They aren’t the MVPs, nor the poster boys who’ll launch a dozen products. Rarely hyped up, mostly unsung and almost always available to play whatever role that’s assigned to them, these cricketers also have some of the most fascinating tales.
It was the swinging 60s. Of Beatlemania and Bob Dylan. Of Kennedy and Che Guevera. Of the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis. Of second-wave feminism and the gay rights movement. Of the Cold War and the space race. Of The Sound of Music and Cancer Ward.
Away from these, in the west Auckland suburb of New Lynn, the Guptills – Arthur and his wife Joyce – were busy building life. Dallying with several ventures, they finally settled into the transporting and carrying industry, which wasn’t then as thriving a business as it is now. They bought a Chevy truck from a friend, who was in the same business. The couple themselves delivered loads around the neighbouring towns of Parnell, Newmarket, Remuera and Meadowbank, Greenlane and Epsom. They rented out a depot on Little Queen Street. They eked out just about enough money to sustain a family of six – the couple and their four children (three sons and a daughter).
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Then, in 1965, Arthur suddenly passed away. For Joyce, it meant more responsibilities and shifts. She hadn’t much time for mourning and she ensured the deliveries reached on time, and the most important of those delivered by herself. She couldn’t lose the clients, ever more now. For the 13-year-old Peter, his destiny was then chartered — he was to help his mother and eventually sustain his parents’ business. Even before he reached adolescence, he began helping his mother, like his elder brother. In a busy teenage, life oscillated between school and helping his mother, and the only getaway in the weekend was cricket with his friends in the neighbourhood. He soon enrolled in the neighbourhood club of Suburbs-New Lynn, the loyalty to which he has never severed. Two days of pure fun and frolic. “You know I couldn’t afford to spend much time playing cricket everyday. But the weekends thankfully were relatively free and we had these two-day club matches, which most New Zealand internationals, like Martin Crowe and John Wright, have played at some stage,” says Peter.
Peter never aspired to be a professional cricketer. Neither was he a cricket tragic or nerd. He was in the game just to enjoy a few hits and spend “some fun time” with his mates. But he seldom missed the weekend fixture, and by his own admission wasn’t a bad batsman, decent enough to score 12,000-odd runs spread across a couple of decades – though he admits he just had a couple of shots in his book. His priorities in life were clear, and he, like his brothers, bought a truck even before he was married. Then he met Jan Henderson, manager at an accessory firm, married her and on September 30, 1986 was born their second son, Martin.
Martin, Peter says, was quite cute and chubby — blond hair, hazel eyes and all. Everyone liked to nanny him. He wasn’t restless or nettlesome. But when he grew up, Jan couldn’t afford to stray her eyes off Martin and Ben, older to him by three years. “You know the kind of hell two young boys can create. Together, they were very naughty, and gave Jan absolutely no peace of mind,” Peter recollects.
So, one sunny Saturday morning, Peter took them along to the club, probably thinking they would remain quiet in the presence of youngsters. It wasn’t so, but Peter wasn’t disturbed. “Look, in our part of the world, we introduce kids to some sport or the other at a very young age. It’s not in the assumption that they would eventually become professional sportsmen, but it’s part of the culture. Martin, I remember, was quite keen on any sport he came across, be it rugby, soccer, hockey, cricket or even Samoan cricket (kilikiti). He played midget cricket down at the club from about age 5. Whenever there was a bit of ground and a chance, he’d play some sport, especially cricket. He was always playing sport, often with older kids and that extended him a bit – he played as much sport at intermediate school as possible to get as much time off school as he could; he loved his sport,” tells Peter.
Once Martin randomly enrolled his name in a kilikiti school tournament, and as it turned he helped them win the Auckland championship. “We were a bit surprised, because we hadn’t seen him play that at all, yet he came back as one of the best players in the tournament. That’s when I realised that he was such a gifted athlete and you should give him the best possible opportunities to prosper,” he reflects.
Martin and Ben accompanying Peter to the club on weekends then became a more regular thing. Peter was not an imposing father. He simply let them be. “On seeing him, some of the club bowlers used to hide, for he’d ask them to bowl, which they have to oblige and the boy will ask them to keep on bowling, when they just want to go home and take some rest. But he was the darling of our club,” Peter chuckles.
Thankfully, Martin found an equally compliant coach, Kit Perera, at school – Avondale College. “He had something in him, something we call the X-factor, or the insane drive to excel. The boy had lots of talent. He was fearless, driven and extremely talented. He had that desire and passion. And that wasn’t just limited to his batting. He would make me give catches for two-three hours at a stretch. Even if you are tired and desperately want to go, seeing his hunger you keep feeding him catches, even if your arm is about to break,” says Perera.
As a result, Martin plundered runs at the school and college level. “Word went around that junior Guptill is as good as his dad. He used to tell me that his biggest ambition in life is to break my club record of 12,000 runs,” says Peter.
In winters, when there is no cricket, Martin and Ben would help their father at work. By the time, Peter was running the family business from of the south Auckland suburb of Mangere. It eventually seemed to be the calling of their sons as well. “At first, they used to come to the stall and just prance around here and there. But when as they grew, they started getting involved and I used to take them regularly to the office and give them small works. Sometimes they used to accompany me to delivering goods,” he recollects.
Then came the day Peter and family still dread to recollect. Ben was driving a forklift truck in the stall and didn’t notice Martin coming on his way. He rammed into him and the sharp forks gashed into his left foot. Blood was splayed all over and Martin writhed in pain. They rushed him to the hospital. “Even now a shiver goes down our spine when we think of that day. Martin was just 13. His toes were absolutely crushed. Initially, the doctors tried fix and realign them. But after two-three weeks when his toes showed no signs of healing, they decided to amputate the three outside toes. We were shattered, but poor Martin was brave enough to hide his tears,” says Peter, his voice quavering.
