Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair at Ellis Park: A fairytale bigger than cricket

Whatever happened after Bert Sutcliffe’s blitz and Bob Blair’s appearance did not matter...

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Bert Sutcliffe played one of the most astonishing innings on South African soil. Photo courtesy: teara.gov.nz
Bert Sutcliffe played one of the most astonishing innings on South African soil. Photo courtesy: teara.gov.nz

December 26, 1953. Ellis Park, Johannesburg witnessed Bert Sutcliffe defy a near-fatal injury to pull off one of the bravest performances of all time. To add to the drama, Bob Blair put aside his grief to join Sutcliffe at the centre. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the most poignant days in the history of the sport.

“It was a great and glorious victory, a story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother’s knee.” — Dick Brittenden.

This, despite New Zealand losing the Test by plenty.

Let us go back to Boxing Day 1953, where a poignant saga unfolded over the day at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. It was a day of applause and tears and goosebumps. It was a day spectators might have narrated to their grandchildren a hundred times, and more. It was a day cricket remembers as one of her greatest.

When Geoff Rabone’s New Zealand landed on South African shores, New Zealand were yet to win their first Test. They had been playing Test cricket for over two decades.

Jack Cheetham, on the other hand, was on the process of turning South African cricket around. Under Cheetham South Africa had drawn the Test series in Australia 2-2 and had defeated New Zealand 1-0 at their den.

Things did not start well for the tourists at Kingsmead. Jackie McGlew and John Waite put up a 113-run opening stand; Roy McLean scored a hundred; and Hugh Tayfield claimed 9 for 97 in the match. Despite Rabone’s 107 and 68 not out New Zealand slumped to an innings defeat.

Going into the second Test at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, the South African bowling attack comprised of the prodigious swing bowler David Ironside and the inexhaustible Anton Murray. And then, there was Tayfield — the man who hated conceding runs, and still holds the record for the most consecutive dot balls in a Test. But most importantly, the Kingsmead Test witnessed the arrival of Neil Adcock, one of the deadliest fast bowlers South Africa has produced.

But then, New Zealand were no pushovers. The quartet of Bob Blair, Guy Overton, Tony MacGibbon, and Reid kept a tight line. The hosts were reduced to 43 for 3 before Russell Endean took charge.

Endean scored 93 with 13 boundaries, adding 57 with Roy McLean and 68 more with Clive van Ryneveld (65). The middle-order put up a fight, helping the hosts reach 226 for 5. They finished Day One on 259 for 8.

Meanwhile, back home…

Wreckage of the train River Whangaehu. Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Wreckage of the train River Whangaehu. Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The 3 PM express was on its way from Wellington to Auckland with 285 passengers. The train passed Tangiwai at about 10.20 PM at 64 kmph. It was about to pass River Whangaehu. Unfortunately, the bridge they had to pass had lost one of its piers due to a substantial mudflow in Whangaehu. The train crew were not aware of the incident.

One Cyril Ellis, standing near the bridge, saw the train approach the bridge. In a frantic last-minute effort he waved a torch. Charles Parker, the driver, put on the emergency brake; Lance Redman, the fireman, sanded the track for 128 yards, trying to cut down the pace. Though this saved a few lives, it could not stop the locomotive, the tender, and five second-class carriages from plunging into the Whangaehu.

It was 10.21 PM at Tangiwai, New Zealand; 12.21 PM in Johannesburg. The Tangiwai Disaster, as it came to be known, is the worst rail accident in the history of New Zealand. The death toll amounted to 151. Among them was Nerissa Love, Blair’s fiancée.

Back to Johannesburg

The next day was Christmas. As the world broke into celebrations, the anxious New Zealand cricketers tuned in to the radio. Newspapers were read vociferously.

The South Africans were affected as well. McLean recalled: “I was rooming with Ken Funston, and Dick Brittenden, who was along the corridor of the hotel, knocked on our door and told us of the tragedy. It made the occasion very sombre.”

Blair, especially, was disconsolate. As the South Africans and New Zealanders reached Ellis Park along with the spectators, Blair confined himself to the hotel room, with the radio tuned in to the proceedings. Along him was John Kerr, the team manager.

Flags were lowered to half-mast as Tayfield and Ironside walked out to bat. Nobody blamed Blair when the public announcement system announced that he would not return that day.

Reid bowled Ironside soon. Adcock was run out for a duck. South Africa were bowled out for 271. The last five wickets had accounted for a mere 45.

Rabone, that great leader of men, called a team meeting at the innings break. He tried his best in what was probably — or probably not — a successful effort to make his men focus on the Test.

Adcock arrives

Sutcliffe later admitted that the pitch was one of the fastest he had batted on. Both Rabone and Murray Chapple were hit by balls from the dangerous Adcock that took off a good length. At the other end, Ironside bowled a steady line, and had Rabone caught in the slips.

Soon afterwards Adcock bounced one at Chapple. The ball brushed his glove, hit his chest, and fell on the stumps. The score read 9 for 2. Sutcliffe walked out to join Matt Poore.

