Eleven years ago Nathan Astle played the innings of his life, scoring 222 in the process. Perhaps it is because it is the first thing Sky TV puts on as entertainment during a test match rain break, but somehow this innings has become etched in the New Zealand cricketing public’s psyche. People still debate the merits of the innings, whether it mattered as it was in a losing cause, if it was the ‘best’ innings in New Zealand test history, etc etc. Storytellers add codas about the support played by an injured Chris Cairns. Being a cricket fan in New Zealand, I of course have my own take on the innings.
The reason it is still seen as a landmark innings, even though (perhaps especially because) it was in a losing cause, was because it typified the quality that New Zealand cricket fans rate most highly. Defiance. We have always had a losing team, except for the occasional blips provided by Hadlee and Crowe. What matters most when you expect your team to lose anyway is how they go about it. Nothing riles people up more than the sight of a meek collapse. Similarly, nothing has been stressed more over the past decade than the need for New Zealand’s batsmen to bat for time.
Yes, Astle’s 222 was very aggressive, but in this case it was a different sort of defiance. When he started hitting out, the match was lost. With a target of 550 and two days to bat out, defeat was inevitable. Earlier in the match New Zealand’s batsmen had been humiliated, dismissed for 147 off a mere 51.2 overs. Graham Thorpe had strode out and smashed a double century, Flintoff had chipped in with a breezy hundred, and England were looking like they were going to completely outclass New Zealand.
While Astle was at the crease he witnessed the team crumble around him. A few in the top order lasted a while, but much of the team abjectly failed to fire. When the wickets tally reached 9, New Zealand were still more than 200 runs short. Out hobbled Cairns. That he even came out to bat at all was strange, he was too injured to play in the next two tests. The message was clear though, the match wasn’t yet over. Astle and Cairns proceeded to destroy the English bowlers, flaying them all around the ground. Commentators grasped for superlatives to describe the intensity of the partnership. In just 11 overs, they added 118 runs.
Cricket fans all around the country still talk about hearing an inkling of Astle’s innings while it was happening, and dropping everything to get to a radio or TV. For that hour or so of carnage, people forgot that it was the endgame of a humiliating defeat. When the target slipped below 100 more runs, whispers of the possibility of victory began. It was of course forlorn.
However, what stuck in the mind of cricket fans was the attitude of Astle and Cairns. Just because the game was lost, doesn’t mean that we should play like losers. That spirit of defiance meant a lot to New Zealand cricket fans, as it showed the team understood that they weren’t winners, but were going to do their utmost anyway. Followers of cricket in New Zealand are fairly realistic, we tend to know the limitations of our team very well. This innings sticks in the memory because it is an example of a time when a player transcended those limitations, and took on a superior opposition without fear.