Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Summer Reads: The Bert Sutcliffe Story

Review by Mark Pirie of The Last Everyday Hero: The Bert Sutcliffe Story by Richard Boock, Longacre, RRP $39.99. Foreword by Alan Davidson.

Richard Boock’s recently published story of Sutcliffe’s life is an excellent cricket biography. It utilises the detailed research of author Rod Nye who died before his own work on Sutcliffe could be realised. Nye, a cricket lover, wrote the biography of Martin Donnelly, one of our greatest players, and was working on the Sutcliffe biography at the time of his death in 2004.
Boock’s final account of Sutcliffe’s life is a testament to Nye’s research methods and Boock’s own heartfelt commitment to the project. Doubly moving is that a number of Nye’s interviewees have passed away too before Boock's book was completed.
In this book you will find New Zealand team-mates of Sutcliffe as well as overseas players and officials talking about Bert and describing his deeds and innings first-hand. His extraordinary First Class playing career stretched from 1941/42-1965/66. What is remarkable is the consistency of the Sutcliffe portrait that emerges. Through the different voices of the era, Sutcliffe materialises as a kind, generous, egalitarian and popular man, the life of every party, and above all a batting ‘genius’. Most relate just how good a cricketer he was. Arguably, as Walter Hadlee comments, ‘he was the greatest cricketer New Zealand has produced’.
The book itself starts in explosive and unconventional manner, taking us straight into the Tangiwai disaster, the death of Bob Blair’s fiancée Narissa, and the Second Test at Ellis Park, South Africa, on the 1953/54 tour where Sutcliffe returned from hospital, took a swig of whisky and clubbed seven sixes on his way to an unbeaten 80. Of course, the story is now folklore (as seen by Jonny Brugh’s recent stage adaptation The Second Test and my own poem to Bert in A Tingling Catch) and perhaps why Nye wanted his book started at this moment in time. It was, of course, how the Sutcliffe legend began for many. From there Boock takes us deeper into Bert’s life story but in a more conventional manner, tracing Bert’s life from schoolboy cricket to retirement years, and ends with a poem read by Iain Gallaway as Sutcliffe’s ashes are deposited on Carisbrook in the exact fielding spot where Sutcliffe took his catch against the touring MCC in the 1946/47 season.*
One of the best things about Boock’s biography is its sheer range of contributors. Players young and old lend their support to the project, and as with any good history, forgotten sporting names and connections rear their heads. The lesser-known names all shine in fabulous batting-like partnerships with their star. Merv Wallace gets significant mention for his input into New Zealand cricket. It’s great to hear Walter Hadlee, John Reid, Australian Alan Davidson and Iain Gallaway talking about Sutcliffe alongside lesser known names like Noel McGregor, Eric Watson, West Indian Sammy Guillen and Tony MacGibbon. One of the finds was former New Zealand batsman Bill Playle’s account of the ill-fated 1958 tour of England. Nye’s brother Lindsay interviewed Playle, now living in Australia, in support of his brother’s
Overall, it’s a fitting tribute to Bert’s life. It’s also very revealing of the cricket hierarchy of the time, particularly the poor selection choices made on tours to England in 1958 and Pakistan, India and England in 1965, the tight scheduling of games, and the dangerous and unsanitary conditions players faced in those days when touring Pakistan and India. If I have a minor quibble, it’s the lack of endnotes to properly reference the book’s sources. Instead, we have a short bibliography. Maybe it was too academic but the attention to detail might’ve added to the book. For instance, quotes like that made by Walter Hadlee above need clear dates to put these comments in historical perspective.
Another remarkable part of the Sutcliffe legend is that Bert (who still holds the New Zealand record for the Highest First Class batting score of 385) never played in a winning Test team. Suffering from ill health after returning from the tour of Pakistan and India, Sutcliffe listened on the radio as New Zealand defeated the West Indies in 1956 for their first ever Test win. He may not have won a Test but after reading Bert’s story, there’s no doubt that Sutcliffe at least had won the hearts of all, most notably his nation. Boock has successfully taken on Nye’s extensive research and produced a compelling account.

Review © Mark Pirie 2010

*This year the urn containing Sutcliffe's ashes was reported lost and a search for them called off by the Otago Cricket Association when attempting to relocate them to the University Oval. "Dad's ashes are proving as elusive as bowlers found taking his wicket," his son Gary said. "Maybe there is a message here. Dad's wishes were that he would love to have his ashes scattered at Carisbrook."

See the related news stories below:
‘Cricket legend Bert Sutcliffe’s ashes lost’, NZPA, 12 August 2010:
‘Search for Bert Sutcliffe’s ashes called off’, NZPA, 13 August 2010

The Last Everyday Hero:
The Bert Sutcliffe Story
by Richard Boock
(Longacre: 2010)

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