Bert Sutcliffe: fair haired, good looking, with a flashing blade and a brilliant hook-shot © Getty Images
Bert Sutcliffe: fair haired, good looking, with a flashing blade and a brilliant hook-shot © Getty Images

Bert Sutcliffe, born November 17, 1923, was one of the greatest batsmen produced by New Zealand, for long the bulwark of a weak line up.Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who scripted one of the bravest innings of all time.

The Ellis Park Epic

Boxing Day, 1953.

The ball flew from length, almost vertically upwards.

The Ellis Park wicket was hard, quick, green and volatile, the ground usually employed for rugby. The Wanderers Stadium was still being developed. And Neil Adcock had the natural ability to extract bounce from any pitch — fiery, dangerous lift from perfect length. Here they were exploding from length, shooting up, peppering into the fingers, elbows, body, and the unprotected head.

Already openers Geoff Rabone and Murray Chapple had been hit in the very first over and had been dismissed soon afterwards. Bert Sutcliffe, the best batsman of New Zealand, had strode in at 9 for 2. It was the fourth ball he faced. It reared for his head as the compulsion for the hook made the left-handed batsman swivel on his back-foot.

And then came the crack. It could be heard across the ground. Even today, more than six decades later, eyewitnesses can be found whose fading memories still reverberate with that awful sound. Sutcliffe had been pole-axed. The ball had cannoned into him, hitting him behind his left ear. He lay on the ground, unconscious.

Even the South African crowd of Johannesburg started chanting for Adcock to be taken off. It would have been sad, because the fast man was not exactly bowling bouncers. But, the sight on the ground was near horrific. Sutcliffe lay still. The Springboks in the field rushed up, fearing the worst. In sprinted Kiwi captain Rabone and a couple of men with a stretcher. And in the midst of the hush that descended on the ground, the man from Auckland somehow staggered to his feet.

He refused the stretcher. Aided by Rabone and the first-aid men he tottered out of the ground. On his way out he shook hands with the South African captain Jack Cheetham. It was one of the most sporting of gestures.

Sutcliffe was driven to the X-ray room of the Johannesburg hospital. When he arrived there, with 12th man Eric Dempster, there was a lump the size of a fist behind his left ear. In the Accident and Emergency department, a young doctor walked out and curiously poked at the enormous bruise. And Sutcliffe collapsed, unconscious again, hitting the floor with a thud.

X-Rays however, revealed no fracture. There was nothing the medical men could do apart from dressing the torn ear-lobe and bandaging the head.

All the while, the carnage continued at Ellis Park. John Reid was hit all over the body in his 25-minute struggle. Lawrie Miller was struck by another Adcock snorter, right on the heart, and started spitting blood. In a few minutes, he had joined Sutcliffe at the hospital.

Matt Poore played on after a fighting innings, a few minutes after being hit painfully on the torso. And then there was poor Johnny Beck. The debutant was struck on the groin, and his protective box was inverted by the sickening blow. The South African batsman Jackie McGlew hammered it back into shape and position with Beck’s bat-handle, but even this comical sight did little to lighten the terrifying atmosphere.

While Adcock was terrorising the New Zealanders, at the other end swing bowler David Ironside was busy troubling the batsmen with movement. The South African total of 271 grew more and more imposing by the minute. At lunch, Rabone announced that neither Sutcliffe nor Miller would bat further. Besides, the team had been struck by tragedy even before venturing to the ground that day.

In the wee hours of the morning, with the players in their beds, the telegram had arrived in their hotel. The Wellington-Auckland overnight express had plunged into the flooded Whangehu River near Tangiwai on Christmas Eve, the same day the Test had begun. Among the many who perished had been the young Narissa Love, fiancée of the 21-year-old Kiwi fast bowler Bob Blair.

The shattered Blair had been left grieving in the hotel, in the company of the manager Jack Kerr. Hence, when Beck’s brave innings came to an end 10 overs after the lunch break, the scoreboard showed 57 for 5. In effect it was 57 for 8, and the follow on was written large on the wall.

And now started the saga of bravery that remains etched indelibly in the annals of the game. In walked Miller, back from the hospital. At the other end was the gutsy wicketkeeper Frank Mooney. The two added 24 before Ironside hustled in to strike Millers stump. It was 81 for 6, and the follow on mark was still 41 runs away.

The spectators now saw the figure walk out to bat now, head swathed in bandages, the steps quick and resolute. Sutcliffe was back to resume his innings. After all, nothing was broken. It was only incredibly painful, but he could deal with that. His plan was to attack at any cost.

