Up Front by Emma Hart


Knights in White Flannel

Capitulation has a sound. It's the slap of my forehead dropping into my hands as I realise that my expectations for the New Zealand cricket team still weren't low enough. It's a clattery wooden sound and the tone of weary resignation in Bryan Waddell's voice.

I feel terrible saying it. Who wants to kick this team when they're down? For a start your leg would get really tired. Sometimes, though, there just comes a point where you have to say, cricket is not a faith-based initiative. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, and the Black Caps' problem is that they suck. It is possible that I take their repeated serial failures a bit personally. They're 'we' and 'us' in our house in a way that the All Blacks, for instance, aren't.

I can't remember when I first fell in love with cricket. It certainly wasn't at primary school, where girls weren't allowed to play. Well, except in Standard Two, where Mr Foster's idea of a class treat was to take us all out for a game of cricket to see how long he could bat while screaming abuse at anybody who did anything wrong. No, I don't think it was that.

I guess I first became aware of cricket's power on trips to Australia as a kid. Those summers, the cricket was on in the lounge of every house, commentators' voices providing a gentle counterpoint to the constant drone of ceiling fans and racism. It was the Chappell-Hadlee era when I started to become aware of players' names and roles. For some reason the player I chose from that stellar line-up as a personal hero was Ewan Chatfield – and not for his demonstration of why you don't bowl bouncers to tail-enders.

Cricket suits our tendency to root for the under-dog as a nation. We love our nuggety tail-enders battling for survival just as much as we love watching Chris Cairns hit sixes out of Scottish stadiums and into rivers.

While we're on the subject, I suppose we shouldn't under-estimate the influence of the Cairns Boy on my love of cricket. When I was at uni, my best friend and I set out to then-Lancaster Park to watch New Zealand play Pakistan. Stopping briefly at her house on the way, we discovered that neither Cairns nor Imran Khan were playing, so we didn’t bother going. Also we wouldn’t be needing those binoculars.

My partner found the Cairns thing hilarious. We'd be sitting at Hagley Oval watching Canterbury play while the kids roamed free, and he'd be running a monologue something like this:

Have you noticed how tight his trousers are? I thought it was just the wind pushing them back, but now he's fielding on the other side and they're still doing that. Nobody else's trousers are that tight. Hey, he's looking right at you. He's staring. He's probably thinking, "there’s that chick I saw in McDonalds the other day".

When Chris Cairns put out his autobiography, my partner managed to get hold of one of those life-sized cardboard cut-outs of him as a Christmas present for me. He thought it would be really funny if I woke up and it was standing next to the bed. Unfortunately for him, I woke up to find him pushing it into position. All I could see without my glasses in the darkened room was a man-sized thing silently gliding towards me. It was a good couple of minutes before I could stop screaming. I don’t wake up well. My kids grew up with Cardboard Chris, which was why when we ran into him and his family in McDonalds, my daughter yelled, "Look! It’s Cricket-Man!"

Even without him and Stephen Fleming though, cricket is still a Beautiful Game. I know that's supposed to be soccer, but for me a well-timed straight drive or an athletic diving catch is a thing of pure joy. And without being one of those people who can quote you stats until your head explodes, I love the rich history and humour associated with the game.

Even New Zealand cricket has had some wonderful moments. Winning at Lord's. Lou Vincent making a century on debut against Australia. (We still didn’t win.) White-washing Australia in a couple of huge run-fest one-dayers last year. And yet we front up in Brisbane to play an Australian team that's just been bashed about by India, and did I think we could match them? Nah. We just struggled against Bangladesh – the only results Google yields for 'Black Caps shock loss'.

So we lost the first test, not just a bit, but really thoroughly. At least we've fixed that problem where our tail-enders were making half our runs. And now we'll go to Adelaide and lose all over again, but in prettier surroundings. I'll be out of town for the first three days of the Second Test, and I'm more than half expecting it to all be over by the time I get home. But will I get my hopes up every time we take a couple of quick wickets or make twenty runs without losing a wicket? Of course I will. What would life be without the occasional triumph of hope over experience?

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