A true story of Kiwi courage

22:07, Jan 08 2013

Neil Adcock died the other day. He was a South African cricketer; a fast bowler; better known for playing a leading role in one of the most dramatic and emotion-packed days in New Zealand sport. A man whose deeds bring together the horrors of the 1953 Tangiwai train disaster, one New Zealand player's personal tragedy and various acts of startling courage, his death simply cannot pass without mention. Just his name sends shivers down the spine.

For those not enamoured with bats and balls, don't worry. This is a story that transcends sport. Touring South Africa in 1953, the New Zealanders learnt of the rail disaster on Christmas Eve (RSA time). It wasn't until the early hours of Boxing Day (the second day of the test match at Johannesburg's Ellis Park) that they received the fateful telegram. Among the 151 dead was Nerissa Love, fianceé of the team's 21-year-old Wellington fast bowler, Bob Blair.

Stricken with grief, Blair remained at the hotel that morning as the rest of team left for the ground. They were soon in all sorts of strife, chiefly due to Adcock. All the batsmen were hit: Bert Sutcliffe was knocked unconscious and rushed to hospital; Lawrie Miller followed him, coughing blood. Johnny Beck was hit so hard in the groin his box was turned inside out. Before long, New Zealand were 59 for five, with three others out of commission.

Or so everyone thought. First, Miller, back from hospital, returned to the fray. Then Sutcliffe, head strapped in bandages and fortified by a double whisky, came back to launch an audacious counter-attack. And finally, when the ninth wicket fell and everyone assumed (given Blair's absence) the innings completed, out of the tunnel strode the young pace bowler, stunning the crowd into silence, and team-mates and opponents alike, into tears. The rest is history.

This story's been told in many dimensions in recent years; there's been a play, a film and it's featured heavily in several biographical works. Still, it's interesting to consider it through the eyes of Adcock; thought of by many as the villain of the piece. Probably unfairly, too, as it happened. Reports at the time suggest it was the steep bounce, rather than any calculated short-pitched attack, that made him near lethal on the day. He hadn't been targeting the batsmen.

Certainly, the New Zealanders never spoke ill of Adcock, or tried to blame him for the carnage on that blistering hot, high veldt day. Beck sang his praises, saying the tourists considered Adcock a friend off the field and a champion fast bowler on it. Geoff Rabone reckoned he wasn't trying to hit people. Twelfth man Eric Dempster said it wasn't Adcock but the unprepared pitch that was causing the danger. Most accounts from the day agree.

And what of Blair? It was a nightmarish time for the 21-year-old, made particularly cruel by the communication and travel limitations of the day. There was no overseas phone link, no international air travel; the sea voyage between New Zealand and Cape Town took 28 days. As if being unable to attend Nerissa's funeral wasn't bad enough; he kept receiving her love letters for weeks after her death. Bob lives with his wife Barbara in the UK.

There's only a handful of them left now; the players who contested that gripping cricket match in Johannesburg some 59 years back. Adcock's passing leaves just Clive van Ryneveldt as a survivor of the South African team, while Matt Poore, John R Reid and Blair remain from the New Zealand side. Their numbers might be dwindling but their names will forever be synonymous with one of the most dramatic games of cricket ever played.

And we can always remember that.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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