Sutcliffe walks in with his head swathed in bandages Photo Courtesy: teara.gov.nz
 Bert Sutcliffe walks in with his head swathed in bandages Photo Courtesy: teara.gov.nz

The second ball he received from Ironside was hooked over square-leg for six. He followed it up with a three and a four off the same bowler. Cheetham re-introduced Adcock, and Sutcliffe square cut the fast man to the boundary.

Then it was the turn of the notoriously miserly off-spinner Hugh Tayfield. Sutcliffe swung his bat, lofting him twice over the ropes. The crowd had forgotten their allegiance. They were in raptures of delight, secure in the knowledge that they were witnessing history.

Blood had been trickling through Sutcliffe’s bandages as he had been launching his counter-attack. Between overs, Rabone and the first-aid men rushed in, to adjust the dressing. A towel was taped around his head. But, the onslaught he had launched continued. As Mooney held firm at one end, Sutcliffe kept attacking. 50 were put on in 39 minutes. The follow-on was averted.

At 137, Ironside castled Mooney. Soon, Tony McGibbon and Guy Overton had succumbed for ducks, the long handle of Sutcliffe managing to add a few more to the total. At 153 for 9, the innings seemed to be over. The players started leaving the ground, the crowd moved about, for all the activities they indulge in during the breaks between innings.

And then a figure appeared in the tunnel. Blair was walking out to bat, appearing in the sunshine, a moving form of tragedy and bravado. As the crowd stood for him, in unison and silence, the New Zealand players wept without restraint from the windows of the pavilion. The young man was having great difficulty putting on his gloves. Even the South African cricketers could do little but gulp down their tears, and avert their eyes. Sutcliffe, in obvious distress about his mate, walked over to meet his partner.

Before he faced his first ball, Blair passed his glove across his eye, a gesture that broke the heart of every man present in the field.

And then came a passage of play that remains immortal even among the sterling deeds of the day. Sutcliffe swung Tayfield for six over the on side. Two balls later, he drove the spinner high and hard over long on for another six. Two balls passed and then he swung another into a crowd that was raucous by now. Then there was a single. Tayfield bowled the last ball to Blair. The fast bowler countered with a tremendous swing of the bat, sending the ball into the wonderstruck masses beyond the mid-wicket boundary. 25 runs had come off that over. Those who witnessed it would remember every ball for years to come.

Soon, Blair was stumped off the spinner. The last pair had added 33 in 10 minutes. As they walked out the crowd roared and cheered into a crescendo thus far reserved for champion home sides. And then there was one final unforgettable gesture.

Sutcliffe had ended unbeaten on 80, a knock that came in 112 minutes, with 4 fours and 7 sixes. All that after being knocked unconscious on the pitch. It would go down as one of the greatest innings of all time, certainly the braves. And now he stood at the gate, allowing Blair to pass through first. In the words of cricket writer Dick Brittenden: “Through they went, arms about each other, into the darkness of the tunnel, but behind them they left a light and an inspiration which several thousand lectures on how to play a forward defensive stroke will never kindle.”

The two heroes were not allowed to go back on the field. They watched the remainder of the match while sipping whiskey, from the pavilion windows. Reid and McGibbon reduced the Springboks to 67 for 6, raising hopes of an unlikely victory. The hosts recovered to 148, but the target of 233 seemed less than imposing. However, Adcock and Ironside made short work of them in the second essay, ending the innings at just 100.

True, New Zealand did not win. In fact, the great career of Bert Sutcliffe would never witness a New Zealand victory. When the Kiwis would register their first ever win in Test cricket, against West Indies at Auckland in March, 1956, a tired and critically ill Sutcliffe would be agog in his sports-goods store, listening to every ball on a radio borrowed from a nearby music store. After all, he still holds the unwanted record of playing most Tests without tasting victory.

Yet, the greatness of the innings, and the poignancy of the final wicket partnership with Blair would make it to the folklore of not only New Zealand cricket, but of Johannesburg and the rest of the world. And so too wouldSutcliffe’s deeds with the bat around the world, his fascinating promise as a young batsman, his maturing into one of the greatest of New Zealand cricket, and finally his spectacular comeback. All that would make him one of the heroes of the island country.

According to biographer Richard Boock, Sutcliffe was a man whose “courage and cheerful disposition helped carve a permanent home for New Zealand cricket in the heart of a nation.”

