Courage in Sport – Part One

A Boxing Day to Remember

On a day when Brendon McCullum played another of his extraordinary innings in the first test against Sri Lanka, it is appropriate to recall Boxing Day 61 years ago, a day of such high drama, great courage and overwhelming emotion that it will forever be enshrined in the great sport’s history and it is a story which every New Zealander should know.

Tangiwai, collapsed bridge in 1953

The greatest rail disaster in New Zealand’s history – Tangiwai, collapsed bridge in 1953

The second test between South Africa and New Zealand began at Ellis Park on Christmas Eve and on Boxing Day came the news that in the greatest rail disaster in New Zealand’s history, a railway bridge at Tangiwai had swept away and taken a passenger train with it, killing 151 people, including the 19 year old fiancée of 21 year old fast bowler Bob Blair, who was immediately withdrawn from the match.

One of the best fast bowling combinations in world cricket, Neil Adcock and Peter Heine were bowling on a treacherous pitch. Two batsmen were hit by balls which flew from a good length, a third, New Zealand’s best batsman, Bert Sutcliffe was hit on the side of the head and knocked unconscious. Blood pouring from his head, he was led off to hospital, where he fainted twice. He was later joined there by Lawrie Miller, who had been struck in the chest and left the field, coughing blood.

When the sixth wicket fell at 82, Sutcliffe emerged from the dressing room, ashen faced and with his head swathed in bandages. The large crowd applauded him all the way to the wicket, where he proceeded to set upon South Africa’s attack with such ferocity that he hit seven sixes, including three in four balls from South Africa’s greatest ever spinner, Hugh Tayfield.

Bob Blair, Photo by Nicholas Boyack

Bob Blair, Photo by Nicholas Boyack

In the hotel, young Blair had informed the team manager that he wanted to help and a taxi was called. At the fall of the ninth wicket, the fielders, with Sutcliffe, moved towards the pavilion, the crowd loudly cheering Sutcliffe for his brave innings. However, they were hushed by the appearance of Bob Blair. Sutcliffe went to meet him and Blair said, ‘’I’d like to feel I can help.” They returned to the middle arm in arm. New Zealand cricket writer Dick Brittenden states that the New Zealanders, looking down from the glass windows of the pavilion, wept openly.

Bert Sutcliffe returned with a bandaged head at 81 for six and began to attack the bowling at Ellis Park in 1953

Don Neely. ‘Cricket – Test cricket 1945–1979’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Together the pair added 33 runs in ten minutes and saved the follow on, before Blair was stumped. They left the field to tumultuous cheering, Sutcliffe standing aside to allow Blair to pass through first. Brittenden writes, ‘They went, arms about each other, into the darkness of the tunnel but behind they left a light and an inspiration which several thousand lectures on how to play the forward defensive stroke could never kindle’.

The Rand Daily Mail reported on the New Zealand decision that the match must go on in the following fashion. ‘If the rest of the world still wonders what it is all about, the only possible answer is that, if men are going to play, they can do a lot worse than play cricket’.

Sutcliffe, outstanding player though he was, confesses that the blow from Adcock remained with him and that he was never again quite the same player.

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Terence Dale Lace lives with his wife, Sara, and son Tim along with their two dogs. He is a keen follower of school rugby and cricket. He writes about topical issues in sport news where original and sometimes controversial writing will, he hopes, spark thoughtful responses.

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Posted in Courage in Sport, Cricket

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