Geoff Howarth captaincy was the making of him. In 1969, at the age of 18, Geoff Howarth arrived in England to join the Surrey staff. The younger brother of the New Zealand left-arm spinner, Hedley Howarth, was a batsman with promise and a more than ‘occasional off-spinner.
Since then he has developed into a successful captain of New Zealand and, for his services to cricket, has been awarded an MBE. During the 14 years that Geoff has been at The Oval, he has seen Surrey’s fortunes fluctuate a good deal. Nor has his life in cricket been without disappointments.
There is little doubt amongst his teammates that he is an immensely talented batsman. He is a classical player with similarities at times to Barry Richards. He relies on natural timing to find the gaps in the field rather than using the power shots of some present-day batsmen.
He always appears to have plenty of time to play his shots even against the fastest bowlers. But since his debut for Surrey in 1971, he has only scored a thousand runs in a season on four occasions.
Geoff has not been in an easy position at The Oval. For some years he was one of three overseas players, of whom only two could play for the first at one time. He had to compete with Sylvester Clarkeand Intikhab Alam for a place in the team and often, despite being informed himself, was omitted because of the state of the pitch or the need for more firepower in the bowling department. This cannot have been conducive to Geoff Howarth: a classical player in the Barry Richards mould, any kind of consistency, but Geoff has accepted the situation stoically.
Also, he has been rather injury-prone which has led to his missing games, One of his nicknames is ‘Old Bones’, which caught on when an erstwhile colleague expressed his doubt that Geoff would ever make old bones, as he was forever nursing some strain or pull His technique as a batsman has also contributed to some of his failings. He thrives ‘on good, true pitches, and in Australia, he has been more successful as a big scorer.
His tendency to play across the line of the ball and, encouraged by the one-day game, to run the ball down to the third man has led to his undoing in English conditions. However, on his day, he is a dominant batsman who can destroy an attack. He is an excellent judge of the run rate required and always manages to show his class by his timing of the ball and his judgments of length. It is as captain of New Zealand that Geoff has really shown his true colors.
He is a big-match player and his temperament is better suited to Test cricket than the daily county cricket program. With the added responsibility of captaincy thrust on him, he has thrived as a cricketer and a man. Despite his casual exterior, he has strong ideas about the game and the way in which it should be played. Tactically he is very alert to what is required. He has molded a group of extremely talented New Zealand cricketers into a force that is no longer the walk-over that that country was once considered in international cricket.
He has gained the confidence of the other members of his team and his captaincy played no small part in their success in Australia this winter. He was so sure of the spirit in his team that he was even prepared to leave out Richard Hadleeafter his injury in order to stand by his winning combination ‘As New Zealand has gained in confidence, so Geoff Howarth, the captain, has also become more confident.
The nerves are still there before every innings as can be seen from the cigarette ends which are left behind when he goes out to bat. But the self-doubt, which was evident in the cricketer who was not sure whether he was going to play in the Surrey first or second team, has disappeared in the present captain of New Zealand, who is well respected throughout the cricketing world. Geoff has always remained a loyal servant to Surrey.
If he cannot motivate himself every day to play to his true potential, it is because of his character and not any diminution of concern for the county which set him on the path to success. After 14 years at The Oval, Geoff has been thoroughly accepted as a Surrey man and people forget at times that he is an overseas player and as such will miss Surrey matches for all but six weeks of this, his benefit season.
He will lead New Zealand in the World Cup and then in a Test series against England in the second half of the summer. We shall, no doubt, see his fighting qualities and tactical awareness in both the one-day matches and the five-day Tests. These international matches are just what seems to bring out the best in Geoffrey Philip Howarth.