Named for fame

Sutcliffe was born in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby on November 17, 1923. His parents Nell and Wally had emigrated to the southern country from Lancashire. But, they were open-minded, and, especially Wally, cricket fans. Fans who could respect even the Roses rivals. Hence, after he had taken up a job as motorman on the trams and a son was born, he was christened Bert after the great England and Yorkshire opener Herbert Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe got his first bat from his father, one cut down from his own discarded Returned Services Association team’s kit. Wally Sutcliffe, who scored a century and took six wickets in the same match for Retired Services Association on three different occasions, also taught his son the rudimentary methods of batting.

A young Sutcliffe played for the Point Chevalier school team, and in 1933, as a 9-year-old, he witnessed Wally Hammond hammer 336 not out at Eden Park. Hammond struck 10 sixes, the world record at that time. 20 years down the line, Sutcliffe would hit his way to the second spot on the list with 7, after being struck on the head. The connection with Hammond went further, and we will come to that later.

With time, his father was driving a school bus and Bert had been joined by two sisters and a brother. Backyard cricket started soon enough, with brothers Bert and Mervyn hitting the ball assiduously. Sisters Eileen and Beryl were more drawn to tennis, but could always be counted upon to field superbly, with excellent throws.

Young Sutcliffe was also a voracious reader of cricket books, devouring Neville Cardusand CB Fry, assiduously obtained for him by his father.

When he moved to the Takapuna Grammar School, he was drafted into the Tainui fraternity and came under the tutelage of housemaster and first eleven cricket coach James Thompson. This curious gentleman was a deep thinker about the game, introducing the boys to the complex art of plotting the downfall of their cricketing opposition. He also devised games of ‘out on the off’, where a play and miss outside the off stump would mean a dismissal. It was a great drill for the left-handed Sutcliffe. He learnt to play straight and perfect his cover drive off deliveries angling away.

In his first term at secondary school, Sutcliffe hit his first century. There were many more for his school before he set off for the Auckland Teachers’ College, including a mammoth 268 against Mr Albert Grammar in 1942. He also led his team to the Auckland Secondary Schools championship title in 1939-40, scoring 1,070 runs at 97.27. It included a game against Kings College when he took 6 wickets for 4 runs with his wrist spin to dismiss the opponents for 10, scored 133, and then picked up 7 for 24 to end the match.

However, the major highlight was perhaps playing for Auckland Secondary Schools against Sir Julian Cahn’s XI in 1938-39. Although he did not score many, he rubbed shoulders with Stewie Dempster, the first great batsman of New Zealand, now in the employ of Cahn and the captain of Leicestershire.

Head prefect in his final year, Sutcliffe was an all-round sportsman. He was a good tennis player, fantastic as a fullback in rugby with excellent goal-kicking and long raking spiral punts, more than useful in hockey. He was superb in golf as well — although he had to play with right handed clubs for most of his formative years.

In fact, there is a strange tale about Sutcliffe’s left-handedness. He was a natural southpaw, playing cricket, tennis, and, when the clubs allowed, golf, left-handed. He kicked his rugby goal-kicks with his left foot. At the bar, he reached for his beer with his left hand. He later played the guitar left-handed. However, in the primary school he attended in Auckland, teachers used to tie his left hand behind his chair in order to make him write with his right hand. He subsequently wrote with his right hand all his life. Sutcliffe believed that the experience helped him see things from a different perspective, sometimes witnessing something like a crossed wire, sometimes gaining striking insight.

Opening up

The first few years of his cricketing development were stalled by War. He was selected in the Auckland team as a 17-year-old schoolboy, but the match was abandoned because of the growing hostilities. That summer Sutcliffe played for Parnell in Auckland senior club cricket. He hit 122 against Ponsonby-Balmoral. And after the innings, Merv Wallace, New Zealand’s best batsman at that time, offered his congratulations and then proceeded to admonish him for throwing it away. Sutcliffe never forgot the lesson.

It was at 18 that he did manage to make his First-Class debut, reaching the ground after commuting 19 km on bus, followed by a 20-minute ferry, a short tram ride and finally driven by Shank’s pony. He scored just 11 against Wellington, before being stumped by his future Kiwi teammate Mooney.

The rather sparsely populated New Zealand cricket calendar saw Sutcliffe play his next match only on Christmas Day 1943. He got 146 against Wellington. The class was already stamping itself.

In November 1944, Sutcliffe turned 21, and was immediately drafted for War service with the 15th reinforcements. He sailed for Egypt, but not before successfully asking young Norma Farrell to marry him when he returned.

He saw little action. The War in Europe ended when he was still at sea. However, the 13 months he spent in the forces saw him play cricket at curious places like Alamein, Alexandra, Rome, Jerusalem and Tokyo. The highlight of War time cricket was perhaps his 159 against a South African Services team in Alamein, which bettered the ground record of 150 set by Dudley Nourse a year earlier.

