Former New Zealand Test batsman Bert Sutcliffe amassed a total of 2,627 runs on a 1949 tour of England. The left-hander enchanted a generation of New Zealanders with his graceful stroke play in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. At the time only Australian great Don Bradmanhad topped that total. In 1952, he played his most incredible innings, 385 for Otago against Canterbury at Lancaster Park. The rest of his side scored just 86 and the next highest score was 29.
That 385 remained a world record by a left-hander for more than 40 years until West Indian Brian Lara scored 501. It was almost a ridiculous situation,” Sutcliffe later recalled. “I was going well, so Lankford Smith, our captain, instructed all our other batsmen to feed me the strike. We had batsmen who were capable of scoring runs, but on Lankford’s instructions, they gave me nearly all the bowling.
I was in good form and just kept going. Sutcliffe had been ill with emphysema for several years and had been in declining health over recent months and was diagnosed with cancer. New Zealand Cricket honored Sutcliffe’s place in the game in this country by naming its purpose-built ground at its Cricket Academy, the Bert Sutcliffe Oval. NZC also awards the Bert Sutcliffe Medal annually to those it deems have made outstanding service to cricket over a lifetime. This year’s winner was Sutcliffe’s captain on the 1949 tour of England. Walter Hadlee said It was that 1949 tour that highlighted Sutcliffe’s place as one of the finest left-handed batsmen to have graced the game, and as one of New Zealand’s greatest batsmen. A measure of his impact on that tour was the 2,627 runs he scored at an average of 59.70.
At that time, only Don Bradman had scored more on a tour of England. Sutcliffe’s tour did not start well, and he later said that it was the chance to have watched his great friend, and only genuine rival for the honor of New Zealand’s finest left-hander, Martin Donnelly in action, coupled with the advice of technician in the “I thought he was going to get a double century as his score mounted past 150, 175, 190.
But the Fates launched a veritable thunderbolt from the hand of Billy Edrich, sailing in behind it, was played forward – only to be caught by the bowler who had hurled himself to the batting crease to do it. He looked comically sorry as he stared at his hand, I think we all felt we should have liked Bert Sutcliffe to put up the 200 now he was so near.”
In his second innings, century-maker Hammond said, “They gave him a greeting when he passed his hundred in that second innings. And so, did we, and how well he deserved it for a chanceless, brilliant piece of batting, as good as any I have seen. He was received from the great technician in the New Zealand game.
Merv Wallace, that saw him come right during the final two-thirds of the tour. Members of the England team were aware of Sutcliffe’s capabilities. During their tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1946-47, they had seen him score a century in each inning for Otago. MCC captain Wally Hammondcommented on Sutcliffe’s first innings effort which saw him out for 197.
He did not, the benefits of his tour of England in 1949 were soon evident back at home in the following summer when he scored the first of two triple centuries in his career. The first was 355 for Otago against Auckland Then three summers later he hit 385 for Otago against Canterbury, a world record score by a left-handed batsman which stood until it was beaten by Brian Lara when scoring his 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham in 1994.
Bert Sutcliffe dominated the domestic scene, in which there were only four teams during the earliest years of his career, in a way few players have achieved. If there was one moment in his career more memorable than several outstanding contenders. Then it had to be Boxing Day at Johannesburg in 1953 when the NZ batsman was rattled by Neil Adcock on a green wicket. But when they were coming to terms with the tragedy of New Zealand’s worst rail disaster at home when 151 people died on Christmas.
When the overnight North Island express train sloughed into a river after a bridge had been washed out. Original news of the disaster was worsened when one of the team’s bowlers, Bob Blair, learned his fiancée had perished in the tragedy. New Zealand was playing the second Test against South Africa, and Neil Adcock woke up in a mean mood.
New Zealand was put through a fast bowling mill and Sutcliffe was hit on the head and taken to hospital. Forty years after the event, when interviewed, the memory of what happened next still brought a pause from Sutcliffe. A wipe of the eye and a lump in the throat. Sutcliffe went back out to bat swathed in bandages and with Blair not attending the ground, everyone started to leave the field when the ninth wicket fell.
Bert Sutcliffe recalled the moment: “It was quite an unreal situation. We all started to leave the field at what we thought was the end of the innings, and there was Bob coming out of the tunnel to bat. He didn’t need to do it – we had saved the follow-on- but when he left the hotel to come to the ground, he didn’t know that. You don’t expect a guy to appear like that.
The whole atmosphere was unbelievable, and you could sense the crowd asking themselves: How would we feel if that happened to us?” There was a stunned silence. “Bob was all right till he looked at the other guys, who were crying. I said to him: “For goodness’ sake, what are you doing here? Throw the bat at the ball and get out.’ He played at the first couple of balls and didn’t know where they were.
Then he hit a six and the crowd went wild. When we came back at the end of the innings, they were jumping up and down cheering.” Typically, Sutcliffe down-played his own role in the proceedings. He hit 80, in a superb attacking inning, and shared the world record for most runs in an over, 25. He was only beaten by another New Zealander Craig McMillan when he scored 26.
Sutcliffe continued: We started to get dressed to go outfield, but Boney (captain Geoff Rabone) came up to us and asked what we thought we were doing. We replied we were going out to the field, but he said there were a couple of other guys who would do that. A local bloke came along with a full bottle of whiskey and asked us if we thought we could use it. We got two chairs and put them under the showers and just sat there. We got through the best part of a bottle in half an hour. It was just a reaction to what we had been through – we were the best part sober at the end,” Sutcliffe said. On the tour to India and Pakistan in 1955-56 he broke the New Zealand Test record for the highest score when reaching 230 against India but took so much out of himself on the tour he was unable to complete the West Indies series and missed the chance of playing in New Zealand’s first Test victory, He never played in a winning Test side.
Bert Sutcliffe toured England three times in 1949, 1958, and 1965, the last occasion when coming out of retirement. He toured India and Pakistan and South Africa, playing a total of 42 Tests in which he scored 2,727 runs at an average of 40.10 including five hundred and 15 fifties with a career-best of 230. In his first-class career, he totaled 17,447 runs at 47.41 including 44 hundred and 83 fifties and took 86 wickets as a part-time bowler with the best of five for 19.
His reputation was described best by two journalists who had a lengthy association with him. The first, Alan Mitchell of the New Zealand Press Association, noted: “Sutcliffe is a fine example of how success should be taken: modest, unassuming, imperturbable, helpful, with no trace of a swollen head.”
The second, RT ‘Dick’ Brittenden of The Press, said: With all his successes, Sutcliffe never showed the slightest sign of conceit, or even of consciousness that he was a cut above the rest. Bert Sutcliffe is survived by his wife Norma, son Gary and daughters Christine and Lynn. He was born on November 17, 1923, at Ponsonby in Auckland and played for Auckland, Otago, and Northern Districts. Bert can also bowl slow left-arm orthodox.
Bert Sutcliffe made a brilliant century in each inning for Otago against MCC at Dunedin in 1946-47. Hence, he scored 722 runs at a healthy average of 103.14 including three hundred. Sutcliffe made his Test debut against England at Christchurch in 1946-47 and appeared in his last Test, also against England, at Birmingham in 1965 when he was aged 41.
Bert Sutcliffe was named one of Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year in 1950. He died in Auckland on April 20, 2001, at the age of 77 in a hospital after a long illness. However, he was named New Zealand Champion Sportsperson in the 1940s. In school, he has army training, and then served New Zealand forces in Egypt and Italy in the Second World War, and then returned from Japan in 1946 to continue his cricket career. After retirement, he opts to select a coaching career. The most productive and cultured batsman of his generation.