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Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

Richard Hadlee was introspective, calculating and intense. The word calculating is not used lightly here. His cricket was based on the most solid base of scientific technique, laced with meticulous logic © Getty Images

Richard Hadlee, born July 3, 1951, was one of the greatest fast bowlers the world has ever seen, one of the best all-rounders of his era and the cricketer who single-handedly converted New Zealand from a bunch of faceless amateurs to a world class fighting unit. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of this immortal legend who was the first man to take 400 wickets in Test cricket.

Indian Winter

It had been a difficult decision. Richard Hadlee might not have travelled to India for the 1988-89 series if he had not strained his calf muscle in January. It had been during the first Test against England at Christchurch. He had taken no further part in the series and had remained tantalisingly at par with Ian Botham at the top of the all-time bowling charts with 373 Test wickets.

Hadlee was not too keen on playing in the sub-continent. He had been there 12 years earlier, when his speed was sharp but the edges rough, when his run-up was longer and so were his locks. The young Hadlee had toiled hard, with limited success and limitless heart. There was plenty of fire in the belly, and also a bug that tormented his stomach. The age-old Delhi-belly had been a harrowing experience. Now, with every corner of the world providing spectacular harvests of wickets, Hadlee had originally made up his mind not to go to India again. But, then he was held up at the very brink of the world record by his injury. So, when John Wright led his band of men to India, the motley group of useful cricketers were lent the glitter of greatness by the presence of this supreme fast bowling all-rounder.

The tour was awaited with immense interest. Apart from the world record in the offing, there were enticing little battles inside the bigger war.

It was a showdown between two great pace bowling all-rounders: Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev. Brilliant as Hadlee was, could he succeed in the flat, heart-breaking wickets of India? The press, public and players of the home side had their doubts. The pitches would be tailor made for spin. On these tracks, the great Kapil Dev had managed just 38 wickets in the last 19 Tests across four years at an average of over 40. Was it possible for the New Zealander to excel where the local hero had not really enjoyed the best of times?

Besides Richard Hadlee was 37, an age when most fast bowlers hang up their boots, put up their feet and add miles to how fast they bowled with each retelling. And Kapil Dev was in his prime at 29.

What followed in the three Tests had the Indian eyes popping out in disbelief. Hadlee ran in, not a step of the 15 paces wasted. The ball darted around in ways that had never been witnessed in India as far as memory and fancy stretched. It veered away deceptively, jagged back with menace, sometimes mischievously held its line. The batsmen were never certain, the edge connected far more frequently than the middle. On occasions it moved early, often it curled late. Once in a while a sudden short one reared at the body. And some broke back off the pitch, right into the batsman.

The wickets were indeed prepared for the spinners. In Bombay, whatever grass remained on the eve of the Test match were hacked away under the watchful eyes of Indian captain Dilip Vengsarkar. Kapil Dev did not bowl too badly either, capturing 10 wickets at 23.20, but only two of these were top order scalps.

Hadlee, however, was beyond comparison. He started the series by dismissing five of the top six Indian batsmen in the first innings at Bangalore. He followed it up with a 10-wicket haul on that very Wankhede pitch so carefully shorn of grass — bowling New Zealand to a memorable win. He ended the series with 18 wickets at 14.00. To put the difference between the pacemen in perspective, we also need to remember that Kapil bowled in six completed innings, Hadlee in just four.

Yet, faced with the twin spin menace of Arshad Ayub and Narendra Hirwani, New Zealand lost the series 2-1. It was more or less the story of Hadlee’s career. Lifting mediocrity to levels of distinction on his august shoulders, lending a shade of success to a nondescript outfit.

At home, New Zealand with Hadlee were undefeated since 1979. Overseas, their success was limited, and almost always achieved through the lethal deliveries of this brooding, saturnine speedster.