On return to Auckland, Sutcliffe headed to Dunedin, accompanied by Norma. He was to take up a bursary course. After a few matches for Auckland that season, including 111 and 62 not out against Canterbury, he headed south. He would represent Otago in the years to come.

It was Walter Hadlee, captain of Otago and New Zealand, who asked Sutcliffe to open alongside himself. The visionary patriarch of New Zealand cricket was already making detailed plans for the summer of 1949 in England. Hence, when MCC, led by Wally Hammond, came over for their tour match in early 1947, Hadlee asked the erstwhile middle-order batsman to pad up to go out with him.

Rumours have it that Sutcliffe was late in arriving at the ground, lost in streets of the new city. Walking into the dressing room, this disoriented young man was asked to change quickly and put his pads on.

To put it very mildly, the experiment was a success. Sutcliffe was dropped by Bill Edrich when on 6. He proceeded to compile 197, giving three more chances but only after reaching his century. When he finally fell, caught and bowled to Edrich, the crowd cheered long and loud as he walked back. The cheering had still not died down when the next batsman, Iain Gallaway, was returning for a first-ball duck. Gallaway walked off to thunderous ovation meted out to the previous batsman.

That was not all. When England batted Sutcliffe took a fantastic catch in the outfield to dismiss Edrich. It was the combination of a sprint, a dive and a one handed take. The Otago Daily Times took 9 lines to describe it, the Evening Star 8. After that, in the second innings, going for quick runs to set up a declaration, he scored a flawless 128. He was out going for a second successive six off Doug Wright. Hammond was already waxing eloquent about this splendid young batsman.

Hence, at Lancaster Park, Sutcliffe made his Test debut against England, opening the innings with Hadlee. Under the grey skies, he started off by audaciously cover driving Jack Pollard for four. When spin was introduced, Wright was swung to the leg side boundary and then square cut for four. A miss at fine leg did not deter him from executing more aerial strokes. Finally he was out, caught at the wicket for 58, but he had made his mark on the highest form of the game.

A young Sutcliffe at the nets © Getty Images (representational image)
A young Bert Sutcliffe at the nets © Getty Images (representational image)

That Test was also Hammond’s last. Sutcliffe dropped him early at mid-on, enabling the Gloucestershire master to score 79 in his final outing. Later, however, he leaped to his right to hold a spectacular catch off Jack Cowie to end the great man’s career. The man he had watched hit 336 as a 9-year-old ended his Test playing days, hitting a catch to the debutant.

All the while, the legend of Sutcliffe was growing. In a club match in Otago, an umpire ruled not out even when an edge flew high and clear to second slip. When the official met Sutcliffe later, he confessed, “It’s just that I’d never seen you bat before.”

New Zealand did not play another Test for a couple of years, one of the great pities of cricketing history. Sutcliffe kept himself busy, scoring 99 and 103 against Auckland, and 118 and 125 against Canterbury in the title deciding match of 1947-48. He also got married in January 1948.

He received offers to play league cricket overseas, but refused. Martin Donnelly and Tom Pritchard were doing well in distant lands, but Sutcliffe was more at home in New Zealand. Besides, he wanted to enhance the country’s reputation in international cricket.

The 49-ers

The first Australian team had toured England in 1868, a band of aboriginal cricketers. That had been one of the driest summers ever. And when the 1949 the New Zealanders, later referred to as the 49-ers, travelled to the Old Country, it was the driest summer the nation had experienced since those 1868 days. Not a single day’s cricket was lost to rain. And under the sparkling sun, the New Zealanders made merry. They won 13, drew 18 and lost just one of their 32 First-Class games. The only defeat came against Oxford University, ironically on a rain affected pitch.

It was a strong side and a happy one. Donnelly, Hadlee, Wallace, Reid, Rabone and Sutcliffe combined into enormous talent. 8 men crossed 1,000 on the trip, Donnelly and Sutcliffe eclipsing 2,000.

There was a five-day-old son Sutcliffe had left back at home when he sailed. But, homesickness could not really put a spoke in the wheels of his run making. Trained as a physical instructor, he put the team through some strenuous drills while they sailed on the Dominion Monarch. When they landed there was a letter from his famous namesake, Herbert Sutcliffe. It read, “Up the Sutcliffes, signed Herbert”.

And he was among runs straight away, in the home of the great Sutcliffe, with 72 against Yorkshire. The knock included three sixes, his first scoring stroke in England being a hooked four off the fourth ball he faced. Herbert Sutcliffe was at the Park Avenue ground that day, clapping enthusiastically. “Well done, lad, good start,” he said, before adding, “You know it’s not done to hit sixes before lunch.”

