It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Robbie (though Rob is more common now away from cricket circles) Hart's delight at making it to international level was quickly tarnished by a Pakistan experience from hell.
The wicketkeeper's Black Caps debut came in an ODI in Karachi in 2002. He made a duck in a 153-run loss, but nevertheless the experience was memorable.
"I just remember the crowd screaming and [us] not being able to communicate with anyone because it was so loud, and the crowd half-rioting and the police running around with batons and whacking them all," Hart said.
"Then they start throwing stones and we had to go off the field for 20 minutes while the Pakistani guys talk on the loud hailers to settle the crowd down."
Come the second innings and Hart's turn to bat, he played and missed at his first ball in international cricket, delivered by speedster Shoaib Akhtar.
"And then I looked up at the scoreboard and it was 156kmh," he recalled.
Hart played in the second ODI, but not the third, then made his test debut in the opening game in Lahore. That remains one of New Zealand's worst losses in history, by an innings and 324 runs, when Inzamam-ul-Haq made 329.
"We were playing in their hot season when even they shouldn't be playing," Hart said. "We fielded for two days in 47 degrees, and it just about killed us. Then Shoaib bowled us out, he was bowling really, really fast."
And then, on the morning of the first day of the second test in Karachi, things got so much worse.
A suicide bomber, in a car full of explosives, parked next to a bus in the street outside the Black Caps' hotel, killing 14 people.
"I went back into my hotel room and as I opened the door, it blew up and hit the ceiling and came down on top of me," Hart said.
"I didn't have any idea [what had happened], so I just got out of there and got together with my mates and went from there.
"Probably some of the worst parts of that was as a group being totally isolated from all the Pakistani guys and the security guys because we thought we were the target. So we huddled in a carpark with cars and stuff going past, and no-one would go near us. So it was pretty tough being in a group, with some guys breaking down and dealing with it in different ways and wondering if the next one's due for us.
"Once we got together they found a safe place for us in the hotel and then organised transport out."
While Hart says his life is richer for the experience, there are happier memories to embrace in his 11-test career, including two innings of significance.
One was the 31 he made with Paul Wiseman to save the second test against Sri Lanka in Kandy in 2003, which saw NZ draw the series 0-0, while the other was the 57 not out in the first innings in Bridgetown in 2002 to set up NZ's first test series win in the Caribbean.
Coming into the team following Adam Parore's retirement and before the emergence of Brendon McCullum, Hart was quite the opposite a player to that duo, far from their flashy brilliance and more the solid, reliable, workmanlike operator.
"I just did what worked for me. And it was great to get off to a good start with the West Indies tour, to actually make a difference and make my own place in the team in terms of batting for partnerships and occupying the crease. And then as time went on, Brendon was always going to be hugely talented and that was just the way it was always going to be."
Hart's last international appearance before McCullum's selection came in the Boxing Day test at the Basin Reserve in 2003 against Pakistan, where he again faced a fired-up Akhtar.
"He bowled really fast in a spell one evening and cleaned me up. And while you should be scared, I actually felt really alive that you were seeing seriously fast stuff. If you google Robbie Hart and Shoaib Akhtar, there's a two-minute clip, have a look at that."
It's not pretty. There's a caught behind off the glove not given out, before Hart cops one in the helmet, before succumbing by being caught at short fine leg.
Hart went on to play the rest of the season with Northern Districts, who he turned out for in 85 first-class matches and 122 one-day games, captaining the province for an extended period.
He ended with 482 dismissals in his first-class and List A career, with the first of those on ND debut against Auckland at Eden Park, when he had Trevor Franklin caught behind ... off his thigh pad.
Hart looks back on his time in the ND dressing room with great fondness, having been surrounded by an "awesome group of guys that were playing for each other as well as themselves".
With Chris Kuggeleijn as coach, Murray Angell as manager, and players like Hart's brother Matthew, Michael and Neal Parlane, James and Hamish Marshall, Simon Doull, Alex Tait, Scott Styris, Mark Bailey, Grant Bradburn, Joseph Yovich and Graeme Aldridge, ND were a tight-knit group.