The battle of the numero unos

There was another interesting battle waged during the 1988-89 series — between the best batsman and the best bowler according to the computer. The Deloitte Ratings had been released the previous season, and Hadlee had topped the list of bowlers. At the head of the batting charts stood the Indian captain Dilip Vengsarkar. The Bombay batsman had scored at over 100 runs per innings in the past couple of seasons, with eight hundreds in 16 matches.

Hadlee had spent the intervening months after his injury plotting the dismissal of Indian opener Krishnamachari Srikkanth. However, it was his partner Arun Lal who gave him the world record on the first morning at Bangalore, edging to third slip. Srikkanth followed soon, bowled without offering a shot. The long-awaited duel commenced with Vengsarkar walking out at No 4.

Hadlee probed away, induced an edge and the catch went down in the slips. After the first few uncertain moments, Vengsarkar drove him for four. Hadlee made way for the lesser bowlers and the Indian captain settled down to continue his spate of run-making. When he remained unbeaten on 71 at tea, it seemed that the Bombay man had won the first round. A painful elbow caused him to retire hurt at the break, and the contest was postponed to the following day.

Hadlee ran in on the next morning, with the shine still on the second new ball, moving one away to get the outside edge of Mohammad Azharuddin’s bat. WV Raman had no clue about one that broke past his defence and flattened his stumps. Vengsarkar returned to the wicket, under a floppy hat and to a thunderous ovation.

Hadlee started by cutting one away, beating the swish outside the off-stump. The next ball jagged back, striking Vengsarkar painfully on the chest. The captain gestured to the pavilion and 12th man Sanjeev Sharma came in with the white helmet and ran back with the hat.

It did not help. Two overs later, Hadlee pitched up on the middle stump and moved it away late. Vengsarkar was committed into his favourite on-drive. The ball whistled past the bat and crashed into the off-stump. Hadlee and Vengsarkar did not wage a similar battle again in the series, but the best bowler of the computer world had scored a point over the best batsman. One cannot say for sure whether this dented the confidence of the Indian captain. But, in retrospect, the 71 runs on the first day was probably the last time one saw a commanding Vengsarkar in a Test match.

Hadlee went on to play nine more Tests after the series, and capture 40 more wickets with the same metronomic brilliance. A younger Indian side visited New Zealand two years later, in early 1990. They were plagued by the perennial problems posed by Hadlee to every visiting team over a decade and a half. During that series Hadlee breached the defence of Sanjay Manjrekar to become the first bowler in the history of Test cricket to capture 400 wickets. New Zealand celebrated in rare style. No one grudged them. Such success was scant in the history of cricket of that small nation. The quality of Hadlee was even scarcer across the length and breadth of cricket or geography.

The brooding champion

Hadlee was introspective, calculating and intense. The word calculating is not used lightly here. His cricket was based on the most solid base of scientific technique, laced with meticulous logic. It was almost perfect mathematical analysis that led him to his double of 100 wickets and 1000 runs in the 1984 season for Nottinghamshire. The last person to do that had been Fred Titmus in 1967, when three-day games had been much more frequent and one-day distractions significantly less.

Hadlee prepared a dossier of the target number of runs and wickets he needed at every stage, weighed with the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. He worked on increasing his strength and stamina, and as a corollary decreased and optimised his run up. As a result he scored 1179 runs at 51.26 and took 117 wickets at 14.05.

Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

The ambidexterous Richard Hadlee was as dangerous with the bat as he was with the ball © Getty Images

His appearance was almost melancholy. Frank Tyson likened him to Hamlet at the wicket. His build was not that of a fast bowler, and hence he had to exaggerate the side on position of his delivery stride and extract the maximum amount of whip from the lean frame and long arms. He still managed a pace marginally inferior to Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding.

One may consider this an exaggeration, but according to the analysis of the inimitable Charles Davis, Hadlee forced more batsmen to retire hurt during his Test career than any other bowler, apart from Courtney Walsh. If we consider in terms of number of hors de combat per Test match, Hadlee is next only to Wes Hall and Colin Croft. Hence, along with all the splendid ability to swing and cut prodigiously and at will, Hadlee could be hostile as well. And yet like Hamlet, he was forever plagued by doubts — To Play or Not To Play. Could his body take the toil? Could his mind stand up to the strain?