He scored 83 against Surrey as the tour progressed, and Denis Compton was already writing about the fair headed youngster of the flashing blade and the powerful hook.

However, soon Sutcliffe ran into problems. His overuse of the hook shot brought about his downfall once too often, and word spread across the counties that his attacking spirits made him vulnerable to the short ball. In the 14 innings leading up to the first Test, he managed just 331 runs at 23.64. Hadlee called him to one side and asked him to consider cutting the hook out of his repertoire, at least till he was seeing the ball well. Sutcliffe refused, offering to cut off his arm instead. He continued to hook, and as it started becoming more productive his drives and leg-glances bore fruit as well. The bowlers continued dishing bouncers, and he made merry.

He scored 32 and 82 in the first Test at Headingley. This was followed by a first innings of 71 against Hampshire. However, it was the second innings that proved incredible. Set to score 109 in 35 minutes, Sutcliffe batted 13 minutes, hit 3 sixes and 4 fours in a swashbuckling 46. With Donnelly scoring 39 not out, the visitors won with 7 minutes to spare.

Then came 187 against Surrey, 57 in the second Test at Lord’s, 144 against Combined Services and 183 against Scotland.

And then it was time for the first Test hundred, a supreme exhibition of driving on both sides of the wicket while showing enough maturity to preserve his wicket while scoring 101 in the second innings at Old Trafford.

Runs continued to flow: 91 against Yorkshire, and the mammoth 243 and 100 not out against Essex. There followed 59 and 110 not out against Middlesex, a whirlwind 83 in the festival game against HD Leveson-Gower’s XI. But the peach of them all was the 79 not out against Lancashire. Having already hit 61 in the first innings, Sutcliffe went out in the second with the Kiwis needing 153 to win in 75 minutes. He brought up his 50 in 45 minutes and steered his side to victory with a couple of minutes to spare. He put on 120 for the first wicket with Donnelly.  Manchester Guardian’s Denys Rowbotham called it “Some of the greatest batsmanship that is likely to be seen in a generation.”

He finished the tour with 2627 runs at 59.70, beating Victor Trumper’s mark of 2,570 set in 1902, with only Don Bradman’s 2,960 in 1930 remaining ahead of the labours of his bat. He was named one of the Wisden five cricketers of the year. The bible of cricket did not stop with noting that no other cricketer from New Zealand had established such claims of fame at the age of 25 as Sutcliffe.It went on to say that he was not only one of the best left-handed batsmen of the world, but the good-looking golden haired young man was also a grand fieldsman at short-leg, slips or in the covers.

Sutcliffe (left) and Jack Cowie: two of the 49-ers © Getty Images
Bert Sutcliffe (left) and Jack Cowie: two of the 49-ers © Getty Images

Towards the end of 1949, the recently launched New Zealand Sportsman announced the sportsman of the year award. Sutcliffe was the obvious winner, holding up the silver statue.

Huge scores, uneasy leader

That was just the start. Early in the following southern season, he had amassed 355 against Auckland. It was the highest ever by a New Zealand batsman. According to teammate Merv Rowe, after the innings the new bat that he had used for the knock looked untouched except for a deep depression right in the centre of the blade.

There is an interesting sidelight to this mammoth knock. Playing for Auckland was English cricketer and coach Joe Hardstaff. When Sutcliffe had got to his hundred, Hardstaff encouraged him to get another one. On his reaching 200, the advice was to make it a triple. When Sutcliffe was closing in on Roger Blunt’s Kiwi record of 338, Hardstaff sent down some friendly off-breaks. However, Sutcliffe kept missing them. In exasperation, the batsman cried out, “Joe, for Christ’s sake, just bowl the bloody thing, will you?”

That season an Australian team came over to play a series of First-Class matches and an unofficial ‘Test’. The bowling was handy, with Alan Davidson and Jack Iverson being two of the new names. Sutcliffe played for Otago and New Zealand against them, bringing off three handy innings in the 40s.

He began the next season, 1950-51, with 275 against Auckland. Freddie Brown’s Englishmen visited the country next. Sutcliffe hit 116 in the first Test at Lancaster Park, on a pitch held together by an abundant quantity of cow manure that could be smelled from far away.

A year later, the phenomenally strong West Indies arrived in New Zealand. And with Hadlee having retired, and Wallace unavailable, Sutcliffe was asked to lead the side.

