Chris Cairns has 200 wickets in either form of the game © Getty Images
Chris Cairns has 200 wickets in either form of the game © Getty Images

Chris Cairns, born on June 13, 1970, will certainly be ranked among the great all-rounders of the game. Jaideep Vaidya looks back at the career of the New Zealand great.

October 15, 2000. This writer, still in Grade 7, was huddled at the back of the school bus with the rest of his mates and a portable radio in hand. On air was the final of the ICC Knockout Trophy 2000 between India and New Zealand. India had dominated the first 25 overs of either innings — first putting on a 141-run opening stand and looking good for 300-plus, before bring restricted to 264 for 6 by the Kiwis. In response, New Zealand were 132 for 5 in the 24th over with Chris Harris coming out to join Chris Cairns.

The party had already begun during the last couple of periods in school. India were coasting along to a victory in a global tournament after 1983; the occasion was big enough for many of the writer’s batchmates to carry radios to school and risk detention. Cairns and Harris, although capable of holding a bat, were not regarded competent enough by Grade 7 kids, who took the party to the bus.

However, thousands of miles away at the Nairobi Gymkhana, Cairns had other plans. Walking in to bat at 82 for 3, he had gotten off the mark with a cracking cover-drive that raced along to the fence. He was not even supposed to feature in that match, with his knee giving him troubles. However, with New Zealand never having been in a world one-day final before, “this was an opportunity too great to miss out on”, he was to say later. After passing the fitness test on the morning of the match and being advised to bowl just 5 overs,  Cairns went ahead and bowled his full quota of 10.

Then, he was entrusted with more work with the bat as his team wobbled around in the first half of the innings. The calm and experienced head of Harris eventually gave Cairns the stability he needed to try and pull off what would be an incredible win. The 150 came up in the 30th over, with another 115 to get off the last 20. The next fifty took almost 12 overs as Cairns and Harris calmly crawled along, preserving their wickets. It was here, with 65 to win off the last 8 overs, that the gears were changed.

The writer and his friends, in all the jubilation, barely noticed as the equation was brought down to 12 off the last 11 balls. The commentator on air excitedly squealed as Cairns stole a single to get to his century off just 110 balls. It was here that the tension began to creep in. Harris lost his wicket in the penultimate over to calm a few nerves.

However, 3 balls from Venkatesh Prasad to Adam Parore gave New Zealand 8 runs and from there, they were all but home. With one to win off two balls, the boys at the back of the bus were still biting their nails, hoping and praying that Ajit Agarkar would ball two screaming yorkers. However, he could only manage a full toss that was whipped away towards deep square-leg to complete one of the most inconceivable victories in the shorter format.

Dejected, the writer switched off the radio in the midst of the commentator singing Cairns’s praises and reached home with a frown. However, when watching the highlights of the match later that evening, he realised that it was a knock that deserved the cup. Some of the shots Cairns played drew out the wows, especially the six straight down the ground off the middle of the bat. To the 12-year-old self, Cairns was the No. 1 enemy that day. But then, even enemies have to be respected and appreciated.

The reason Cairns’s 102 not out at Nairobi has got so much coverage in this profile piece is simply because it was one of the greatest ODI innings of all time. And it hadn’t come off the bat of a Sachin Tendulkar, or a Vivian Richards, or a Ricky Ponting, who were established and prolific batsmen in themselves; it had come off the blade of an all-rounder who wasn’t even supposed to play that match.

Cairns is undoubtedly one of the best all-rounders to play the game; Shane Warne even called him the best. That Cairns played just 62 Tests and 215 ODIs in a 17-year international career is a right shame for his remarkable talent. This was only because his career was ridden with all the possible injuries that you can think of: from stress-fractures to kidney ailments, to torn calf muscles, to patella injuries on knees, to a ruptured spleen, you name it.

In spite of all the ailments, Cairns finished with more than 200 wickets in either format of the game and was only the seventh cricketer to reach the all-rounder’s double of 200 wickets and 3,000 runs in Tests. It took him 58 matches to get there, which is just three more than Ian Botham, who got there the quickest, in 55.

This puts Cairns ahead of some of the greats of the game such as Kapil Dev (73), Imran Khan (75), Garry Sobers (80), Richard Hadlee (83) and Shaun Pollock (87). In Tests, Cairns’s 3,320 runs came at 33.53 and his 218 wickets came at 29.40. In ODIs, he fell short of the 5,000 runs-200 wickets double by just 10 runs. His 4,950 runs came at 29.46, while his 201 wickets came at 32.80. All healthy figures considering he was a lower middle-order batsman and not the main strike bowler.