Some adjustments had to be made to allow his lean frame go through two decades at the peak of the fast bowling world. He started bowling at 23 paces, boring towards his target throughout his run. With time and Nottinghamshire experience, this was reduced to 15, the speed maintained through acceleration.

He delivered almost after brushing the stumps with his right hand. Indeed, often the bail at the non-striker’s end was knocked off. His reason was simple. When the ball shot through along a line drawn from middle stump to middle stump, even minimal movements through the air and off the pitch could produce devastating effect.

Initially, he moved more away than in. But, like his idol Dennis Lillee, Hadlee added the in-swing and the off-cutter. With time the leg-cutter was sharpened as well, a slower delivery added into the arsenal and a bouncer rose viciously from time to time. In the early eighties, his county captain Clive Rice proclaimed that he was one of the ‘top five fast bowlers of the world’. By the late eighties, the splendours of experience had perhaps elevated him to the very best.

Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

Nottinghamshire were blessed to have Richard Hadlee (left) and Clive Rice, two of the greatest all-rounders in the history of cricket © Getty Images

While his bowling was a sophisticated science, his batting was the picture of simplicity. His idea was to hit it as hard as possible, and to choose the ball to whack after careful consideration. In the early days of his career, he seldom scored heavily. But a rather limited batting side soon offered opportunities, and he matured into a solid lower order batsman in the latter half of his career. Scores improved once he started donning a helmet, and then burgeoned further when he wrote his coaching manual Hadlee on Cricket. By the late seventies he was an all-rounder in the making. Within a few years a part of the supreme quartet along with Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Imran Khan.

Runs in the family

Hadlee had the privilege of cricketing birth, and it was counterbalanced by the limitations of feeble cricketing feats of his country. His father Walter Hadlee was a lanky, bespectacled opening batsman for Canterbury who toured England and Australia after the Second World War, and led his country in eight Tests. He also became the president of the New Zealand Cricket Council. For all his commendable work, his greatest contribution to New Zealand cricket is generally considered to be siring five sons of cricketing talent, three of whom played for the national team and one who rose above all other cricketers  ever produced by the tiny nation.

In the 1975 World Cup, Barry Hadlee played as a batsman, Dayle Hadlee as an opening bowler and Richard Hadlee as a tearaway pacer. The family association did not end there. Richard Hadlee’s ex-wife Karen was a cricketer who played for the New Zealand women’s team.

After school Hadlee was expected to join Canterbury like his elder brothers. However, since the club was already well stocked with opening bowlers, he opted for Lancaster Park. By early 1972, he had opened the bowling for Canterbury and had taken a hat-trick against Central Districts in his third week as a First-Class cricketer.

Test cricket was not too far away. February 1972 saw Sadiq Mohammad hit a boundary off the first ball he bowled on his debut. Two for 112 was not a very spectacular first outing, though he redeemed himself somewhat with a quick 46 with the bat. The selectors opted for brother Dayle for the next two Tests of the series.

In 1973 he toured England, and played just one Test. However, in the latter half of the summer he did enough in the tour games to make Wisden sagely remark: “His best bowling came late in the tour but he has considerable prospects ahead.”

The prospects would come to fruition, transforming him to one of the greatest of all time and New Zealand into a formidable side because of the one man who made all the difference.

The first taste of success

Before Richard Hadlee played Test cricket New Zealand had not won a single Test against the Big Three of the time — Australia, England and West Indies. In fact, after their triumph at Lahore 1969, the side had not won a single Test match against any opponent. In 1973-74, Hadlee was hardly the supreme force that he would soon become, but the Kiwi fortune was already turning. At Sydney, Ian Chappell’s Australians were brought to the brink of defeat by Hadlee’s four for 33 and two for 16, but rain was a faithful ally of the home team and washed away chances of a result. But, in March 1974, the Australians came over and Hadlee produced three for 59 and four for 71 at Christchurch to ensure the first taste of victory over the trans-Tasman neighbours.  It was also the first New Zealand victory in five years.