It was not really a happy phase for him. He batted in the middle order, to accommodate new Canterbury opener Ray Emery. At Christchurch, his own scores were decent but West Indies won with plenty to spare.  At Eden Park, he failed along with the team and although the hosts were saved by rain doubts were cast about his abilities as captain.

Sutcliffe never really enjoyed leading the side at the top level. According to his own confession, he was always much happier being one of the boys. He would seldom dispute the bowler’s demand for a particular field, almost always leaving the strategizing to him. So, he did not mind when the captaincy was handed to Rabone after this.

He was happy without the burden. With Lankford Smith taking over the captaincy for Otago, Sutcliffe started the 1952-53 season with a humongous 385 against Canterbury. The rest of the batsmen contributed 86, and the extras totalled 29, as Otago finished with 500. It was then the highest score ever notched by a left-hander. Only Bradman, BB Nimbalkar, Bill Ponsford and Archie MacLaren had scored more at that time.

It was more remarkable because after he had ended the day at 215, the Canterbury cricketers had tried their best to tire him out with golf, dinner parties and a constant flow of conversation. It was 3 am when he had got to bed, and had come back the following morning to pile on the runs unabated.

Post-Adcock

The tour of South Africa, that would make Sutcliffe one of the most heroic names in cricket, was to follow. He did score 1155 runs on the trip, with an average of 46, and did record the bravest of innings ever witnessed. However, the visit was not uniformly successful.

Firstly, Sutcliffe scored just one century, a classy 196 against Border. And apart from his valiant 80, he passed 50 twice more in the five Tests, but had plenty of low scores punctuating his successes. His 305 runs at 38.12 in the five Tests were decent, but not really incredible by his standards. He was hampered by the unwanted burden of captaincy when Rabone had to withdraw because of injury. Besides, the blow suffered at Ellis Park also made him circumspect while playing his most productive stroke, the hook.

Not that any decline was evident. On the way back home from South Africa, the New Zealanders played a series of three matches in Australia. Sutcliffe got 142 on the lightning fast WACA wicket against the Western Australia pace bowling pair Harry Gorringe and Harry Price. He followed it up with 149 against South Australia and 117 against Victoria. Even Bradman described him as one of the best left-handed batsmen of the world, and the great man was known to have soft spots for Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey. Some put him in the same bracket as Harvey, only more artistic.

However, Sutcliffe was 30, and it was not really easy for him to get back to the bravura of hooking fast balls off his face any more. The Adcock blow did make him a tad apprehensive. Besides, fast bowlers around the world got wind and started bouncing at him. That strangely included Blair, the Wellington bowler who had been the partner in that epochal counterattack at Johannesburg. Sutcliffe’s success did not waver, he scored heavily, but the thrill of the hooks were no longer witnessed with the same frequency. It did open up new dimensions of his game, but to many he was a softer player.

He performed ably enough when Len Hutton’s men visited after their triumphant Ashes tour of Australia. Frank Tyson and Brian Statham went for the kill straight away, and on a soft, sticky wicket of Dunedin, Sutcliffe batted with plenty of skill and spunk to score 74. According to his own evaluation, it was one of the best innings of his career.

In the following Test, at Eden Park, he struck 8 fours in an impressive 49 in the first innings. England led by 46 after the initial exchanges when Sutcliffe went out to open in the second. He was fifth out at 14, swinging across the line at Johnny Wardle’s Chinaman. His score of 11 would remain the highest for the team. That was the infamous 26 all out innings. It was a horrendous series for the Kiwis, but Sutcliffe had top scored in three of the four innings.

A trip through hell

At this stage of his career, Sutcliffe had played 18 Tests, scored 1355 runs at 45.16 with 2 hundreds. The returns were commendable, especially for a batsman of the weak New Zealand side. However, general consensus was that he had not really met the great expectations.

There was also the problem of juggling three part-time jobs in Dunedin. With Norman pregnant with their third child, it was time to take a few decisions. There was also the sports-goods business that he was delving into.

The West Indies would arrive the following summer, and there was time to settle things on the home front. And that was when New Zealand were invited to tour India and Pakistan.

Sutcliffe wanted to stay at home, but was variously convinced by the officials to tour. In his autobiography, he states that he was never this reluctant to play cricket. The tour through Pakistan was one of the worst experiences in the annals of any touring Test team. It was a tale of mosquitoes, cockroaches, bed bugs, unbelievably shabby hotels,ridiculously dirty toilets and varieties of serious stomach bugs. Besides, Pakistan Customs refused to release 14 brand new Gun and Moore bats till they were on the verge of leaving the country, and towards the end of the tour, eleven batsmen were sharing three remaining battered willows.

