Kiwi courage at its best

Enduring love: The publicity shot for the play  <i>The Second  Test</i> which is on in Wellington this week at Bats Theatre.
Enduring love: The publicity shot for the play <i>The Second Test</i> which is on in Wellington this week at Bats Theatre.

THE 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster continues to revisit us. A Christmas Eve lahar, a bridge swept away; a chilling, harrowing end for 151 souls on board the Overnight Express. One was the fiancee of a man who sat at the Basin Reserve yesterday watching the first test against Australia. Bob Blair was 21 when he learnt he'd lost the love of his life. He was in a Johannesburg hotel room at the time, just hours away from opening the bowling for New Zealand in the second test at Ellis Park.

His story of tragedy and courage remains one of the defining chapters of New Zealand sport. There was no international telephone connection in South Africa at the time of the disaster; the most expedient method of communication was by telegram. Overseas air travel was a thing of the future, and the boat trip took 28 days. Blair was overcome with grief and wanted to go home, but there was no point. He couldn't even get back within a month, let alone in time for the funeral.

The former New Zealand fast bowler, now living in Cheshire, England, was visiting his homeland this week with wife Barbara as the story of his defiant stand, in combination with the other hero of the day, Bert Sutcliffe, began taking on another dimension. Jonny Brugh's theatre production, The Second Test, has started playing in Wellington, a book authored by Norman Harris is soon to be launched, and TVNZ has commissioned a movie that follows the saga.

It is, as the late and fondly-remembered cricket writer Dick Brittenden once wrote, a story that every New Zealand child should learn at their parents' knee.

Blair was left grieving at the hotel as the New Zealanders arrived at the ground for the start of the second day's play. It was a sweltering hot Boxing Day and word had spread of the tragedy. The flags of the Dominion and the Union hung limply at half-mast and a sympathetic crowd of 23,000 seemed well aware of the tourists' plight.

Blair listened on the hotel radio as New Zealand, having finished off its hosts' first innings, found itself on the wrong end of a near-lethal attack from South African paceman Neil Adcock. Everyone was hit. Sutcliffe was knocked unconscious and rushed to hospital. Lawrie Miller left the field coughing blood, Johnny Beck was hit so hard in the groin, his box was turned inside out. John Reid was left black and blue, Frank Mooney was peppered.

Sutcliffe collapsed twice, again at hospital but returned to the ground to resume the battle, re-entering the fray at six down. It was at about this point that Blair had heard enough on the hotel radio. He told the manager, Jack Kerr, that he wanted to help his mates; that he needed to go down to the venue. As the pair headed for Ellis Park in a taxi, Sutcliffe was cutting loose in an innings that would eventually realise an unbeaten 80, including seven sixes.

But the dashing left-hander soon found himself running out of partners. Mooney, Tony MacGibbon and Guy Overton departed and the players started leaving the field, believing Blair to be back at the hotel. And then it happened. Just as patrons rose to acclaim Sutcliffe, a figure appeared from the tunnel and started walking towards the middle. The crowd, about to cheer and applaud, was suddenly rendered silent. Sutcliffe went to his stricken team-mate and put an arm around his shoulders.

"C'mon son, this is no place for you. Let's swing the bat at the ball and get out of here."

Brittenden wrote vividly of the effect of that scene. Blair's team-mates in the gallery above were weeping openly, as were the South Africans and Sutcliffe. Blair had to wipe tears from his face before receiving his first delivery. And then would come the roar of defiance. Sutcliffe would hit three sixes off a Hugh Tayfield over, and take a single to bring Blair on strike. To the delight of the crowd the Wellington paceman would swing the final ball of the over high over the midwicket boundary and into the terraces.

It would be a day Blair could never forget, but for the worst of reasons. Christmas Eve would always be the day he lost his sweetheart, Nerissa Love. To make matters worse during the tour of 1953-54, letters that Nerissa had written to Blair before her death would continue to arrive at the team hotel for weeks afterwards. New Zealand would lose the second test and the series, but the character shown at Ellis Park would earn a respect beyond anything an international victory could offer.

"It is not the result of the match that will be best remembered when men come together to talk about cricket," said the Rand Daily Mail, in an article later reproduced in Men in White. "They will speak of a match that was as much worth watching as it was worth playing, a match the New Zealanders decided must go on. And if the rest of the world still wonders what it is all about, the only possible answer is that, if men are going to play, they can do a lot worse than play cricket."

Blair typified that approach. His presence this week has reminded us that, however much the game might have changed in one man's partial lifetime, some things have always remained the same. Equipment may have evolved, pitch preparation might have advanced and the age of professionalism might offer the modern player far more opportunity. But one thing has never changed: The size of a man's ticker has always counted the most.

Sunday Star Times