Hart, who rated Andre Adams as the toughest competitor he faced on the domestic scene, felt he and Kuggeleijn had different styles, but they complemented each other well, and that a bond as strong as a family was built up in the team.
"It was like looking after each other and pushing each other to do better and wanting to do well for each other," he said.
The highlight in the maroon came in 1998 with the fantastic Shell Cup final win over a strong Canterbury side in front of a packed-crowd at Seddon Park, when the hosts defended their 189-9.
"We were big underdogs and they had a team full of Chris Cairns and Craig McMillan and Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle, all the top guys at that stage," Hart said of the game, where Alex Tait took four wickets in an over as the visitors were bundled out for 134.
A naturally quietly-spoken man, as a skipper Hart loved to ramp up the talk and take the aggressive approach.
"Probably one of the shaping forces for me was [current NZ Cricket chief executive] David White, ND captain when I started, and he had a saying 'Once you cross the line, it's war'.
"I loved getting in the face of the opposition and creating a team culture where we really attacked the opposition and got verbal and fought as a unit, and we were a force to be reckoned with on the domestic scene."
Hart's last match was a one-day fixture in Hamilton against the touring South Africans, with his last dismissal that of Mark Boucher.
Hart was just 29 but decided there were other things to pursue.
"I thought it was time to get on with life," he said. "I've always loved cricket and had my goals and to do well for Northern Districts and play for the Black Caps, and I just thought it was time to get on and start the next chapter."
Having previously trained as a lawyer, Hart worked in Auckland for two or three years for a pulp paper forestry company "and then realised how great the Waikato was and came back", working for a Hamilton law firm, before a couple of years ago going into partnership with Paul Ellice at Ellice Tanner Hart, based in Garden Place.
"We're working hard to be a really contemporary, dynamic law firm in the Waikato market and have got a philosophy of giving more than we take," Hart said. "We're always trying to do a premium job with the legal side of it, but actually trying to help people with their problems and help companies get ahead."
That takes up Monday to Friday, with the weekends spent with wife Sarah, daughter Lucy, 7, and Ned, 4.
"We have a lot of fun doing normal stuff, going to the beach, and Lucy's into horse riding - we do a lot of that - and Ned's at an age where he wants to do lots of different things," Hart said.
When Hart's playing days ended he stayed on the board of the New Zealand Cricket Players Association and then did two years on the New Zealand Cricket board, before resigning in 2012.
"It was good to stay involved and good experiences, but I got a bit too busy work-wise and thought I'd try and focus on work and family.
"I still love watching the game and keep in touch with some really good friends that I've made over the years."
Hart marvels at the way the game has evolved, and would have loved to have had an IPL auction in his day.
"It's played a lot more aggressively now. When I was playing, if you had 10 an over in the last 10 overs you were pretty much gone in a game, whereas now, like we've just seen with the Black Caps, teams will back themselves to keep wickets in hand and then score 120 off the last 10."
There's smaller grounds and bigger bats but Hart notes the higher skill level is the key difference, with test teams now spending less time trying to get through to the last session of the last day to win.
"It's sort of like the big boys take the gloves off and go and scrap it out and finish on day four.
"I think the Twenty20s really helped the one-day cricket because guys actually know how to go about chasing down that last 10 overs of a game, and it's influenced test cricket."
One player Hart has loved watching is Ross Taylor, for his steely determination to occupy the crease and do the hard yards to score runs.
"It comes down to actually applying yourself, not necessarily talent, and he's showing what you can achieve by applying yourself."
While Hart hasn't had the keeping gloves on for a while, he does get invited to a couple of social games a year, and has two looming on his calendar.
He's a decade out of the game and turning 40 this year, but the fitness is still there, as Hart is passionate about living well and spends a lot of time with ND's fitness trainer Jason Wheadon.
"I'm probably fitter now than I was when I was playing," Hart said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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