Back in the early 1990’s I did a series of NZ cricketers, essentially the best kiwi 11 that had played the game to that point. I adopted what could be best described as an ‘epileptic biro’ rendering technique, which only lasted momentarily. One of the first picked was Bert Sutcliffe, the legendary left-handed batsman who was named one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year for his outstanding achievements during their tour of England in 1949. He was later to be named as NZ Champion Sportsperson of the 1940’s Decade in 2000. However it was one particular innings that has engraved Bert into kiwi folklore.
It was Christmas Eve,1953 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. NZ was being routed by the South African fast bowler Neil Adcock on a very green wicket. Bert suffered a near fatal blow to the head and was taken to hospital. But he returned swathed in a large head bandage to continue his innings.It was an injury that would affect him for the rest of his life. He later said, “I must confess I was fortified to some extent by a generous helping of Scotland’s chief product… and I don’t mean porridge.”
Another sombre event affected the team that day. Back in NZ, 151 people lost their lives on the Overnight Express passenger train which was derailed when the Whangaehu river bridge collapsed at Tangiwai. NZ bowler Bob Blair’s fiance, Nerissa Love was one of them. He was too distraught to play, so stayed back at the hotel. When the ninth wicket fell, Bert was unbeaten and started to leave the field. Then Bob appeared, walking to the middle. 23,000 spectators fell silent, not a dry eye on or off the field.
It was one of the most poignant days in the history of sport and Bert’s words to the grieving youngster have been immortalized in what has been regarded as one of the defining chapters in NZ sport, “C’mon son this is no place for you. Let’s swing the bat at the ball and get out of here.” And that they did, putting on 33 in ten minutes before Bob was dismissed, leaving Bert on 80 not out. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 77.