Lance Cairns © Getty Images
Lance Cairns © Getty Images

Lance Cairns, born October 10, 1949, was a hardworking swing bowler and one of the hardest strikers of the cricket ball in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who used a bat of special shape to essay some of the biggest hits ever, and played 43 Tests and 78 ODIs with considerable success while battling a major disability.

The Excalibur strikes

“He backs off again and thrashes that one. And that’s cleared Graeme Wood’s head at mid-off. That’s the sixth one! That must be an incredible bat he’s got! It must be made of extremely good English willow,” Ian Chappell could not mask his admiration.

Frank Tyson agreed: “Very heavy English willow! And there goes Excalibur into action again! Straight over the top of long-off, one of the most difficult shots in the book and umpire Tony Crafter’s arms are growing heavy, he’s been putting them above his head so often he’s getting tired!”

Lance Cairns had just biffed Dennis Lillee out of MCG for his sixth six. The crowd had gone wild with applause. Only Cairns could not know it.

He had come in at 44 for 6 with New Zealand chasing the mammoth 302 scored by Australia. Lillee had hit him on the head almost as soon as he had taken guard. The big swing bowler had responded with two sixes off three balls from Ken MacLeay. He had followed it up with huge hits over long on off consecutive balls of Rodney Hogg. In the next over, Lillee had come charging in again, and Cairns had swatted him one handed to the leg side. It soared over the fine-leg boundary. Finally there was the hit over mid-off. The spectators were delirious, and so were the commentators.

It was too good to last, though. He soon carved a full ball from Geoff Lawson straight to cover. Cairns walked back for 52, scored from 25 balls, with a four and 6 sixes, and the runs scored while he was at the wicket amounted to just 59. New Zealand lost the second final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup by a whopping 149 runs, but  those who saw those gigantic hits that day, or those who heard the bizarre shaped willow come down on the leather with a thundering thwack, would re-live the experience for the rest of their days.

Two weeks earlier, the canny Geoff Howarth had made superb use of this ability of Cairns to give the ball an almighty wallop. At Adelaide, in the 11th match of the tournament, England had created a championship record by scoring 296. As New Zealand chased, Cairns had been sent in at No. 5. The big man had set the pace with a fierce 49 from 24 balls, with three towering sixes off Vic Marks and Phil Edmonds. Later, Richard Hadlee had ensured victory for the Kiwis with seven balls to spare.

Immediately after the tournament, England went over to play 3 ODIs in New Zealand. Cairns was sent in early in the innings each time. In the three games, he scored 19 from 11 balls with 2 sixes, 44 from 31 with 2 sixes, and 21 from 17 with 2 sixes. New Zealand made a clean sweep of the matches.

But, there was more to Cairns than this penchant for pinch hitting.  England felt the full brunt of his multifaceted talents all through the calendar year that followed. By early 1984, he had been one of the key architects in New Zealand’s Test series wins against the Englishmen both at home and away.

The reputation of Cairns as one of the most destructive hitters of the game often makes us forget that his main task was to run in and swing the ball. He did more than a decent job of it, delivering with a slightly awkward action and swinging the balls a long way, mostly into the batsman.

He seldom batted higher than No 8, often coming in at 10, and the frequency with which he connected remained erratic and rather low. However, when the willow struck the ball, the resulting moments were of immense impact, and live on in cricketing folklore.

There was a uniqueness associated with his hitting. The bat he used was round- shouldered and hump-backed, named Excalibur as Frank Tyson’s erudition so poignantly remembered during its mighty flourish at Melbourne. However, in reality the shoulder-less willow made by Newbery looked more like a caveman’s club. And there was a primordial innocence that reverberated from his strikes. Simple, uncomplicated and enormous.

The amazing aspect of Cairns’s successful international career was that he battled with a major disability all through his playing days. From the age of 17 he was profoundly deaf, and from his early 20s his hearing deteriorated, eventually stopping him from talking on the phone, taking part in group discussions, and listening to music. Much of the applause from the crowd, for his wickets and sixes, literally fell on deaf ears.
It was only in December 2009 that he had a life transforming operation. A cochlear implant allowed him to hear clearly for the first time in over 30 years.

