Friday, December 30, 2016

Burf and Barb's Excellent Staycation - Pt 1

With summer finally shedding its heat on Auckland on Friday, what better than to get out and take advantage?

For some time the Okura walk off East Coast Bays Road between Long Bay and Silverdale has been a McConnell target and today was the day.

It was well worth it. What was truly impressive was the obvious care with which Auckland's City Council staff are attempting to stem the Kauri dieback disease and also the pest control through the walk.

The value in that was especially appreciated when walking on elevated duckboards through a section of the track which could best be described as 'Kauri Avenue'. It demonstrated the delicate environment in which these magnificent trees are flourishing, even in their relative youth, and by which they still manage to impress with their rigid growth to poke above the bush canopy.

Long may it continue and here's hoping all visitors perform the necessary shoewash before and after their walks, at the facility provided.

At low tide the end result is the chance to walk along the floor of the estuary taking in the brilliant birdlife and what is left of the Pohutukawa show, New Zealand's colourful Christmas tree.

A slip just before the estuary exit has prevented the track continuing through the bush, but the estuary walk is compensation enough and at its end, before heading sideways around the waterfront towards Stillwater and the exit to the track, there is a magnificent vista of the Hauraki Gulf looking along the Whangaparoa Peninsula with Great Barrier Island standing guard in the distance.

As for us we turned around and went back whence we had come thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the track in reverse mode.

And all within 10 minutes drive from home. Auckland continues to surprise. And if the weather continues its belated arrival for the holidays, who knows what might be next?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Another New Zealand case of what might have been

Brendon McCullum Declared, with Greg McGee. Published by Mower Publications.

Brendon McCullum achieved, for a New Zealander, a significant place in cricket.

Just how that will be remembered, time will tell. There's no doubt he had an impact on the game with his blistering batting when on song. He retired with a dossier full of statistical credits.

Second highest run scorer in New Zealand's Test cricket with 6453, behind Stephen Fleming's 7172.

The highest score by a New Zealand batsman in Tests, 302, and the fastest century by any player in the world off 54 balls, and he has the three fastest Test centuries by a New Zealander.

He achieved the world record for most sixes hit in Test cricket with 107.

Second on the list of New Zealand wicketkeepers' dismissals with 179, behind Adam Parore on 201 – a feat that would have been significantly improved had it not been for back issues that forced him to give up 'keeping.

He was third on the list of Test appearances with 101, behind Daniel Vettori on 113 and Stephen Fleming on 111 and third also on the list of ODI appearances (260) and ODI runs (6083).

He captained NZ in 31 Tests, won 11, lost 11, drew nine, averaged 45.28 as captain, 38.64 as not and he captained NZ in 62 ODIs, won 36, lost 22.

There are many other credits in his career, including that memorable knock to launch the IPL cricket phenomenon that elevated his personal wealth quite significantly.

He led the New Zealand side in a distinctive fashion, not always with the support of the entire cricket community, but definitely in how he felt the game should be played. It was a policy that won praise from those who had wondered at cricket's direction on the field, even if it didn't quite deliver as many wins as it might.

The fact he was in the position to impose that style of play came after a harrowing transfer of power that is the subject of a thorough scrutiny in his autobiography, rightfully pointing out that it wasn't of his making. The manner in which the whole affair was conducted was yet another indictment of the way New Zealand Cricket too often operates. A world where smoke and mirrors come to mind.

Similarly, the manner in which the International Cricket Council handled the anti-corruption episode involving McCullum whose evidence against former team-mate, and hero, Chris Cairns was leaked to an English newspaper.

This treatment made a mockery of the entire anti-corruption system and would have been laughable were the subject matter not so serious. There are times when international sports administrators demonstrate an ineptness that defies belief, and this was one of them.

Either you take corruption in the game seriously or you shouldn't bother. This instance was not a good demonstration of intent. It ranked with the IOC's miserable failure to deal with the Russian drugs issue ahead of the Rio Olympic Games – a complete and utter indictment of the IOC system.

If there was one element to his game that McCullum inevitably shared with many of his New Zealand contemporaries it was the 'what might have been' factor.

Specifically, this related to summation of events by the belief that the action was reasonable because that was how he played the game. That's fine to a point but there comes a time in any sport, in any contest, when the relevance of the now, the key moment, the turning point in a game, occurs.

That is when the cleverness, the nous, the understanding, the difference between winning and losing occurs. That is when greatness is demonstrated.

History will show, as it has with several other top New Zealand cricketers, that greatness eluded McCullum. Too often opportunities to win were lost because to have pulled back a little, to have made a subtle change of course, would have meant departing from a basic, but sometimes flawed, philosophy.

Cricket is a game of many lessons. In it, there is nothing new under the sun. McCullum may never have heard of former Australian captain and opener, and television commentator, Bill Lawry's adage, "You play 110 percent to win and you play 150 percent not to lose." Even if the concept is mathematically impossible, the message is clear.

If he had applied it, there might have been an even rosier hue to his final career record.

No more obvious example exists than what was seen in the 2015 World Cup final. New Zealand had performed brilliantly in securing their first final place. The cricket world was their oyster.

