In 1981, New Zealand sports teams were involved in two events that have significantly shaped our sporting and cultural legacy. The first was the Springbok Tour – where the South African rugby team’s visit to our shores deeply divided the nation – resulting in protests, clashes, and damage to the game of rugby for years to come. The other event created few protests, there were no clashes, nobody was hurt, and the game of cricket was enhanced, rather than damaged.
It’s hard now to do justice to the excitement of televised one day cricket in the early 1980s. I was 12 in 1981, and one day cricket matches – broadcast live, with the nasal twang and arrogance of the Aussie commentators, and raucous and vibrant crowds – were the most exciting things on offer for me and my mates. No boring cricket whites, no five days in the field – with a rest day in between – no hours or days waiting for rain to abate before a result may be reached. One day cricket, with 50 overs batting for each team, a white ball, and coloured uniforms, was a guaranteed sporting festival – all enjoyed at home, with the family, following each ball with rapt attention.
In 1981 we had a great team. Richard Hadlee was unplayable on his good days, Lance Cairns could bend them in from wide of the crease, Martin Snedden was no slouch with the ball either. We had batsman such as Bruce Edgar and John Wright, who could regularly amass impress innings. Behind the stumps, Ian Smith was reliable and athletic. The Australians had talent to burn, they were difficult to beat and any of their batsmen could reach double figures and they also had the terrifying Dennis Lille, who could wreak havoc with the ball.
“It was one of the best catches I had ever seen, but it was not out. Chappell didn’t walk and the umpires hadn’t even seen it – they were making sure the batsmen were grounding their bats as they sprinted between the wickets. It was the best catch that never was.”
New Zealand was playing Australia in the final match of the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup. The finals involved three matches and the series was locked up at one apiece. There was everything to play for. The Australians chalked up 235 runs and captain Ian Chappell contributed 90 0f these himself. In a game that would later be decided by massive controversy, Chappell’s innings contained a rather large one as well. He had smashed a ball toward the boundary and Martin Snedden sprinted from seemingly miles away, dived, and took a stunning catch with the ball only millimetres from the grass. It was one of the best catches I had ever seen, but it was not out. Chappell didn’t walk and the umpires hadn’t even seen it – they were making sure the batsmen were grounding their bats as they sprinted between the wickets. It was the best catch that never was.
The New Zealand innings was slow and steady. Bruce Edgar made a centur,y and with one ball remaining, the New Zealanders needed six runs just to tie the game. At this point, history was made in one of the most abominable ways. Bruce McKechnie had recently arrived at the wicket and would face the last ball. McKechnie was a double New Zealand representative, and a few years earlier had kicked the winning points against Wales when the Welsh were penalised for puling Andy Haden out of a line-out – even though Haden had jumped out of the line-out himself to earn a penalty. But never mind. McKechnie was primed to earn himself a little bit more glory but he would be cruelly denied. Trevor Chappell was bowling the last over – his brother Ian had muffed his sums and bowled out Lillee too soon. Trevor Chapell was a slow bowler – efficient but not too challenging – even though he had dismissed Hadlee and Smith as they had heaved at the ball to get to the wining target.
“Stunned silence. The players talked with the umpires, the commentators shared their shock. Australian wicketkeeper, Rod Marsh made his displeasure known. The Kiwi batsmen were indignant. It didn’t change a thing.”
The New Zealanders would have imagined that a six off a slow bowler was not that great a challenge. The Australians weren’t prepared to even give them that chance. At that time there was an archaic rule that was still part of the cricketing code. Bowling the ball underarm was a legitimate delivery, as strange as it sounds, and Greg Chappell directed his brother to roll one down the turf to the Kiwi batsman. Stunned silence. The players talked with the umpires, the commentators shared their shock. Australian wicketkeeper, Rod Marsh made his displeasure known. The Kiwi batsmen were indignant. It didn’t change a thing. The ball was rolled down the wicket, McKechnie blocked it then threw his bat in disgust. Bruce Edgar argued with the umpires and the Australian players. The New Zealand captain, Geoff Howarth, strode out to the middle and let everyone know exactly what he thought.
“Good old Kiwi battler and prime minister, Rob Muldoon got involved. He said it was right that the Australians wore yellow.”
Nothing could change the score. The Australians had won the game by six runs, and taken the series. They even won a cup. And then the fireworks really started. At school the next day we talked of little else. One of us may have suggested starting a petition. We were outraged. How could that be allowed? When was someone going to do something about it? In our young, naive minds we were certain that justice would be restored.
Good old Kiwi battler and prime minister, Rob Muldoon got involved. He said it was right that the Australians wore yellow. We hoped he would sort it out and we would be adjudged the rightful winners of the game. We weren’t. Nothing happened. Well, that’s not entirely true. The cricket rule guys made an important alteration – the underarm delivery was eradicated from the game. Too little, too late.
All of this occurred 38 years ago. In my mind it doesn’t seem that long ago at all. In those years since, New Zealanders have assumed the mantle of righteous indignation when it comes to Australians and sports. They cheat, we don’t, and we have evidence – the underarm delivery. We would never do that, we say, that’s just not sports.
“In the decades since the underarm “incident” New Zealand cricket has evolved and established a solid reputation for exhilarating, entertaining cricket – played to a code of fairness and compassion.”
Well, I have read far too many stories about that day and I know that while it was devastating at the time, one good things is it changed how New Zealanders played cricket and it changed mine – and a lot of other young kids’ notions of sport and fair play. It didn’t mean we would cheat, it didn’t even mean we would bend the rules. Strangely it created Kiwi cricket teams that played more aggressively, but fair. In the decades since the underarm “incident” New Zealand cricket has evolved and established a solid reputation for exhilarating, entertaining cricket – played to a code of fairness and compassion.
I think the one thing that game taught me was that life will never be “fair” by the standards of “fair” that I and others held. Some people prioritise winning at all costs over how the game is played. They will do anything to achieve that and care less for how those actions may be judged. I think winning at all costs is not winning at all.
If anything else, the drama of that day and that final delivery may never be equalled or surpassed. I look back now and marvel at the sheer drama of it all and just how lasting its legacy has been. It has certainly become enshrined in our wider culture. It possibly shaped one of Muldoon’s best epithets. When asked about the number of Kiwis emigrating to Australia in the 1980s he said, “New Zealanders who leave for Australia raise the IQ of both countries”.