A 25-year-old Bert Sutcliffe set numerous batting records during New Zealand’s tour of England in 1949. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring.
Cricket history contains the name of no cricketer from New Zealand who, at the age of 25, has established such claims to fame as Bert Sutcliffe, whose performances as a member of last season’s team from the Dominion stamped him as one of the best left-handed batsmen in the world today. His rise in the cricket world has been meteoric indeed, for not until 1946 did he make his first appearance in first-class cricket for Auckland. Yet in 1949 he set up record after record. He became the first member of a New Zealand touring side to exceed 2,000 runs and, with innings of 243 and 100 not out against Essex at Southend, the first to register two separate centuries in a match. That innings of 243 was the highest played by a New Zealander touring this country, exceeding the 225 not out by RC Blunt against Gentlemen of England at Eastbourne in 1931. On top of all that, Sutcliffe, with seven centuries, equalled the feat of CS Dempster for TC Lowry’s 1931 side. His aggregate for the summer reached 2,627 for an average of 59.70.
Figures alone do not convey an adequate picture of the capabilities of this well-built, good-looking, golden-haired batsman. Supremely confident and possessing classic style, he is master of all the strokes, with off-driving his forte, a grand fieldsman at short-leg, slips or in the covers, and a useful left-arm slow bowler. Having overcome a tendency displayed early in the tour to attempt forcing methods too soon, often with disastrous results, he became a menace to bowlers of all types. His value in the four drawn Test matches was immense, for, with a highest innings of 101, he scored 423 runs for an average of 60.42, and five times in seven innings exceeded 50.
Born at Auckland on November 17, 1923 – no relation of Herbert Sutcliffe, of Yorkshire and England – he was encouraged to play cricket, as soon as he became old enough to hold a bat, by his father, who, of Lancashire extraction, played in the Returned Soldiers’ Association Competition as an all-rounder and scored more than one century. To this early training, Mr. James Thompson, a master, and WM Wallace, the New Zealand Test batsman, added polish by their coaching when Sutcliffe went to Takapuna Grammar School. So well did the youngster assimilate their tuition that he hit his first century in a House match at the Grammar School at the age of 13. For three years he captained the School cricket team, and he also became vice-captain of the Rugby football side. In one match against King’s College School, Auckland, he made 133 not out and, with his spinners, took seven wickets for four runs and six for 24 runs. Against Mount Albert Grammar School in 1942 he put together 268, a score he has not so far surpassed in any class of cricket.
Leaving school when nineteen, he spent two years at the Teachers’ Training College, followed by two years in the New Zealand Army, serving as sergeant in the Infantry and Signals in Egypt, Italy and Japan. During this time he played cricket in Cairo in company with Peter Smith of Essex, R Aspinall of Yorkshire, and JC Laker of Surrey. Returning to New Zealand, he appeared for Auckland with moderate success, but in the following season, 1947/48, his career as a record breaker began. First he hit 197 and 128 for Otago from the MCC Team bowlers at Dunedin – a feat nobody else, it is believed, has ever achieved against a touring side. Then he scored 99 and 103 against Auckland, and followed with 118 and 125 in the game with Canterbury, helping substantially towards the success of Otago in carrying off the Plunket Shield.
In 1948/49, when again assisting Auckland, he made 135 and 141 in the match against Canterbury, sharing with DD Taylor, now with Warwickshire, in partnerships of 220 and 286. No record exists of any other opening pair taking part in two stands of over 200 in the same match. Sutcliffe in the same season hit 208 not out, his highest score in first-class cricket in his own country, for North Island vs South Island. Three times he won the Redpath Cup for batting, twice holding an average of over 100.
Like most of his countrymen, of modest disposition, Bert Sutcliffe was an instructor in physical education before touring England. On returning he took up the post of coach to the Otago Cricket Association.
Bert Sutcliffe, along with John Reid, went on to become a mainstay of New Zealand’s batting during the Fifties and early Sixties. In 42 Tests, he scored 2,727 runs at 40.10 including his country’s then highest individual score of 230*.