Between 1974 to 1980, a country with the population less than that of London would go on to beat all England and West Indies as well — and Hadlee’s fingerprints would be all over the triumphant scorecards.

However, for the first few years Hadlee’s performance remained erratic. He did bowl New Zealand to a series squaring victory against Bishan Bedi’s Indians of 1975-76, picking up his first five-for at Wellington. In the match, he had been included at the last moment as the fourth seamer.    

But, at the same time, there were periods of failure. When Greg Chappell brought the Australians over in 1977, he took only six wickets at very high price. And it would be the last time he would average over 30 in a series for another 12 years. In the rest of his career, he would do so only once.

Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

Richard Hadlee bowled very close to the stumps and bowled with robotic accuracy © Getty Images

The ascent of the champion

The defining moment arrived during the Wellington Test against England in 1978. From this series onwards till the end of the Indian tour of 1988-89, Hadlee took 330 wickets in 60 Tests at 19.57, the leading light in the blinding splendour of fast bowling of the 1980s.

Hadlee had taken four for 74 in the first innings, but a Kiwi capitulation in the second innings had left Geoff Boycott’s Englishmen just 137 runs to win. And out walked Hadlee, melancholy and taciturn, and ran in to capture six for 26 as the Englishmen were skittled out for 64. An impromptu choir formed in front of the Wellington pavilion, singing: “For They are Jolly Good fellows.”

This success prompted Hadlee to sacrifice a promising job as a sales manager and travel to England to take part in a double wicket tournament. Also, with Clive Rice having fallen foul of the Nottinghamshire management after playing in Kerry Packer’s World Series, the New Zealand youngster was offered a contract with the county.

Of course, soon the Trent Bridge committee realised their error in dismissing Rice and brought him back. The South African all-rounder became Hadlee’s captain, close friend and mentor. Hadlee flourished for the Notts and New Zealand, and whenever his self-doubts raised their ugly heads, Rice was there to help weed away the reservations.

On return to his country after the 1978 summer, Hadlee was courted by Kerry Packer’s men to turn out for the World XI against Australia. It pitted him not only in front of a brilliant Aussies, but also face to face with father Wally Hadlee, the president of the New Zealand Cricket Council and the sworn enemy of the Packer circus. However, Hadlee’s individuality triumphed, and he played. In 1979, the chasm created by the two years of parallel cricket was healed and peace returned in the Hadlee household as well.

Unprecedented triumphs

Wickets in Test cricket continued to be captured by the bushel. And in 1979-80, Hadlee was instrumental in earning that famous win at Dunedin, which led to the only series defeat of the great West Indian team during their two decade dominance.

The series has been remembered for kicked stumps and shoulder charges made on umpires. However, in the Dunedin triumph Hadlee captured 11 for 102, made a quick 51 in the first innings. When New Zealand fell away to 44 for six while chasing 104 to win, he came in at No 8 and made a crucial 17. The Kiwis squeezed home by a wicket.

In the second Test of the series, he scored his maiden Test century against the four-pronged pace attack. Although the acrimony of the series had led the West Indies players to gift runs for some part of the innings, Hadlee’s effort ensured that the lead remained intact and ultimately resulted in the series win. He was still just starting out on the dream phase of his career, but had done enough to be made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1980.

The success continued. In Australia in 1980-81, he captured 19 more wickets in three Tests. But, by this time such sparks of brilliance had become mundane, a normal day at the office for this great athlete. To summarise his feats one needs to focus on the extraordinary. And plenty of such events did follow one after the other.

In the summer of 1981, Hadlee used a short run for the first time, picked up 105 wickets at 14.89 in the county championships and scored 745 runs to boot. Nottinghamshire won their first trophy since 1929, the days of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce.