New Zealand lost two of the three Tests and were saved in the other by rain. Sutcliffe could manage just 81 runs.

In the Indian leg, the hotels and the facilities were slightly better, but the umpiring was horrendous as were the crowds. Sutcliffe, playing out of his skin, saved the first Test at Hyderabad with an unbeaten 137. In the second at Bombay, he had progressed to 73 when he was distracted by a giant cracker exploded by the spectators just as the bowler was about to deliver. It was the only time in his career that he had been bombed out.

And then at Delhi, battling heat, stomach problems and a splendid Subhash Gupte, he batted 9 hours to remain unbeaten on 230, a New Zealand record. Captain Harry Cave declared at 450 for 3. Given that India finished their response at 531 for 7, one wonders how much Sutcliffe would have ended with had he batted on. This was the match which saw a rare association of the two pillars of New Zealand cricket. Reid and Sutcliffe added 222 in 210 minutes in a partnership that characterised all that was great about the game in the country. A tiger skin rug was presented to Sutcliffe for the double century.

Sutcliffe managed a staggering 611 runs in the series at 87.28. And he returned to New Zealand a bag of bones, gaunt, exhausted, ravaged by dysentery and having lost two stone.

A break and the first retirement

Undeterred the New Zealand selectors asked him to turn out against West Indies. His 48 in the second innings of the first Test was, according to biographer Booth, a triumph of mind over body. But a double failure at Christchurch finally hinted that medical help was indeed necessary.

Thus, when New Zealand won their first ever Test in the fourth match of the series at Eden Park, Sutcliffe, the man who by all sense of justice should have been there, sat recovering from his illness in his sports goods shop, listening to the broadcast on a radio hired from the nearby Beggs music and electrical shop.

It took a while to recover, but he did. Sutcliffe started the 1956-57 season with 73 against Canterbury and then did the amazing double of 153 not out and 5 for 102 against Northern Districts — his first five-wicket haul in First-Class cricket.

Further success came his way when the Australians arrived to play their usual quota of First-Class matches and unofficial ‘Tests’. Sutcliffe scored 54 for Otago and then hit 107 in the ‘Test’ at Basin Reserve. He was still the best batsman of New Zealand.

There followed his second tour to England, in the summer of 1958. It was a nightmare for New Zealand and an unmitigated disaster in terms of selection blunders. Tony Lock, with 34 wickets at 7.47 apiece, was unplayable. Sutcliffe’s highest Test score was 41 at Old Trafford. He averaged 17 in the Tests, 31 in the First-Class games. The 139 against Worcestershire to kick off the tour had flattered to deceive in the end.

By now Sutcliffe was 34. He had three kids and was trying to run a business back home. It was time for tough decisions. He opted for retirement from international cricket.

The Test against Peter May’s Englishmen at Eden Park in 1958-59 was scheduled to be his last. He arrived at the wicket with New Zealand 11 for 3, Fred Trueman and Frank Tyson breathing fire. He batted 163 minutes and go 61 before he was out trying to force the pace off Lock.

As the crowd rose in ovation, there was a confused feeling inside him. Part of him knew this was not the right time to leave. There seemed to be plenty of cricket, excellent cricket, left in him.

The interim years

Sutcliffe toured South Africa again. This time it was with a Commonwealth XI led by Denis Compton.

He also kept scoring runs in the Plunket Shield every year. In February, 1960, he hammered 264 against Central Districts, and that same month he scored another hundred at Lancaster Park in an unofficial ‘Test’ against Ian Craig’s Australians. He was still maturing like wine of classic vintage.

A typical stroke to the leg Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia commons
Bert Sutcliffe plays on the leg side. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Early next year, during the match against Northern Districts, an Auckland farmer threw in a challenge: fifty quid for any batsman scoring hundred before lunch. Sutcliffe took him on and won. For good measure, he ended up scoring 201. For the star-studded Governor General’s XI against MCC, he hit 74 with 9 fours, a five and a six.

Yet, for all his success at every level, Sutcliffe the man was close to being broke. Never a great businessman, his sports goods venture collapsed. His generosity and cutting down prices drastically did not necessarily help matters.

A testimonial one day match was arranged by the Otago cricket fraternity. It would be between the leading stars of the land, exclusively for Sutcliffe’s benefit, with plenty of media coverage. Sutcliffe got 100 in the game. Artie Dick partnered him for a good while before throwing his wicket away, and dashing off in a taxi to get married the same day. Tributes and farewell speeches were rattled off, with plenty of tearful eyes, in the dinner that followed the match. Sutcliffe donated the tiger skin rug presented to him at Delhi to the city of Otago. The match raised a neat sum of £1,300.It was almost all the money the Sutcliffes possessed when they arrived in Hamilton to start a new life.

