It’s stories that we are after. Warm, nostalgic, tales that make one lose a bit of cynicism and fall in love with the game again. The 79-year old Don Neely is the perfect cure for cricket weariness. A cricket historian, a first-class cricketer, New Zealand selector in the 80’s, the president of the board, a Member of the Order of the British Empire, a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and still actively involved with the game. But it’s the past that interests for that is where the stories lie.
It’s 1946, the first Test match between Australia and New Zealand after the Second World War, and Bill O’Reilly has just thrown his boots out of the dressing room window. “He threw it and said ‘that’s not cricket as I know it’. New Zealand had been shot out for 43 after another low score in the first innings and a nine-year old Neely is there watching the first Test match of his life and soaking all the drama.
“I was lying on a bench and thought ‘hmm, all out for 40-odd’. We’d got 35 in a school match and the man who had taken us to the Test that day had said then ‘oh how well you’ve played, 35 is a good score’ so when I saw New Zealand get 43 I said ‘not bad, this must be the running and that’s how it all comes out’. Little did I know.”
DOWN MEMORY LANE
Years roll by and Neely finds himself bowling to one of his heroes, New Zealand’s legendary batsman Martin Donnelly in Wellington. It’s a knock down at the nets for couple of hours and Neely gets to witness something special. Donnelly is hitting everything through mid-on.
“I was amazed. I’d never seen anyone take balls from middle, off and further outside off and practice hitting them to mid-on, wide of mid-on.
On New Zealand’s last match on the 1949 tour of England they had to make some runs in a hurry. Alec Bedser was bowling. New Zealand needed 16 I think, and Donnelly hit four balls exactly in that position.
Mid-on, wide of mid-on, to the left, to the right. There was a report in the paper that said each ball was wider and wider and wider of the off stump, and they still went in the same place. I’d seen this happening when I bowled to him. I thought ‘when you were fit and young, you must have been marvellous to watch’.
Neely’s stories keep flooding in, a delightful ramble through several decades but since the quarter-final of the World Cup is upon us, let’s go to the moment where Neely asked Mark Greatbatch to open in that 1992 tournament. John Wright and Rod Latham were the original openers; Latham the aggressor and Wright the defender but an injury forced them to make a change.
“When Wright got injured we said to Paddie (Mark Greatbatch) ‘Mark, there’s an opening here, so would you like to open the batting?’ His eyes opened wide because he just wanted to get out there and bat. He readily agreed, but with one condition: that he would be the attacker. You could see the adrenalin rising, his eyes were shining. Our response was ‘OK, yep, that’s fine, off you go.’ And it was amazing.”
The other great highlight from that tournament was Dipak Patel opening the bowling. As the captain of Wellington team, Neely had used a left-arm spinner to open the bowling. Did that influence Martin Crowe’s decision to deploy Deepak Patel?
“It would be fair to say that Martin and his coach Warren Lees were the ones who get the credit. It could have been an influence that I had because when I captained Wellington I used a left-arm spinner to open the bowling, so there was a history with me doing it, but that was Martin’s call. It’s one thing to say something to the captain; he can take all that information on board and try it. But I remember knowing full well that the opening over was going to be bowled by Dipak Patel.”
Neely also remembers how it all ended for New Zealand. Unlike many, it isn’t Inzamam-ul-Haq that he remembers but that man Javed Miandad.
“For me, Javed Miandad, who always stuffed us, was the key. He was chatting all the time, telling Inzamam where to go, how to do it. Between overs he’d be showing him strokes and such. With Inzamam, they came from nowhere, raced up. Then in came Moin Khan, and Javed kept the same course going. He got the last few runs and we were gone. It was Javed.” For a moment there, it seemed it wasn’t a New Zealander talking but an Indian from the ‘80’s. “Javed Miandad, who always stuffed us…” Oh well.