The long tortured beautiful history of New Zealand opening batters

They went in first, and this is my documentary series on their stories.

A very long time ago, I was sitting in the Edgbaston press box with George Dobell and we were talking about our pieces for the day when we both worked for ESPNcricinfo. This was pretty common. We would bounce ideas, test theories, look for info for each other.

We’re very different kinds of writers but very similar kinds of nerds. So that partnership probably helped both of us a lot.

But this day in Edgbaston, I was trying to write about how while Martin Guptill was struggling, in the long tortured history of New Zealand openers, this was par for the course.

I knew there was a basic idea there. But as I recounted the names to George, his eyes didn’t so much glaze over, but fermented in boredom.

After two hours of me trying to win him over, George eventually broke out of his slumber to tell me that my piece was boring.

And, he was entirely right. It didn’t make much sense, it was just a list of players who hadn’t done well and a few that had briefly stood out. There was no arc to it, no reason for it existing. I could have just put a list of all the openers in NZ history with over 10 matches and it would have been as good as that piece.

The thing is, I couldn’t stop thinking about these people. While I didn’t know what the article was, I did know something was here. England and New Zealand share similar conditions. Yet one managed to produce the greatest openers in the game, and the other had so few that were even above par. It would be like South Africa creating great fast bowlers, and Australia not finding any.

New Zealand should be a breeding ground for players who have overcome green wickets, grey days and canny seamers who nibble it both way. And yet they were a middle order and even lower middle order batting dependent cricket culture. And because of that, I couldn’t just shake this off. I wanted to look closer.

And when I did, I didn’t really find answers. I still don’t understand why they don’t make better openers. But I found something better, incredible stories.

Mark Richardson took Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev with his left-arm finger spin first class debut. Got the yips, left the game, remade himself as a middle-order batter, and then went on to be one of the most incredible openers his nation had had.

John Wright may still be the best long-term opener they had, and he wrote a weird book, glued gloves to his bat, and is now a country music singer. Glenn Turner and Stewie Dempster should have been all-time greats, but New Zealand had no professional system to support them. Bert Sutcliffe got hit in the head.

Then you have the family connection, the Rutherfords, Redmonds, Lathams, and so many more that were all related to each other. Honestly, this feels more like a family job than anything else.

There were only two Blairs to play at Test level, and both were NZ openers.

And there were incredible stories like Bert Vance’s 77 run over and everything that ever happened to Trevor Franklin. Not to forget the tortured soul of Lou Vincent.

By the time I worked through the list, I looked at each player’s story, and how it fit into the history of this list of players. What I realised more than anything is how many of them just went out there with no pedigree of scoring runs, with no hype, no expectations, and they were sent out there. At the other end were Hall and Griffiths, McGrath and Gillespie, Wasim and Waqar, Marshall and Holding,  Pollock and Donald, Bumrah and Shami, Lillee and Thommo, Curtly and Courtney, Anderson and Broad, Steyn and Ntini, I mean, you get the idea.

Most of them might have made decent middle-order players, like Rutherford and Watling proved. But that’s where Crowe, Williamson, Jones, Cairns, Reid, Coney, Fleming, Vettori, Astle, McCullum, McMillan and Taylor batted. The openers were the afterthoughts, the add-ons and expendable assets. Sent out first to do nothing more than try to survive.

I didn’t see all this at first with that conversation with George. Then it was just a list; now it is a collection of stories from the frontline of New Zealand openers. The men who did the job because someone had to.

Below is the entire series. If you love cricket tales,  you won’t get many better than this lot.

And just a special thank you to Arya Yuyutsu and his team at 42. This isn’t really a YouTube video series, this is more like a documentary. And for them to be able to create something of this quality without talking heads, or rights, is just incredible. The animation at the end of part three is just incredible, where they had to recreate an innings we have no footage of and a train crash.

They did these players justice. And I hope I did too.