Thursday, March 31, 2016

Springbok legend describes 1928 series with All Blacks

Springbok flyhalf Bennie Osler is regarded as one of the great five-eighths to have played the game and he was a formidable opponent for the 1928 All Blacks on their tour of South Africa.

Yet, for all his feats during that season, Osler said he went into the 1928 season with his enthusiasm for rugby at a low ebb.
Relating his life story, as covered in a series of book extracts from audio tapes he made before his death, in The South African Sportsman magazine in 1966-67, Osler said it wasn't the game that bored him that year.

"It was the atmosphere of exaggerated praise, unfair criticism and constant argument which surrounded me that depressed me most of all," he said.

Osler admitted that he hadn't enjoyed his rugby since leaving the University of Cape Town in 1924. He had become a marked man and that drove him to play more of a kicking game than he wanted.

However, the All Blacks offered a new challenge and he first played them on their second game of the tour against Western Province Town clubs.

"It was a rough, grim match and a very unfortunate one for me. Beforehand there was a rumour that the All Blacks had delegated one of their forwards, Ron Stewart, to make me his prime objective.

"Steward was a good forward, tall, heavy and fast, and with his roving commission, he was a real thorn in my side in this match," he said.

However, Osler's game was badly affected by a twisted ankle when a boot came down hard on the bridge of his foot, causing him to fall awkwardly. It didn't come right until around the time of the first Test, where Osler was buoyed with the news his brother, 'Sharkey' [Stanley Osler] was to play at centre.

"We were quite confident mainly because we knew that the All Blacks could not hold us in the scrums with their outmoded 2-3-2 formation," Osler said.

Once the Test started, Osler noted: "Watching the two packs struggling for supremacy I remember noticing the difference in mental approach. The All Blacks were quiet in a deadly sort of way and Brownlie would only occasionally bark out an order. The Springbok forwards on the other hand appeared more volatile and relaxed and they kept encouraging one another.

"What a great pack they were that afternoon! Slowly but surely they took a vice-like grip on the proceedings and Pierre de Villiers, all nippiness and purpose, began getting the ball away to me despite the attentions of the All Black scrum-half Dalley, who did his best to smother my little partner from Paarl," Osler said.

The Springboks had a chance to score 20 minutes into the game when wing Jack Slater got through with only fullback Dave Lindsay to beat with Stanley Osler unmarked outside him.

"But to our horror Jack, instead of passing to Stanley ran right into fullback Lindsay and a glorious chance was lost."

Soon after inside centre Duffy was tackled heavily and while continuing was not in good shape.

"From virtually the next scrum I got my first chance when Pierre evaded Scrimshaw, who was acting as the All Blacks' 'rover' that day, and passed the ball to me. I was hemmed in by the defence but instead of smothering me as quickly as possible they hesitated – the biggest crime you can commit in a test match. I dropped for goal and the ball went high over the crossbar. With four points up we were off to a good start. This reverse stung the All Blacks into all-out aggression and until half-time we had to defend with all we had."

Duffy was taken from the field at half-time leaving South Africa to play the second half with 14 men.

Soon after the re-start Osler landed his second dropped goal.

"As my boot hit the ball, an All Black tackled me from behind and I was nearly knocked unconscious…

"After my second drop-goal the All Blacks began to concentrate on me with an intensity that was almost frightening. To be too concerned with one player is a double-edged sword, however, and when I was late-tackled less than three minutes later, Mr Neser was on the spot to award a penalty."

Osler added a second penalty goal, although his description was interesting: "I got another straight-forward pot at goal" which to most New Zealanders of a certain age would suggest a dropped goal, or 'taking a pot'.

"I then decided to have another try at bringing Stanley around the blindside and this time he was right there to streak right through. At the right moment he flipped the ball to wing Prinsloo who went over the line but lost the ball as he bent over to dot down!"

Eight minutes before the end they did score through Slater to beat the All Blacks 17-0. Osler's match haul of 14 points was a world record for an individual in Test rugby.

The press and public went wild but Osler remarked it only took three weeks for them to turn after the All Blacks took the second Test 7-6. He was booed when missing touch a couple of times and criticised for not giving his wings more of a chance.

"…yet a quick glance at any newspaper report of the match will tell that no less than four tries were thrown away by the Springboks because of rank bad handling.

"I am not trying to make excuses because I DID kick very badly that day. Although I put over a penalty [sic – conversion], I missed several drop-goals from easy positions and my touch kicking was also weak and pointless," he said.

