Otago fields fine cricketing heritage

The city of Dunedin has been fielding cricket teams for almost as long as Europeans have been in the Otago region.

By Ron Palenski

The birthplace of some of New Zealand’s earliest and finest cricketers, the southern city of Dunedin has been fielding cricket teams for almost as long as Europeans have been in the Otago region.

It was a portent of the future when the first piece of commercial printing emerged from the newly assembled press of the first printer south of Nelson, Henry Graham. It was 1848, Dunedin was just a few months old and Graham needed to test his press before publishing the first issue of Dunedin’s first newspaper, the Otago News. What better, he thought, than to print a public notice for posting about the few Dunedin streets urging the formation of a cricket club?

Cricketing firsts

Sixteen years later, the stake for Otago leading a cricketing way was driven even further when Dunedin played host to the first first-class match to be played in New Zealand. 

That was between Otago and Canterbury at the Southern Recreation Ground (a part of the present Oval) over three days in January 1864, and was itself brought about by another Otago cricketing first - the first matches in New Zealand by an English team.

An English-born medical doctor, Shadrach Jones, exchanged the scalpel for a gavel in Dunedin and became an auctioneer and entrepreneur. He bought one of the leading hotels and imported theatre and musical troupes to perform; he moved his entertainments from indoors to outdoors in 1863 when he negotiated for an English team then touring Australia, George Parr’s All-England XI, to extend its tour to Dunedin. 

This became the catalyst for the Otago - Canterbury match as the locals needed to get a game in on the newly laid pitch before their visitors arrived. Otago won by 76 runs and the fixture became annual thereafter.

Strangers and locals

The Englishmen did not come as strangers when they arrived in February 1864. The only amateur in the team was Edward (Teddy) Mills Grace, known as “The Coroner” (because that was his job in Gloucestershire). But even more noteworthy, he was an older brother of the redoubtable W. G. Grace, regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of all time. 

In an Antipodean twist, among the party meeting the English, and who would play against them on the following days, was William Gilbert Rees, Grace’s cousin and W.G.’s godfather. In the non-cricketing world, Rees was better known as the founder of Queenstown – the gold mining town that became New Zealand’s foremost year-round resort. 

After the tour, Teddy wrote of his cousin: “Very fortunately William did not get many runs, but he fielded beautifully, quite in his old style. It is quite a treat to watch him and he is so good and kind, everybody likes him and calls him King Wakatip.”

Tom Wills, educated at Rugby School and Victoria’s shining batsman, also crossed the Tasman with Parr’s team and played for the locals, who played “against odds” (that is, the locals had teams of 22 against the English XI). Wills’s fame rested later on his role in devising the distinctive form of Australian football the rest of the world calls “Aussie rules.”

Parr’s team played four matches – they beat Otago twice and Canterbury once and lost to a combined Otago-Canterbury team.

Otago’s big six

Otago’s influence on the rest of New Zealand cricket did not remain in the 19th century. Think of some of the great run-scorers of New Zealand cricket and think Otago. For example, seven New Zealand batsmen have scores of 300 or more: six were by players for or associated with Otago. 

Bert Sutcliffe was described by Don Bradman as one of the finest left-hand batsmen the game has produced. For much of Sutcliffe’s career, he was an Otago man. His 385 for Otago against Canterbury remains the highest first-class score by a New Zealander; he also scored 355 for Otago against Auckland.

The next highest score, 338 not out, was by Roger Blunt, and that was also for Otago against Canterbury. The next three scores of over 300 were by Ken Rutherford (317 in 1986), Glenn Turner (311 in 1982) and Mark Richardson (306 in 2001), the first two Otago lads born and bred and the third played most of his first-class cricket for Otago.

And then came Brendon McCullum’s 302 in Wellington in 2014 – and no one should need reminding that he too is an Otago man. Of those to score 300 or more, Peter Fulton (301 in 2003) was the odd man out. He was from Christchurch.

Double All Blacks

The distinction of being a ‘double All Black’ – playing for New Zealand at both cricket and rugby – is no stranger to Dunedin. 

The first to achieve such a rarity was George Dickinson in the 1920s, when his fast bowling was difficult enough to claim wickets such as the two Australian Bills - Ponsford and Woodfull - and when his handling and kicking were good enough to make him an All Black in 1922.

The most recent ‘double All Black’ was Jeff Wilson, a Southlander by birth but Otago in sporting achievement. He had the unprecedented distinction of playing both cricket and rugby for his country when he was still 19. Wilson concentrated on rugby to the extent that he played in 61 tests and was one of the greatest backs to play for the All Blacks and, when dusk fell over his rugby field, he went back to cricket and played for New Zealand again.

For all the successes and achievements of others, the name of one Otago cricketer stands out: Glenn Turner. It’s more than 30 years since he played but his records bear testimony to his greatness: only he and Bradman scored 1000 runs in England before the end of May while playing with an overseas team; he was one of only four non-English batsmen to score more than 100 first-class hundreds; he scored a century against every English county, including his own, Worcestershire; in May 1982, he became the first batsman in 33 years to score 300 runs in a single day; he scored four double centuries on the tour of the West Indies in 1972. There was much more of Turner as a player, still more as a selector and coach.