Early hits

Cairns appeared on the scene in 1971-72, impressive with his in-duckers, but dramatic with his late order, tail end swipes. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a massive swing and an excellent eye.

In the beginning, however, his ventures to the middle were more of one hit wonder experiences. It was his bowling that knocked on the doors of Test selection.

In the 1973 match for Central Districts against the touring Pakistanis, he dismissed the illustrious group of Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad, Wasim Raja and Asif Iqbal to pick up 5 for 63. It got him into the squad to tour Australia, and he made his debut at Adelaide in the third Test at Adelaide in early 1974. New Zealand lost by an innings, and the young Cairns picked up two wickets and batted at number eleven without much success. Later that season, he made his ODI debut against Australia at Dunedin. Batting at No. 10 he plundered 30 runs from 18 balls with 6 boundaries.

However, it was only in the 1974-75 season he scored his first half century in First-Class cricket. He continued to bowl impressively, getting to play a Test against England at Christchurch. It was a rained off match in which Cairns had little success with the ball. But he did score 39 from No. 9, hitting his first six in Test cricket.

It was not until the next season that the bat started swinging hard and middling with more regularity.

First came a blistering 75 not out against Wellington for Central Districts, scored out of 83 while he was at the wicket. The half century was brought up in 40 balls. Another 75 not out came against Otago, followed by 65 in the second innings. As the rest of the Central District batsmen struggled against the turns and tricks of Bishan Singh Bedi and EAS Prasanna, Cairns heaved his way to a second innings 58. Finally there was a blistering 92 against Auckland, the fifty hurtling along in 32 balls, the fastest of that season in domestic cricket.

Hence, when he played in the third Test against India at Wellington, Cairns was being considered as an all-rounder and was slotted ahead of Richard Hadlee in the line-up. He scored a strangely patient 47 over two hours, with just one six. But, one of his more gentle pull shots off Prasanna rammed into the face of Sunil Gavaskar at short-leg. The ace Indian opener had to undergo an operation to fix his broken cheekbone.

A tour of the subcontinent followed and Cairns hit the first of his two Test fifties — 52 not out at Karachi with 5 fours and 2 sixes. It was to be his last meaty Test score for quite a while. The Indian leg saw him fail with the bat, but in the Test at Madras he picked up 5 wickets in an innings for the first time.

Although substantial runs dried up in the Tests, Cairns did have his moments with the bat. When England visited in 1977-78, he took them on for Otago and launched John Lever on to the roof of the Dunedin grandstand. And in the summer of 1978, he played another unbelievable innings in the Prudential Trophy game against England at Old Trafford. After he had been thrashed around the park for 84 runs in 11 overs, Cairns walked in at a hopeless 85 for 6 and hit 60 of the last 67 runs with 4 fours and 4 sixes off 43 balls. His 50 came up in 37 deliveries.

New Zealand cricket enjoyed one of its most celebrated, if controversial, triumphs in 1979-80. The world-conquering West Indians arrived in the small island nation expecting to crush the puny side under their juggernaut. They stumbled against a tenacious, determined side and some dodgy umpiring.

At Dunedin, Cairns picked up useful wickets as the brilliance of Richard Hadlee restricted West Indies to 140. He walked in to bat at 158 for 7 and blasted 3 sixes to score 30 from 18 balls, his furious innings almost running away with the match. But West Indians fought back, and chasing 104 to win, Cairns again walked out in a crisis situation with the score reading 54 for 7. Adapting his approach to the situation, he put his head down to score 19 gritty runs, hanging on for 73 minutes, departing when only four more were required to win. The hosts squeezed home by one wicket.

Escape velocity

Yet, useful performances notwithstanding, his batting form had remained ordinary. He continued to be considered as a hard hitting tail-ender rather than the all-rounder the 1975-76 season had promised. For more than a year he had not scored a fifty in First-Class cricket.