Richard Boock provides a vivid narration in The Last Everyday Hero: The Bert Sutcliffe Story: “I had played only two balls from him when another flew at my head. I tried desperately to hook, but was hit on the side of the head and went out like a light.”

His ear was split. Blood trickled down a visible gash in his ears. By the time Rabone rushed on to the ground, two men and a stretcher in tow, the South African fielders had surrounded Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe somehow recovered to his feet. He even walked back, refusing the stretcher. He even shook hands with an anxious, if not guilty, Cheetham on his way out, but had to be rushed to the hospital. He would later confess that he never recovered from the blow completely. It would affect him for the rest of his life.


But Adcock had just begun. Reid was hit all over his body before Adcock snared him for a 25-minute 3. Out came Lawrie Miller. He managed a solitary run before Adcock hit him on the chest. Miller coughed blood, and had to be taken to the hospital as well.

Rabone recollected: “We all got hit. Adcock was 6 ft 6 in and had long arms, and the pitch suited him perfectly. It was green and fiery. Adcock was bowling very quick in-duckers to the right-handers. Bert was hit badly. Miller was bringing up blood. It was mayhem.”

South African Cricket wrote that Adcock “bounced one ball off Bert Sutcliffe’s cranium before that cricketer had got off the mark. He rattled Miller’s ribs and thereby had two New Zealanders simultaneously under X-ray apparatus for damages to be assessed.”

Poore hung around for 15 before Adcock hit him on the chest. The ball ricocheted to the stumps. New Zealand were 35 for 4 with two batsmen in the hospital and one in the hotel. They needed to score another 86 to save the follow-on.

John Beck and Frank Mooney hung around. Adcock hit him on his groin. The box was inverted by the impact. It took some effort from McGlew to put it back into shape with the handle of Beck’s bat. The youngster batted on.

Beck and Mooney somehow saw the new ball off, but there was no respite, for Murray and Tayfield were almost impossible to score off. The pair added 22 before Murray found Beck’s edge.

Miller returns

Lawrie Miller showed the way; the rest followed. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Lawrie Miller showed the way; the rest followed. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Then, to the surprise of everyone, Miller walked out. He had refused to listen to the doctor, left the hospital, and had returned to Ellis Park. He entered the ground amidst a big applause. It would not be the last time that day that the 23,000-strong crowd would laud an incoming batsman.

Miller grinded along, refusing to concede an inch. There was pain, severe pain. Another blow on the heart might have been fatal. But he batted on, providing Mooney with the support he needed.

It was eventually Ironside who struck. Miller’s resistance came to an end. His 14 was a brave effort, but not enough. New Zealand still needed 40 to avoid follow-on. MacGibbon and Overton were certainly not going to be enough.

Sutcliffe emerges

Then a figure emerged from the tunnel and crossed the ropes. His head was wrapped completely in bandage. Though X-rays had revealed no fracture, the doctor suggested Sutcliffe stayed under observation for a few days.

Eric Dempster, 12th man of New Zealand, reminisced: “Bert had a lump the size of my fist behind his left ear. But they took X-rays and couldn’t find any fracture so dressed his torn ear-lobe and sent us back to the ground.”

When a doctor poked at the lump, tried to figure out exactly what had happened, Sutcliffe fell again with a crash, unconscious. There was no way he could resume batting anytime in soon, let alone that day.

But Sutcliffe would have none of it. He was fortified with bandage, and more: “I must confess I was fortified to some extent by a generous helping of Scotland’s chief product … and I don’t mean porridge.”

Rabone had tried to stop Sutcliffe, but the great man’s response was curt: “Have a look at the scoreboard. We’re too many gone, for not enough.”

Blood was still oozing out of his ears. Streaks of red appeared on his bandage as he approached the crease. He looked as white as a sheet. “My head was heavily bandaged, so much so I felt like a Sikh, and should perhaps be carrying a hockey stick instead of a bat,” Sutcliffe admitted. “I decided not to muck around.”

So he decided to live by the sword, and live by the sword he did. The third ball from Ironside landed in the stands. Two more came off Tayfield, who, I must remind here, was the most economic bowler of the era. Along with Mooney, he added 50 from 39 minutes. He smashed 4 sixes in all, was dropped twice, and lost Mooney (35) at the other end to Ironside before the pair put on 57.

The first mountain was conquered: the follow-on had been saved. MacGibbon and Overton fell in quick succession. Blair was not supposed to be back.

Taxi ride to glory

As the radio kept updating everyone with the on-field proceedings, Blair had changed his mind at the hotel. He informed Kerr that he wanted to join his mates at the ground. A taxi was summoned, and the pair rushed to the ground.

Blair reached the ground to find Sutcliffe playing the most famous innings of his career. He padded up. As the players started to walk back after the fall of the ninth wicket, Blair walked out. The ground, cheering Ironside for his fifth wicket, was stunned in silence.

Sutcliffe walked up to the youngster and put him an arm around him. What he said have been immortalised in the history of the sport: “C’mon son, this is no place for you. Let’s swing the bat at the ball and get out of here.”