This was just a week before he was to make his senior debut for his school. Suddenly, from being the suburb’s brightest sporting talent, his life seemingly plunged in darkness. “We became all very anxious. Forget his sporting future, we were worried about how he would recover from the shock and how he will have to live with it throughout his life. Mentally, it would have derailed even us elders, not to speak of poor Ben, who endured as much mental torture as Martin did,” says Peter.
But there was a streak of indefatigableness about Martin, a fiercely unflinching self beneath his calm exterior – a trait perhaps he has inherited from his grandmother. “He surprised all of us with his courage. In the initial days, he was under a great deal of pain, but gradually he came back to his normal self. We were surprised when he said he wanted to play cricket again. But he did and as they say never turned back,” says Peter.
To pep up Martin, his father got in touch with the then New Zealand manager and former cricketer Jeff Crowe, and the next day Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming was by his bed. “Zimbabwe were touring and I asked him if it would be possible to get any of the Black Caps to come and visit Martin in hospital. The next day Stephen Fleming popped in to see him. It had a huge impact on him,” says Peter. And as coincidental as it came, a decade on, on his ODI debut, he bested Fleming’s record of the highest score by a New Zealander on debut.
Two months from the incident, he was back playing cricket, as if nothing had happened. Martin didn’t forsake the family business either. Leaving his school after the seventh form, he signed up for a driver apprenticeship to ensure that he had a non-sporting trade behind him. He duly completed his apprenticeship and procured his license for driving heavy vehicles. “Before he became a permanent fixture of the national team, he used to put in a few shifts whenever he was at home. Now, he’s married and the international schedule is so tight that he rarely gets time for that,” says Peter.
Peter still runs his firm single-handedly. Ben has set up his own carrying business. Martin, meanwhile, is delivering the goods on an entirely different pitch.
The year 2009, a decade after the accident, carried good news for Guptill. After prolific returns on the domestic and A tours, he was included in the ODI series against the West Indies, and on January 10, in the fourth ODI in Hamilton, he made his debut. A stunning debut you can call it, for he reeled off a high-class hundred. His unbeaten 122, though, was washed away in the downpour. He continued to impress, scoring a decisive 43 off 39 balls in the decider in Napier.
Three months later, he earned his Test stripes, against the visiting Indians in Hamilton. He scored 14 and 48, modest in the light of his ODI start. That was thematic of his career — a prolific ODI batsman with an amazing level of consistency, but somehow struggling in the longer form. Like a writer who has mastered short stories, but struggles with the long form. Not that he is technically or temperamentally inadequate, but repeatedly struggles to convert his starts.
He would be lying if he says it doesn’t bother him. He may not brood or sulk over his failures, but will definitely strive hard to gloss over the glitches. “We don’t talk much about technical aspects these days, but I’m sure he wants to improve his Test record. He has always liked batting long and he knows if bats long he’ll have a lot of runs under his belt,” feels Peter.
Dropped from the Test side in 2013, he sought the late Martin Crowe’s advice to resurrect his Test career. “He said you’ve still got to look to get forward over here. Even though there’s a lot more bounce you still have to look to get forward, you can’t just get pushed back and stay back.” He returned in last year, impressed in England with a brace of gutsy 70s, and at the end of last year, scored his third Test hundred, and the first against a team other Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. But listlessness against Australia undid all the renaissance he was showing.
But Martin has this innate knack of bouncebackability. How he overcame his handicap to reach this level is a glowing testimony. And he’ll do that in his own quiet way. “He just goes about his business in a quiet manner. What you are seeing is someone who has played international cricket for a number of years. He’s probably reaping the rewards of hard-work and experience through his international career. He’s played in a lot of different conditions. He’s played with the likes of Brendon, Kane, Ross. He’s very close to Ross (Taylor). He’s been discussing cricket, and working with the likes of Martin Crowe,” points out teammate Grand Elliot, who adds he is not a “brash character”. And that’s something most “Westies” are, chimes in Peter.
Just before Martin went to England for a county stint in 2011, he gave an interview to Sky TV’s The Cricket Show. The anchor, Laura McGoldrick, was doing only her second live television show. Martin was instantly smitten. “We were in the green room and she made an impression straight away. She’s a beautiful girl. That was the first thing I noticed,” he once told a New Zealand daily.
Laura was all nerves. “I was flapping around because it was my second experience on live TV ever, for The Cricket Show, and I had to interview Martin. I don’t think I did a very good job. I remember thinking he had really buffy hair and noticing he was wearing his club cricket T-shirt! I definitely thought he was a babe. He was really shy but I found that quite cute. Once we started talking, I found he was gorgeous on the inside and out.”
But Martin’s busy schedule kept them away for months. That’s when they realised they missed each other. In England he missed her. And so did Laura. “Martin went away to England for three months and I really missed him. I thought perhaps there’s something more there. I couldn’t imagine him not being in my life.
Because he was my best friend first, everything else was easy,” she said. Then, after two years of courtship, vacationing on the Maui beach, he sought her hand for wedding. A year later, on April 14, they tied the knot.
Meanwhile, Peter still thinks it’s improbable for Martin to beat his club record. “He’s a family man and a Black Cap regular now. So I don’t think he will ever play half the matches I’ve played for the club,” he grins. And Guptill junior himself must have embraced fresher, and bigger, ambitions. Or maybe, deep inside him, he still has that fire stoked up.