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    Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair at Ellis Park: A Story Transcending Cricket
Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair at Ellis Park: A Story Transcending Cricket
Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair. Source: National Library of New Zealand

Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair at Ellis Park: A Story Transcending Cricket

On December 26, 1953, a day etched in the annals of New Zealand cricket, Ellis Park in Johannesburg became the stage for one of the most poignant moments in sports history. This date is memorable not only for the cricketing drama that unfolded, but also for the shadow cast by the Tangiwai rail disaster, which struck New Zealand just two days earlier. The disaster, which claimed 151 lives, deeply impacted the New Zealand cricket team, who were touring South Africa at the time.

The Tangiwai Disaster

On Christmas Eve, 1953, the overnight express train from Wellington to Auckland met with a catastrophic accident near Tangiwai. The train, carrying 285 passengers, attempted to cross the Whangaehu River, unaware that a bridge pier had collapsed due to a lahar, a devastating mudflow. Despite last-minute efforts by a nearby witness, Cyril Ellis, to alert the crew, the train could not be stopped in time, and the locomotive, along with several carriages, plunged into the river. Among the deceased was Nerissa Love, the fiancée of Bob Blair, a fast bowler for the New Zealand cricket team.

Tangiwai disaster. Source: Otago Daily Times
Tangiwai disaster. Source: Otago Daily Times

The Start of the Test Match

On December 24, 1953, the second test between New Zealand and South Africa commenced at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. The South African team, led by Jack Cheetham, was formidable, having drawn a series against Australia and defeated New Zealand at home. The hosts posted a challenging total, with significant contributions from their middle order. As Christmas day passed, the tragic news from New Zealand reached the team, casting a pall over the proceedings. Blair, devastated by the loss of his fiancée, chose to stay at the hotel, his participation in the match uncertain.

Boxing Day Drama

The cricket resumed on Boxing Day, with New Zealand chasing South Africa’s total of 271. The pitch was lively, and the South African bowlers, especially Neil Adcock, posed a severe threat. Early in New Zealand's innings, the team was dealt a series of blows. Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller were both injured by Adcock's fierce bouncers, with Sutcliffe suffering a severe head injury and Miller coughing up blood after being hit on the chest. John Reid also sustained multiple hits before being dismissed. With the team struggling at 81 for 6, Sutcliffe, bandaged and bloodied, returned to the crease to continue his innings.

Blair’s Return and the Legendary Partnership

When the ninth wicket fell at 154, it seemed New Zealand’s innings was nearing an end. However, in an unexpected and courageous move, Bob Blair decided to join Sutcliffe on the field. The sight of Blair walking out to bat, greeted by Sutcliffe with a supportive arm around his shoulder, silenced the crowd. What followed was a remarkable display of bravery and defiance. Together, they scored 25 runs in a single over off South Africa’s Hugh Tayfield, with Sutcliffe hitting three sixes and Blair contributing one. Their partnership lifted the team’s total to 187, with Sutcliffe remaining unbeaten on 80.

Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair. Source: CricketMash
Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair. Source: CricketMash

The Aftermath and Legacy

Although New Zealand eventually fell short of victory, their spirited performance, especially the heroics of Sutcliffe and Blair, earned them immense respect. The local press praised the New Zealand team’s indomitable spirit, stating that the match would be remembered not for the runs and wickets, but for the courage displayed in the face of adversity. Despite losing the test by a considerable margin, the day became a symbol of resilience and determination in the face of personal and collective tragedy.

Reflections on the Match

Reflecting on that fateful day, cricket historians and players alike have highlighted the extraordinary courage shown by the New Zealand team. Sutcliffe’s determination to continue playing despite his injuries and Blair’s decision to honour his fallen fiancée by joining the match exemplified the profound human spirit. The emotional impact of the day resonated deeply with both the players and the spectators, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of cricket.

Continuing the Journey

Bob Blair, who later described how the tragedy shaped his cricketing career, continued to play with a fierce resolve. He went on to take significant wickets in both domestic and international cricket. His life and career were later celebrated in various forms, including books, plays, and a television film, each recounting the heroic acts of that day. Blair’s legacy remains a testament to the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit, inspiring future generations of cricketers and sports enthusiasts alike.

Dedications and Tributes to the Tangiwai Test

The Tangiwai Test of Boxing Day 1953 has inspired numerous dedications and tributes over the years, reflecting its profound impact on New Zealand cricket and the collective memory of the nation. This story of courage and tragedy has been memorialised in various forms of media and public remembrance, ensuring its legacy endures. Here are some of the key dedications and tributes:

Books

1. "What Are You Doing Out Here: Heroism and Distress at a Cricket Test" by Norman Harris (2010)

   - This book offers a detailed account of the Tangiwai Test, exploring the personal and emotional dimensions of the events. Bob Blair wrote the foreword, providing his own reflections on the match and the tragedy that overshadowed it.

2. "The Last Everyday Hero: The Bert Sutcliffe Story" by Richard Boock

   - Focusing on Bert Sutcliffe’s life and career, this biography delves into his remarkable performance during the Tangiwai Test. It captures the essence of Sutcliffe's resilience and bravery in the face of extreme adversity.

Films and Television

"Tangiwai" (2011) directed by Charlie Haskell, this television film dramatises the events surrounding the Tangiwai disaster and the subsequent test match. It stars Ryan O'Kane as Bob Blair and Dean O'Gorman as Bert Sutcliffe. The film vividly portrays the emotional and physical challenges faced by the players, especially Blair and Sutcliffe. Various cricket documentaries have featured segments on the Tangiwai Test, highlighting its significance in cricket history. These documentaries often focus on the human stories behind the game, accentuating the courage and determination of the players involved.

Tangiwai, 2011. Source: IMDb
Tangiwai, 2011. Source: IMDb

Over the years, many newspapers and sports journals have revisited the Tangiwai Test, especially around significant anniversaries. Articles often recount the heroics of the players and the emotional weight of the match.

Sports programs and news outlets have frequently featured stories about the Tangiwai Test, particularly focusing on the anniversary of the event or discussing great moments in cricket history.

Memorials and Personal Tributes

Bob Blair has made regular visits to the grave of his fiancée, Nerissa Love, paying his respects and remembering her, especially around Christmas and the anniversary of the Tangiwai disaster. These personal tributes underscore the deep and lasting impact of the tragedy on his life.

Blair has been honoured at various sports awards and ceremonies, often acknowledged for his remarkable performance and the emotional strength he displayed during the Tangiwai Test.

The story of the Tangiwai Test is often recounted in New Zealand cricket circles and by fans, serving as a source of inspiration and a poignant reminder of the resilience shown by the players.

Cultural Impact

The Tangiwai Test remains a profound chapter in New Zealand’s cricket history, celebrated and remembered through a variety of tributes. From books and films to plays and personal memorials, the story of Bob Blair, Bert Sutcliffe, and the New Zealand team’s courage in the face of tragedy continues to inspire and move audiences around the world.

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