However, his greatest moment with the odd-shaped bat was just around the corner.

In January 1980, Otago took on Wellington at Lower Hutt. John Bracewell and Stephen Boock, Test spinners both, took five wickets each to dismiss Wellington for 209. And soon two other Test stars, fast-medium swing bowlers Ewen Chatfield and Bruce Taylor reduced Otago to 42 for 7. Cairns walked in at this score with 24 minutes remaining in the day, and soon it was 48 for 8.

And then the Excalibur swung mightily. Chatfield was twice lifted onto the grandstand roof off successive balls. Taylor was launched over the scoreboard twice in the same over. According to one report, Evan Gray, another Test bowler, “seemed to be forever lofted on to the corrugated roof of the stand with a deafening bang.” By the end of the day Cairns had faced 28 balls and was batting on 68, the score read 122 for 9.

The following morning started in the same vein and the first ball ended up predictably on the grandstand roof. The hundred was reached in 45 balls, 52 minutes. Finally, the strong wind that held back yet another massive hit and what should have been his tenth six ended up in the hands of a fielder dispatched far into the wilderness. Cairns departed for 110 in a total of 173, out of 131 scored when he was at the crease. His innings had seen 9 sixes, 11 fours, while he had run only three twos and six singles. The last wicket had produced 90 runs in 31 minutes, the share of No. 11 Graeme Thomson being 4.

There was  an argument to clock in his hundred at 48 minutes, the other four attributed to the vital intervals lost as agile climbers were sent up to the grandstand roof to retrieve some of the balls. However, such adjustment was disallowed. Indeed Gilbert Jessop and his likes would have reduced quite a proportion of their batting time if such retrieving missions were taken into account.

Even then the 52 minute century was the fastest for New Zealand, beating Dick Motz’s 53-minute hundred for Canterbury against Otago at Christchurch in 1967-68. According to Brian Bearshaw’s The Big Hitters, “The boundaries on each side of the Hutt Recreation Ground were on the short side but as one spectator pointed out: ‘No difference. Most sixes were well in, or on, the stand on one side or over the large scoreboard on the other.’”

The best years

It was quite often that Cairns was sent up the order by Howarth in ODIs. In Test cricket he was used more as a bowler who could be counted upon for a sting in the tail. He did produce some sterling bowling performances. With his chest open, slightly stuttering action, he snapped up 5 for 33 in a match-winning spell against India at Wellington in early 1981. Some months earlier, he had taken 5 for 87 in a losing cause against Australia at Brisbane.

While not that prolific in Tests, he did hit the ball many a mile in other matches. Engaged in club cricket in Durham in 1981, he played for Bishop Auckland and scored 174 against the touring Danish National League team, Glostrup. The runs were compiled in 64 balls, with 15 sixes and 16 fours. His hundred came off 36 balls in 38 minutes.

Now, with his career reaching its purple patch, his batting now proved useful in Tests as well.

In March 1982, at Auckland, New Zealand inched towards their second ever Test win against Australia. Cairns had already hit one six in the first innings and had bowled a mammoth 44 overs to capture 3 for 85 in the Australian second innings. With just 104 needed to win at the start of the second innings, the dressing room was hit by panic as three wickets went down for 44. And Cairns was promoted to five. He walked in and hit two enormous sixes off Bruce Yardley and Terry Alderman, racing to 34 in 21 balls. Only 7 were needed when he was out. Richard Hadlee, who had picked up 7 wickets in the match, swung Yardley for six to seal the issue.

After the heroics of the Benson & Hedges three nation trophy of 1982-83 and the ODI series against England in 1983, New Zealand toured England in search of that elusive first Test win in that land. In early July, Cairns bludgeoned 7 fours and 4 sixes to score 60 from 29 minutes off 35 balls against Somerset at Taunton. But it was Headingley that saw the crowning achievement of his career.