As many as 21 wickets came in the four Tests when New Zealand visited England in 1983 and a 75 in the country’s first win in the Mother Country at Leeds. And when England visited in 1983-84, there was another epochal win. In just 12 hours across three dark, gloomy, rain soaked days of Christchurch, New Zealand triumphed over David Gower, Allan Lamb, Mike Gatting, Derek Randall, Ian Botham and Bob Willis. The margin was an innings and 132 runs. Hadlee scored 99 from 81 balls before taking eight for 44 in the match, bowling England out twice for less than 100.

The six spellbinding Tests

The best was however yet to come. Between November 1985 and March 1986, six Test matches were played between the trans-Tasman neighbours, three in each country. The Kiwis won 2-1 in Australia, with Hadlee picking up 33 of the 56 wickets to fall. Fifteen of them were taken in Brisbane, seven in Sydney and eleven in Perth.

The first innings at Brisbane contained nine for 52. The other was scalped by Vaughan Brown, his first Test wicket, and the man who held the excellent catch was again Hadlee. Frank Keating looked at the selflessness rather than the athleticism of the deed to call it the catch of the century.

Appetites whetted by the first ever series win in Australia, New Zealand won the following series at home 1-0. Hadlee captured another 16 wickets. Among them, Border at Wellington was his 300th. In the two series he had accounted for 49 Australian wickets, while at the same time scoring 216 runs at 36.00.

However, it is what happened between the two series that lends further insights into the personality of the amazing cricketer.

In the wake of the 33 wickets in the three Tests in Australia, the decision making pundits awarded him the ‘outstanding athlete of the summer’ award. Along with it came a shiny Alfa Romeo 90. Hadlee, who had happily shared all prize money now courted controversy by refusing to surrender his Italian vehicle and split the proceeds. He responded to the critics with a fusillade of well-targeted verbal bouncers in a press conference held after the series in New Zealand. Most of the unwanted voices were silenced.

It was revealed during the session that Hadlee had considered withdrawing from the Christchurch Test because of the mental strain caused by the criticism. Indeed, this was not the first time that Hadlee had been subject to psychological stress. In 1983, the constant cricket, his responsibilities in the team, and the commitments of public appearances had affected him strongly. He had been forced to go on a prolonged vacation in Rarotonga. There he had run into Dennis Lillee and they had spoken at length about the pressures of cricket and its peripheral world.

Hadlee was a complex personality during his playing days. He was a perfectionist who could not accept failure, and took every commitment with extreme seriousness. Even when he wrote articles or prepared speeches, he would deal with every little detail with the same degree of attention with which he approached his cricket. There was never any ghost writer allowed to share his burden. Such degrees of commitment implied that criticism cut him to the quick, but most often he dealt with it silently.. With time, his stress would often make mountains of proverbial molehills.

Peter Roebuck once said, “(Hadlee is) one of the most dour cricketers I’ve ever bleeding seen.” He was an individualist in a team game, as is perhaps required to be if one has to carry the team forward with one’s own brilliance. He once even admitted that plagued by dilemmas ‘at one stage I questioned living’.  Cricket was never ‘just a game’ for him. The simmering feelings were mostly kept under the façade of equanimity, being launched on to the world only through his diabolical deliveries and often through the squatting, almost Buddha like, posture for appeal with the two index fingers theatrically raised. However, once the deed was done and the important finger of the umpire had gone up, he would merely acknowledge the crowd with a waft of the hand. For the most part, his visage would not betray feelings.

Ending on a high

As usual, by the time the England tour of 1986 came along, all the troubles caused by the Alpha Romeo were behind. He took six first innings wickets at Lord’s and 10 at Nottingham in the victory that sealed a series win. It was the first time New Zealand had triumphed in England.

