsman he dismissed: 70% of them batted at six or higher. His victims included such notables as Hutton, Hammond, Washbrook, Edrich, Compton, Hardstaff, and Barnes.
A strong man he had a classical action and the strength to bowl throughout a long, hot day. Len Hutton, who was dismissed by Cowie in his Test debut for 0 and 1, wrote later “Cowie was a fast-medium bowler with terrific pace off the pitch, a forked-lightening off-break and lift and swing away from a right-hand batsman.”
Wisden, commenting on the New Zealand tour of England in 1937 said, “had Cowie been an Australian, he might have been termed the wonder of the age.” For these reasons Jack Cowie is chosen to open the bowling with Richard Hadlee.
Don Neely (selector with Frank Cameron & Gavin Larsen)
Note: Some edits have been made to update this piece as of Feb 4 2016