Chris Cairns… 200 wickets in either form of the game © Getty Images
Chris Cairns… 200 wickets in either form of the game © Getty Images

A year before Nairobi 2000, Cairns went through a purple patch throughout 1999, which started with India’s tour of New Zealand. He scored a half-century at Wellington and then a ton at Hamilton — his second Test hundred, which came four years after his first against Zimbabwe in 1995-96 — which helped New Zealand clinch the three-match series 1-0. In the one-dayers to follow, Cairns struck a hundred off just 75 deliveries, which was New Zealand’s fastest in the format, including seven sixes.

Beaming with confidence, Cairns entered World Cup ’99 on a high and struck an entertaining 60 to help New Zealand beat eventual champions Australia at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff. He even scored an unbeaten 44 in the semi-final against Pakistan, but it was not enough to guide his team into the final.

New Zealand hung around after the World Cup for a Test series against England, which turned out to be Cairns’s tour de force. He bamboozled the English batsmen at Lord’s, taking 6 for 77 with his fast-medium pace and deceiving slower ones. England were bowled out for 186 before the Black Caps strolled along to a nine-wicket win at the Mecca of cricket. However, it was in the series decider at The Oval where Cairns became a folk hero.

After New Zealand were bowled out for 231 after being put in, Cairns took 5 for 31 to help his team skittle England for just 153. In the second innings, the Kiwis were tottering at 39 for 6 when Cairns walked in at No. 8. He forged vital partnerships with Craig McMillan and Dion Nash, and scored 80 from just 93 balls to take New Zealand to a face-saving 162, before helping his team bowl of England for the same total, thereby winning the match by 83 runs. Cairns ended the 4-Test series with 183 runs at 30.50 and 19 wickets at 21.26. He ended the year with 548 runs and 47 wickets in Tests, including four hauls of 5 wickets or more, and was named Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Cairns was born in Picton, Marlborough, like his father Lance, who was a champion all-rounder himself. So, naturally, cricket was always going to be a part of young Chris’s life. He could play rugby too, and was a reserve for the Zealand Under-17 side against Australia in 1987. However, his goal was always to play cricket for New Zealand.

In 1988, Cairns, like another Kiwi legend, Hadlee,  joined Nottinghamshire and made his First-Class debut. Just 18 years of age, he made his first century for the Northern Districts. In the November of 1989, Cairns was to make his Test debut against trans-Tasman rivals Australia at Perth. As a prelude to what was to transpire in the coming years, he suffered a back injury during the match.

Chris Cairns… destructive batsman © Getty Images
Chris Cairns… destructive batsman © Getty Images

In 2003-04, Cairns retired from Tests as New Zealand’s second-highest wicket-taker after Hadlee; he was since overtaken by Daniel Vettori and Chris Martin. His batting average of 44.02 at No 7 is the fifth best of all time for batsmen who have played 20 matches or more in that position. Again, it puts him ahead of all-rounders like Kapil, Imran, Botham and Hadlee. So, where would you classify Cairns among the greats? Where is his place in history?

What if he had not been bogged down with injuries and played more matches in his 17-year career? New Zealand Herald journalist Richard Boock did the math: “It’s not a scientific measure of course, but if Cairns’s body had held together long enough for him to have played 100 Tests, his figures extrapolate out to something like 5,334 runs and 351 wickets — very similar to those of Botham.”

Whether Cairns was indeed as good as the Bothams and the Hadlees and the Imrans is up for debate, but you can take nothing from the fact that he was a pure entertainer. His crisp straight drives for half a dozen are unparalleled for; his cover drives standing tall in his crease made many a bowler want to tear his hair out. Cairns was a clean cricketer — whether it was his strokeplay, his accurate and probing bowling or his conduct.

In 2012, after being accused of match-fixing by former IPL chairman Lalit Modi, Cairns emerged almost $950,000 richer.

Today, Cairns is happily married to Australian sports marketing manager Mel Croser. He has two sons from a previous marriage. He also runs the Chris Cairns Foundation, which was initiated by him in 2006 after his retirement. The foundation works for rail safety in New Zealand in partnership with Kiwi Rail, and was set up after Cairns’s sister Louise died in a rail accident in 1993.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a reporter, sub-editor and analyst at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and multiple sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)