Cairns moved the ball around to capture 7 for 74, his scalps including David Gower, Allan Lamb, Derek Randall and Ian Botham. In response to 225 scored by the hosts, New Zealand were sitting on a comfortable 351 for 8 when he came out to bat. He completed the destruction with 2 sixes off Phil Edmonds, remaining unbeaten on 24 from 21 balls. And finally he captured three more in the second innings to enable a pioneering victory.

When England paid their return visit in 1983-84, Cairns produced his best ever all-round performance in the Wellington Test. He ran in for 45 overs to take 7 for 143 in an English innings of 463. And when New Zealand batted in the second innings, he joined Jeremy Coney with the home team just 158 ahead early on the fifth morning with 8 wickets down. He went on to play his best knock in Test cricket, a determined 2 hour 11 minute effort of 64. He did hit 10 fours and a six, but it was a controlled innings that saved the match for New Zealand through a 118-run association with Coney.

The second Test at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, saw Hadlee, excellently aided by Cairns and Chatfield, dismiss England for 82 and 93, giving New Zealand an innings win. On the rain interrupted second day, as the players waited for resumption, Cairns was seen in the outfield, bowling to an extraordinarily stylish young lad of 14. Son Chris would make his Test debut within another six years.

The last days

There was one more hurricane effort. A 26-ball unbeaten 40 was struck in an ODI at Colombo during the tour of Sri Lanka in 1984.

But, in the next season, during the third Test against Pakistan at Dunedin in 1984-95,Cairns batted without a helmet and was struck a severe blow on the back of his head by a bouncer from 19-year-old Wasim Akram. He was rushed to the hospital with a suspected hairline fracture. Yet, he had soon returned to the dressing room and put on his pads, ready to go out if required. Ultimately he did not have to bat again — Coney and Chatfield took New Zealand to victory with an unbeaten ninth wicket stand of 50.

After this injury, Cairns suffered dizzy spells for several days. But he recovered to play the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket in 1985. His high point of the tournament was the 33-ball 39 came against India in the semi-final.

On his last major tour in 1985, a rather miserable affair in West Indies, he top scored with a 28 ball 33 with 3 sixes in the ODI at Albion — the last international over-boundaries of his career.

His final Test was against arch-rivals Australia at Perth in 1985. Cairns bowled 40 overs without taking a wicket and scored a duck the only time he batted. But, he was a happy man as was the rest of the nation. This was the first series win against Australia and the Cairns left the New Zealand dressing room for the last time on a celebratory high.

However, his career did not really end on a happy note. Still tremendously popular due to his earnest efforts with the ball and hard hitting batsmanship, Cairns was omitted from the team that toured Australia in 1986. Already 36, he did not really have the option of working his way back into the side.

Lance Cairns played 43 Tests, scoring 928 runs at 16.28 and hitting two fifties and blasting 28 sixes. His fast medium swing bowling earned him 130 wickets at 32.92, with six five-wicket hauls and that solitary 10-for in the historic triumph at Headingley.

In 78 ODIs, he took 89 wickets at 30.52 and scored 987 runs in 941 balls at a strike rate of 104.9 with 41 sixes. Had he been born a couple of decades later, he could have been an iconic superstar in the Twenty 20 format.

After retirement, Cairns moved to golf and soon boasted a low-handicap, and, predictably, some of the longest drives. He later represented Poverty Bay-East Coast at the New Zealand Masters tournaments.

In October 1999, son Chris Cairns went past the angled bat of Sadagoppan Ramesh and claimed his 131st wicket in Test cricket. As Rahul Dravid faced the next delivery, the junior Cairns bowled with stuttering run, delivering with a chest-open action. It was in honour of his old man whom he had just gone past.

Lance Cairns: One of the biggest hitters in the history of the game

The Cairns family… Lance is on right and next to him is son Chris © Getty Images

With 3,320 runs and 218 wickets in Tests and 4,950 runs and 201 wickets in ODIs, the son did eclipse the father in most aspects of the game except one. His phenomenal strike rate of 84.26 was still 20 shy of his father’s pace of scoring runs in ODIs.

(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://twiter.com/senantix