The wickets continued to come — nine against West Indies at Christchurch and 10 against Australia at Melbourne in the Boxing Day match of 1987. The Melbourne Test was heart wrenching. Having done everything possible to secure a win, Hadlee was thwarted by a defiant Mike Whitney who hung on with Craig McDermott to deny New Zealand the opportunity of squaring the series. When Whitney dug out the last lethal ball from the New Zealand great, Hadlee walked down the pitch and enfolded the batsman in an embrace. An emotionally exhausted crowd cheered lustily when Hadlee was declared the Man of the Match and Series for the umpteenth time.

The elusive wicket would not only have got New Zealand the victory, but would also have taken Hadlee past Botham’s 373. And in the first Test against England, he injured himself — necessitating the travel to India and the duels with Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev.

When Australia toured to play a one-off Test in 1990, Hadlee as usual bowled New Zealand to a win with five in the first innings. It was his 100th five wicket haul in First-Class cricket. Now, at the brink of 39, Hadlee announced that he would retire at the end of the England tour of 1990.

The last series was as eventful as the rest of his career. Hadlee started with four wickets in Nottingham. Four days after the end of the Test it was announced that he would be knighted for his services to cricket later that year.

The champion all-rounder celebrated the happy tiding by scoring an 84-ball 86 at Lord’s, which earned him the Man of the Match award for the final time in his career. He bid adieu with three for 97 and five for 51 in his last Test at Edgbaston, knocking over Devon Malcolm’s stumps with his last delivery in Test cricket. He was named the joint Man of the Series with Michael Atherton.

Staggering figures

Richard Hadlee ended his career with 431 wickets from 86 Tests at an average of 22.29, with 36 five wicket hauls and nine 10-fors. With the bat, he scored 3124 runs at 27.16 with two hundreds and 15 fifties.

Hadlee confessed that he was not that serious about One-Day Internationals. However, his collection of 158 wickets at 21.56 from 115 matches puts him at fourth position in terms of average among bowlers with more than 100 wickets.

From 1978 to 1988, only Imran Khan with 272 wickets at 19.38 boasted a better average in Tests than Hadlee’s 330 wickets at 19.57.

In the Kiwi wins, Hadlee’s contribution was spellbinding. In 22 won Tests, he captured 173 wickets at 13.06, better than any bowler with 100 or more wickets in victories. He did not perform as well in defeats, but even then captured 94 wickets at 21.71 from those 28 losses. He accounted for 36% of the opposition wickets to fall in all Tests, and almost 41% in the victories

The 22 wins and 28 losses from Hadlee’s 86 Tests need to be put into perspective. Before he had emerged into the Test arena, New Zealand had played 102 Tests, winning just 7 and losing 46. It can be said without semblance of doubt that he took a group of faceless amateur cricketers and transformed them into a world class outfit.

In case one is led to be look askance at his record because of the damp grassy Kiwi pitches encountered today, let me also underline that Hadlee played 43 matches in New Zealand and an equal number elsewhere. On the New Zealand tracks, he picked up 201 at 22.96. In away venues he reaped richer rewards, with 230 scalps at 21.72. On the lifeless wickets of the subcontinent, he captured 68 at 21.58 in 13 Tests.

Hadlee was a phenomenon — one of a kind, and will perhaps never be repeated.

After retirement Hadlee went on to become a member of the cricket media, and later assumed the role the chairman of New Zealand’s selectors. Happily, the new cricketing responsibilities do not seem to carry with them the pressures that plagued him during his playing days. The smile touches his face more often and the pensive demeanour is seldom witnessed. It seems that he now looks back at his immense feats with the unfettered satisfaction that he so richly deserves.

Richard Hadlee: A phenomenon in the pantheon of the greats

Sir Richard Hadlee (left) and Ian Chappell with the newly-unveiled Chappell-Hadlee Trophy at Telstra Dome on December 3, 2004 in Melbourne, Australia © Getty Images

Hadlee was inducted into the International Cricket Council (ICC) Hall of Fame in 2009.

In Pics: Richard Hadlee’s cricketing career

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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