As India take on New Zealand in the final of the first ever World Test Championship at Southampton, one’s thoughts went to those times when these two sides were considered as the minnows of international cricket. As a person who got hooked on to the game in the 1970s, one tended to think about the Kiwis as being in almost the same league as our national squad. Like us, they were a difficult side to beat in home conditions but were poor travellers. Both teams were definitely a notch below the top three sides - West Indies, England and Australia. And if we had a world-class opening batsman in Sunil Gavaskar, they had Glen Turner, who made a name for himself in English county circuit as well, with his prolific run scoring for Worcestershire.
But one area where the two sides differed was in the area of bowling. While India depended on the spin bowlers for picking up wickets of the opposition, New Zealand team was dominated by pace bowlers. They had such performers as Dick Motz, Bruce Taylor, Richard Collinge who kept the flag of fast bowling flying in their ranks. This team with a reputation for top quality pace bowlers got a new entrant by name Richard John Hadlee, who was called to don the national colours, in 1973.
Hadlee came with rich cricketing pedigree. His father Walter Hadlee had captained New Zealand in the 1940s and moved into cricket administration after his playing days. His elder brother Dayle was already in the side as the opening bowler, having made his Test debut in 1969 while another older brother Barry played in a couple of One-Day Internationals in the 1970s. Interestingly, even his spouse Karen played international cricket for their country! There cannot be another instance of so many members of one family playing international cricket.
Though Hadlee made his debut in 1973, his initial years in international cricket did not arouse any excitement. Incidentally, it was against India that he showed his potential for the first time in international cricket. Hadlee came into his own during the third Test of series played between the two countries at Wellington in February, 1976, by blowing away the Indian batting in a destructive spell where he picked up 7/23 off a mere 8.3 overs. After a fairly decent start that saw them reach a score of 62/2 wickets, India collapsed in a shocking manner as Hadlee got into the act and were dismissed for a lowly total of 81. The Indian players complained about the bitterly cold conditions at Wellington, which was made worse by a stiff breeze that blew across the ground, as factors affecting their performance. But nothing can take credit out of that superb spell, which helped the hosts to win that Test and square the series.
He followed this up two years later with a similar spell which saw England bite the dust. Chasing 137 in the first test at Auckland, England were shot out for just 64 as Hadlee ran through the batting line-up to return figures of 6/26 off 13.3 overs. A bigger surprise was to follow two years later when the Kiwis shocked the cricketing world by clinching a one-wicket victory in the first Test against the West Indies, played at Dunedin in February, 1980. The Caribbeans, under Clive Lloyd, were the uncrowned world champions of that period and had defeated Australia in a hard-fought series prior to arriving in New Zealand. However, they were caught on the wrong foot on a wicket that aided seam bowlers and were dismissed for a paltry total of 140 in the first innings. Though they fared slightly better in the second, they could not stop the hosts from reaching the target with one wicket to spare. Hadlee was the wrecker-in-chief for New Zealand, picking up 11 wickets in this match conceding only 102 runs.
At this stage, a fortuitous development took place, which was to have a positive impact on Hadlee’s career. Geoff Howarth took over as skipper of New Zealand and he moulded the side into a fighting unit, making full use of the resources at bis disposal. Under his leadership, New Zealand won a Test match for the first time ever in England in 1983 and defeated that side comprehensively during the return series a year later. In the second Test of that series at Christchurch, Hadlee struck a quick-fire 99 during the only time the hosts batted and picked up 8/44 to send the visitors hurtling to an innings and 132 runs defeat. England failed to reach the three figure mark in both innings.
Till the mid 1980s Hadlee was known as an excellent bowler, but most of his great spells were within New Zealand. It was was only from 1986 onwards that he scaled the final frontier that separates the good from the great. Touring Australia in 1985-86, Hadlee picked up 33 wickets in three Tests, as New Zealand recorded their first series victory over their Trans-Tasman neighbours. In the first Test, he bagged 15 wickets, with figures of 9/52 in the first innings and 6/71 in the second as the hosts crashed to a defeat by an innings and 41 runs. Though Australia struck back to win the second Test, they had no answer to Hadlee in the series decider as he took 11 wickets to guide his team to a four-wicket victory. This was immediately followed by a series victory in England when New Zealand toured that country in 1986. Hadlee was once again at the forefront as he took 10 wickets to help his side record a win by eight wickets in the only Test that produced a result in this series.
These back to back wins over Australia and England on their home turf sent New Zealand’s graph shooting upwards in the international cricket pecking order. Hadlee was by then considered as the most dangerous bowler in the game, one who was capable of taking wickets, irrespective of the nature of the pitch or the other conditions This was proved by him in ample measure during the tour to India in 1988. After he suffered a bout of stomach disorder during his first visit to the country in 1976, Hadlee took a decision not to tour India again. This was what prompted him to skip the 1987 World Cup which was hosted jointly by India and Pakistan. But he was forced to revoke his decision when he found himself drawn level with Ian Botham’s record of 373 Test wickets for a long time and the tour to India offered the earliest opportunity to cross that milestone.
Hadlee reached the world record in the minimum possible time when he trapped Krishnamachari Srikkanth leg before wicket in the first over of the first Test at Bangalore. But his greatness, in all its glory, was witnessed by Indians in the next Test played at Mumbai on a pitch helping spin bowlers, where he took 10 wickets and led New Zealand to a 136-run win. He completed the three-Test series with 18 scalps, a feat that has not been matched by any other fast bowlers touring India. Though the Kiwis lost the series, they left with their heads held high, thanks to Hadlee, who looked like taking a wicket every time he took the ball and walked to the top of his bowling mark.
India were to figure again in Hadlee’s record breaking career when Sanjay Manjrekar became his 400th victim during the second innings of the first Test between the two countries in 1990. This was the first time ever that a bowler had reached the landmark of 400 wickets in Test cricket and the occasion was made memorable by the fact that this game was played at Christchurch, Hadlee’s home ground.
With no more peaks to conquer, Hadlee announced his retirement after the tour to England in 1989. But England had a surprise in store for him when he was awarded knighthood by the Queen of Britain while the series was in progress. He ended his career by taking five wickets in the last innings of his final Test and fittingly took a wicket with his last ball as well!
Though he started out as a tearaway fast bowler, Hadlee cut down on his pace as his career progressed and focused more on length, line and movement off the seam. He seldom bowled a loose ball and was would, in all probability, rank among the top 10 most accurate bowlers in the history of the game. His ran in very close to the stumps, had a perfect side on action, with his arm coming down straight, almost brushing his right ear, and a classic follow through. A senior umpiring colleague once told me that Hadllee would mark out where exactly the umpire at bowler’s end should stand without coming in the way of his run up! If such was the precision with which he marked out his run up, one can imagine how accurate his deliveries would have been.
The 1980s was a period when international cricket saw four great fast bowling all-rounders - Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Hadlee. Among them, Imran was probably the best batsman while Botham the most explosive cricketer and Kapil the top athlete. But Hadlee was better than the rest when it came to bowling not only due to his consistency but also for the manner in which he stayed on top of his profession through a career spread over 16 years, right till his retirement.
After retirement from the game, Hadlee moved to the commentary box where his frank and outspoken comments won him a substantial following. He also served a tenure as the chief selector of New Zealand.
Sir Richard Hadlee will be remembered so long as cricket is played as one of the best exponents of seam bowling. He was truly one of a kind.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)