But at a time when instinct over-ruled pragmatism, McCullum succumbed. Batting first, the opportunity was there to unsettle the Australians, to knock them off their game, to make them wonder what New Zealand had up their sleeve?

History had its own example of that 'something different' when Martin Crowe and Warren Lees achieved that back in the 1992 World Cup by unleashing Dipak Patel as an opening bowler with his off-spin as the prelude to a sensational win.

Instead of leaving the Aussies to scratch their heads and wonder where things were going, New Zealand blew it when McCullum rolled the dice unnecessarily early and departed in the first over – opportunity lost. That was the way he played the game – and while he might feel there were no regrets, that won't be a feeling shared by a cricketing public who had waited 39 years for New Zealand to win a Cricket World Cup.

New Zealand fans, many of whom were new to the game and the success of the men capped in black, hoped this might be the time. But it was a case of situation normal, another setback of the variety to which New Zealand cricket fans have been inured over the years. Cleverness, of the opportunistic type, is something other countries do better.

'Brendon McCullum Declared' leaves no doubt about McCullum's approach to his career. It is a fascinating insight into performance in top-level sport and is crafted in a manner expected of such a fine writer as Greg McGee but it also serves as yet another reminder of 'what might have been'.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Searching for Jack Lovelock, and a flat white

One of the delights of undertaking sports research is finding a treasure trove of information from an unexpected source.

For any historian, the LA84 Foundation Sports library in the West Adams district of Los Angeles is a must visit.

When the internet was in its infancy and I was undertaking some research on Jack Lovelock for what would become Conquerors of Time, I came across a reference to the LA84 Foundation Library. Upon making contact with them it was clear that when the opportunity arose they needed to be included in any research trips to the United States.

That chance occurred in 2003 when setting aside four days in Los Angeles to utilise the library's resources. Basing myself in a motel in Santa Monica, I was a short taxi ride away from the museum. But before getting there, there was an unexpected, but most welcome, surprise.

The trip had been a round-the-world effort firstly to visit Galatas on Crete to do some research on the World War Two bayonet charge by two companies of New Zealand's 23 Battalion, and others, to reclaim the small village, just outside of Canea, that was the subject of my book Galatas 1941: Courage in Vain. From Crete it was to New York to stay with Prof. Roger Robinson and his wife Kathrine Switzer, while also visiting the families of milers Bill Bonthron (Princeton) and Luigi Beccali (Long Island) for research on the Lovelock book.

So successful were those contacts that by the time Los Angeles was reached it would be fair to say the brain, and the suitcase, was overloaded with excitement with the information that had been gained.

Alas, one of the disappointments of time away from home was that coffee a la Australasia, and Coffee Culture in Christchurch, where we were living at the time, especially, had been a noticeable absence during the trip. Sustenance was to be closer at hand than was appreciated when checking into said Santa Monica motel. The manager said if I needed some breakfast in the morning there was a little café out the front that was bound to suit.

So walking into the cafe to start my day next morning, I said to the woman behind the counter: "This may sound a little strange, but do you do flat whites here?" She responded, "You're from Australia or New Zealand!"

"New Zealand," I replied.

She then said: "We had an Australian barista stay here a couple of months ago and she showed us how to make flat whites, would you like one?"

Would I what? It arrived and when completed she said: "How was that?" And I said: "May I have another please? It's been a long time between flat whites."

Suitably fortified I made my way to West Adams to the LA Foundation Sports Library which was a site to behold. If this was how proceeds from the 1984 Olympics should be spent then all power to Peter Ueberroth and friends.

Faced with such an impressive array of sports books and magazines, including complete sets of the late, lamented World Sports, Sports Illustrated and a near complete series of The Amateur Athlete, the USOC official journal, it was fair to say pig and muck would be a fair description of my reaction.

The Track and Field section of the library was prolific and with only four days there was a lot of ground to be covered. The chosen method was to get a library ladder – the books were on the top shelf – and work my way through the indexes of the books most obviously related to my subject.

It was when nearing the end of that process that a true gem emerged, the story of Artur Takac, titled 60 Olympic Years. Takac had been Yugoslavia's delegate to the IOC for many years and it turned out that he had been a handy middle-distance prospect in his youth.

He raced with Lovelock in an event in Zagreb in 1935. Aged 17 at the time, Takac was taken under Lovelock's wing and was given a coaching session on the hoof, as it were, during the race. Too young to be included in the Yugolavia team for the 1936 Olympics, Takac was sent to the Olympic Youth Camp staged in association with the Games.

There, he ran into Lovelock who invited him to a training session before the 1500m. After watching him do his workout, Takac timed Lovelock through several 300m repeats and saw just how fast he was going. He asked him why he specifically ran 300m sprints?

Lovelock merely said: "Silence my boy. Just keep watching and you will see in the final all will be decided in the last 300 metres. But it has to be a surprise."

This was gold, literally and figuratively, because it confirmed that Lovelock's plan to sprint from 300m out was no fluke. And it destroyed the myth that Lovelock had arrived at this tactic very late in the piece.

On that find alone, the trip to the library had been worthwhile. But it yielded much more. It is a fantastic place for any sports historian and it was my experience that the staff became very involved in what I was seeking and could not have been more helpful.