He immediately started excelling for Northern Districts, who won the Plunket Shield the season he arrived. The new job at Rosco was steady. A year later, he started a 19-year association with Rothmans.

By now 41, Sutcliffe showed no signs of deterioration in class or form. When the visiting Pakistanis played Northern Districts in February 1965, he struck a composed 68.

And with his personal circumstances changed for the better, with a supportive employer, Sutcliffe found himself approached by the selectors about his availability for the tour of India and Pakistan in the 1965-66 season.

The triumphant comeback

All the apprehension of age, and the previous experience of dreadful conditions in the subcontinent, lost out to the thrill of playing top level cricket again. Sutcliffe was back in the big arena, top-scoring with 56 in his first comeback Test innings at the Corporation Stadium, Madras.

Back in business © Getty Images
Bert Sutcliffe… back in business © Getty Images

And then there was the epic at Eden Gardens. The heat and humidity were appended by the noise that only a Calcutta crowd could produce. In the midst of all that, Sutcliffe batted six hours to remain unbeaten with a magnificent 151. This innings, one of the spectacular comeback stories of all time, also saw a rollicking 163-run association with debutant Bruce Taylor. This young man listened to every bit of instruction and advice, only to discard all of it in favour of biffing the ball hard. He hit his way to 108. But alongside these adventurous deeds, there was the old master, back in the middle, as classy and unflappable as ever.

There was a 54 in the final innings at Delhi, but unfortunately Pakistan remained as unproductive as it had been the first time. And after a long voyage to England, halting in Switzerland on the way, Sutcliffe did feel his age. He was not helped by a stomach bug picked up in India along with a leg injury.

He did score one hundred in that summer, but it came against Ireland. That was his 44th hundred and the final of his career.

In the first Test at Edgbaston, Sutcliffe ducked into a Trueman deliveryto be struck on the head. He retired hurt and New Zealand followed on. The events that followed bear some similarity to his heroic deeds at Ellis Park 12 years earlier.

After the blow, captain Reid asked him for doctor’s clearance before he could bat in the second innings. Sutcliffe duly got one and proceeded to walk out at No. 7, the score reading 220 for 5. He scored 53, adding 104 with young Vic Pollard for the 7th wicket.

It was with this final act of bravado that he called it a day from Test cricket. His stomach bug and leg injury, compounded by the blow to his head, ensured that he played no further part in the Tests.

He retired from all cricket after another domestic season. His 42 Tests got him 2,727 runs at 40.10 with 5 hundreds. In the First-Class circuit, he amassed 17,447 runs at 47.41 with 44 centuries.

To his last cricketing days, he lived up to the description of Arthur Mailey: “He is like vintage champagne compared to American synthetic cocktails.”

After retirement

Sutcliffe did take up the bat from time to time after his retirement.

The first time he did so, he was 57. He accompanied Graham Dowling from New Zealand, to join men like Lance Gibbs, Fred Trueman, Neil Harvey and Godfrey Evans to form a World XI to take on the Indian masters like Polly Umrigar, Pankaj Roy, Vijay Hazare and Mushtaq Ali. That was in 1981, in Calcutta, on the occasion of Cricket Association of Bengal’s jubilee celebrations. Sutcliffe prepared for the match by playing a few innings for the Takapuna President’s XI, hitting 56 in one of the knocks. At the Eden Gardens, the site of his final Test century, he opened the innings and scored 20.

A couple of years later, in late 1983 at the age of 60, he turned out for Auckland Cricket Society XI against the Malta Maniac XI of Bill Frindall and pleasantly surprised everyone by hitting a rapid 61. He later became the president of Auckland Cricket Society.In 1984, he received an MBE.

In late 1997, Matt Horne played an innings of extraordinary character at Hobart, batting five-and-a-half hours for 133, playing a vital role in the final New Zealand escape with a draw. At the end of the innings, Sutcliffe, a guest of the Tasmanian Cricket Association, went down to congratulate him. “Well done, son, well done,” he said. Horne looked at him and replied, “Thank you, Bert. But how the hell did you bat for 9 hours?” The epic 230 at Delhi was as legendary as ever.

Three and a half years after this, in April 2001, Sutcliffe passed away after suffering for nearly a decade with emphysema. He remains one of the best ever produced by New Zealand, the man who was a hero of so many of that small country. The author of one of the bravest innings ever witnessed in cricket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)