The third Test at Port Elizabeth he rated as one of the most enjoyable of his career as both teams ran the ball throughout before the All Blacks were beaten 11-6.

But a bigger challenge awaited. (To be continued)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

'His class is reflected in his statistics, but his elegance is carved into the memory'

We knew it was coming but it doesn't make it any easier when it happens and Martin Crowe's death will be felt widely by family, friends, cricket fans and sportspeople generally.

Simply put he was one of the great New Zealand sportsmen.

His class is reflected in his statistics, but his elegance is carved into the memory.

Where do you begin to describe the assault Crowe made on your appreciation of batsmanship?

Even when under a fierce barrage from Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee in his Test debut, Crowe looked the part. He admitted later he had been introduced too soon into the Test arena and while he took a little time to get over the shock, the readjustment wasn't too long in coming.

His career is littered with batting brilliance and the example in technique, timing and power when necessary will live long in the minds of followers of cricket.

Some chronological memories:

+ His innings of 66 in the Bushfire ODI in Sydney in March 1983, 363 days after his Test exposure to the Aussie fast men, signalled he was back. Playing on a wet wicket Crowe's technique was superior and demonstrated what lay ahead.

+ After what for him was a disappointing tour of England in 1983, he scored his maiden Test century on the Basin Reserve in a return series with England, a sizzling early cover driven four from Bob Willis' bowling became a trademark shot.

+ Consistency had been an issue in the next 18 months or so, but come Brisbane in 1985, there was no doubting his place among New Zealand's great batsmen with 188, a scored he made twice in a calendar year after an earlier score in Georgetown, Guyana, at the Gabba in the innings victory over Australia.

+ Back on home turf, in the return series against Australia, at Lancaster Park, he took one on the chin and had to leave the field with blood pouring from a wound. But when he returned the assault on the bowling was belligerent and fierce in his effort of 137.

+ At Lancaster Park again his 83 against the West Indies in 1987 helped set up a famous victory which allowed New Zealand to level the series against the world champions.

+ His 299 against Sri Lanka was notable for the world-record third wicket partnership of 467 he enjoyed with Andrew Jones.

+ Will his century in the opening game of the 1992 World Cup against Australia on Eden Park ever be forgotten? It was the start of the most remarkable month of his career as New Zealand came within a hamstring pull of winning the World Cup.

+ The 91 he scored in an ODI at Hamilton against Australia, a game in which Jeff Wilson launched his international career, was notable for the fact that he batted on one leg and still produced the brilliance associated with him in full flow.

+ There were the two centuries on what was his farewell tour of England, 142 at Lord's and 115 in Manchester.

Sadly the career ended with an ODI in Nagpur, India in which his parting contribution was 63.

The prize of a triple Test century was denied Crowe at the Basin Reserve against Sri Lanka and that may have been the last time he enjoyed batting with complete confidence that his legs, which would ultimately end his career, could allow him to flourish.

In the second Test of that series, in Hamilton, Crowe was running back from the slips to field a ball and suffered a horrendous twist in the knee, the same knee that had caused him to end his schoolboy rugby career.

It was the same leg that would see his hamstring falter in the all-important World Cup semi-final against Pakistan a year later. And that leg would eventually force him to the realisation that he was no longer able to continue.

Having had the chance to watch Crowe in action as a journalist covering the game, to help him pen his always interesting columns, there was also the chance to see him in action during a triumphant period of Wellington cricket in the early 1990s.

On days when he and his great mate Richard Reid opened the batting in one-day games for Wellington, crowds were queuing outside the Basin Reserve from 7 o'clock in the morning to see them tear opposing sides apart. They rarely failed to please.

In his pomp Crowe could stride to the wicket leaving the watcher in complete confidence that his wicket would never be thrown away. He loved scoring runs, he cherished the battle and no bowler could rest easy. Sir Richard Hadlee for one could never claim his wicket.

There were times when he was misunderstood, criticised, sometimes of his own making, but there was never any doubt that to him the game was the thing.

It is a travesty that more was not made of his expertise by New Zealand Cricket but he wouldn't be the first person to suffer that fate in New Zealand cricket, or New Zealand sport. The failure to utilise those who have gone before, to seek knowledge before having to reinvent the wheel,  is one of the indictments of New Zealand sporting administrators.

The fortunate thing for future generations of cricketers is that access to much of his batting is readily available through online carriers like YouTube.

The illness that claimed his life was sad, he had so much still to offer but there can be no doubt that Martin Crowe has left a cricketing legacy for the ages.