Brittenden wrote: “Looking down on the scene from the glass windows of the pavilion, the New Zealanders wept openly and without shame; the South Africans were in little better state, and Sutcliffe was just as obviously distressed. Before he faced his first ball, Blair passed his glove across his eyes in the heart-wringing gesture of any small boy anywhere in trouble but defiant.”

“I was fielding at square-leg and when he passed me on his way to the wicket, he had tears running down his cheeks. We all felt the same,” McLean said.

 Bob Blair’s act remains among of the most heroic acts in cricket
Bob Blair’s (Upper row, middle) act remains among of the most heroic acts in cricket © Getty Images

The Tayfield over

On came Tayfield, the most economical bowler of the era — or perhaps of all era. Sutcliffe launched the first ball into the stands over the straight boundary, and did an encore off the next ball. The third was defended, and the fourth was hit for another six.

Pearce Rood, a witness at Ellis Park, later reminisced: “The sixes were lofted into the thin segment of the stand behind long-on, which was reserved in those apartheid-cursed days for ‘non-Europeans’, who traditionally gave vociferous support to the visiting team. Each of those soaring sixes was greeted by pandemonium.”

Sutcliffe ran a single off the next ball. This brought Blair to strike. The next ball disappeared over the mid-wicket fence. The last two balls went without a run. The pair had done the unthinkable: they had taken 25 off a Tayfield over, then a world record.

Tayfield eventually had Blair stumped for 6. He finished with 1 for 53 from 8.2 eight-ball overs. Never in his Test career had he been treated as disdainfully.

That six remained Blair’s only scoring stroke. Sutcliffe remained unbeaten on an outrageous 112-minute 80 with 4 fours and 7 sixes. The pair added 33 in 10 minutes before they walked back, arms around each other.

Sutcliffe later confessed to Richie Benaud: “I’ve never heard anything like it from one section of a crowd, the black area. Their cheers and deafening shouts were extraordinary when Bob and I walked up the steps arm in arm.”

The final word, of course, had to be Boock’s. He wrote in stuff.co.nz: “However much the game might have changed in one man’s partial lifetime, some things have always remained the same. Equipment may have evolved, pitch preparation might have advanced and the age of professionalism might offer the modern player far more opportunity. But one thing has never changed: The size of a man’s ticker has always counted the most.”

The irrelevant bit

Whatever happened after Sutcliffe’s blitz and Blair’s appearance did not matter. Blair even took new ball, but it was Reid and MacGibbon who struck. South Africa were reduced to 23 for 3, and later 67 for 6. A lead of 151 did not seem out of reach.

Then Tayfield, promoted as night-watchman, and McLean, dug in, adding a crucial 45 for the seventh wicket. South Africa were bowled out for 148. A target of 233 against Adcock was a steep one.

Rabone and Chapple added 35 for the opening stand. Three wickets fell before stumps. New Zealand had scored 68. A victory was not impossible given the way Rabone held fort.

Unfortunately, both Mooney and Rabone fell next morning with the score on 75. Adcock and Ironside then blew apart the tourists. The last 7 wickets fell for a mere 25. Tayfield was not even needed as South Africa romped to a 132-run victory on the final morning.

Rand Daily Mail summed it up: “It is not the result of the match that will be best remembered when men come together to talk about cricket. They will speak of a match that was as much worth watching as it was worth playing, a match the New Zealanders decided must go on. And if the rest of the world still wonders what it is all about, the only possible answer is that, if men are going to play, they can do a lot worse than play cricket.”

And a small relevant bit…

This was also Bill Ferguson’s 200th Test as scorer. It may seem astonishing that an Australian scorer was appointed for the Test, but then, this was Ferguson, no less. Unfortunately, he underwent a surgery and missed the next two Tests.

What followed?

– New Zealand got South Africa to follow-on in the next Test at Newlands, but the hosts survived. South Africa won 4-0 with a 9-wicket win at Ellis Park and a 5-wicket win at St George’s Park.

– Norman Harris chronicled the incident in a 2010 book called What Are You Doing Out Here: Heroism and Distress at a Cricket Test. Blair wrote the foreword.

– Charlie Haskell directed a television movie called Tangiwai based on the accident and the Blair’s heroics. The movie cast Rose McIver as Nerissa, Ryan O’Kane as Blair, Dean O’Gorman as Sutcliffe, Jonathan Brough as Reid, Richard Dey as Cheetham, Paul Harrop as Rabone, John Chalmers as Kerr, and Iain O’Brien as Adcock.

– 2011 also saw a play, The Second Test, being staged on the same day’s play with Jonny Brugh pulling off a solo show, playing Blair, Sutcliffe, and Nerissa, among other characters.

– Tayfield’s over remained the most expensive in history till Craig McMillan smashed 26 (4, 4, 4, 6, 6, 4) off an over from Younis Khan in 2000-01.

Brief scores:

South Africa 271 (Russell Endean 93, Clive van Ryneveld 65; Tony MacGibbon 3 for 61) and 148 (John R Reid 4 for 34, Tony MacGibbon 4 for 62) beat New Zealand 187 (Bert Sutcliffe 80*; Neil Adcock 3 for 44, David Ironside 5 for 51) and 100 (Neil Adcock 5 for 43, David Ironside 3 for 37) by 132 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)

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