The Tangiwai cricket test, Boxing Day 1953

The Tangiwai cricket test, Boxing Day 1953

The 1953–54 New Zealand cricket team in South Africa. R.W. (Bob) Blair is the last player on the right in the second row. Bert Sutcliffe is third from right of those seated.

The Tangiwai test, Boxing Day 1953

One of the most memorable and poignant moments in New Zealand cricket history occurred on 26 December 1953, just two days after the Tangiwai rail disaster. At the time, the New Zealand team was touring South Africa. The second test, at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, started on 24 December and recommenced, after a day off for Christmas, on Boxing Day. By the time play resumed, reports of the Tangiwai tragedy – at the time the world’s eighth-deadliest rail disaster – had flashed around the world. The news was especially devastating for one of the New Zealand players, fast bowler Bob Blair, who learned that his fiancée, Nerissa Love, was among the 151 victims.

As New Zealand began its first innings on the morning of the 26th, chasing South Africa’s 271, a distraught Blair remained at the team hotel and was not expected to play. On a lively pitch, Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller were both forced to retire hurt after being hit by bouncers from the fiery fast bowler Neil Adcock; John Reid was struck five times before being dismissed for three. With the visitors reduced to 81 for 6, Sutcliffe returned to the crease, his forehead swathed in bandages. When the ninth wicket fell at 154, the players began to leave the field. Suddenly the crowd stood in silence as Blair emerged from the tunnel and was greeted by Sutcliffe, who placed a comforting arm around his shoulder. What followed was sensational as the pair smashed 25 runs (including four sixes – three by Sutcliffe and one by Blair) off a single over from South Africa’s Hugh Tayfield. By the time Blair was dismissed, the team’s total had climbed to 187, with Sutcliffe 80 not out.

A superb bowling effort then restricted South Africa to just 148, leaving the New Zealanders chasing 233 for a historic first test win. Although they reached 75 for 3 on the last morning, a win was not to be as the remaining seven wickets fell for 25. Nevertheless, the local press hailed the New Zealanders’ ‘dauntless spirit’ and declared that ‘All the glory was for the vanquished’; ‘Memories of the match will not be of the runs made or of wickets taken, but of the courage displayed.’

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Ron Giles

Posted: 15 Aug 2011

A few small but important details missing from the attached report were that Sutcliffe was taken to hospital where a doctor recommended he stay there for observation. Somewhere along the line a slug of Scotch helped ease the pain and Sutcliffe returned to the ground. His head was indeed swathed in bandages and at some point in his innings, blood started seeping through the bandages. Despite that, Sutcliffe proceeded to flay the attack, as only he could do. I lived in Torbay when Bert was living there and he coached us at Torbay Primary School. But he was such a modest man, you could never get him talking about what I regard as the greatest moment in NZ sporting history - certainly the biggest tear-jerker anyway.