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When Richard Hadlee propelled Nottinghamshire to glory – Almanack

by Graeme Wright 8 minute read

Richard Hadlee recovered from a poor season in 1980 to propel Nottinghamshire to the County Championship in 1981. His prodigious efforts earned him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year award.

One of the top five fast bowlers in the world was how his captain, Clive Rice, described Richard Hadlee as Nottinghamshire prepared for their final fixture of the 1981 Schweppes Championship. Beyond the two nets, sprinklers kept the Trent Bridge grass a lush green; the blue sky overhead belied the forecasts of rain that could wash away the county’s hopes. And the following day Rice invited Glamorgan to face the best fast-bowling attack at Trent Bridge since the unforgotten summers of Larwood and Voce.

By lunch the Welsh county were fielding, Richard Hadlee, with four for 18 off 12 overs, had become the first, and only, bowler in 1981 to reach 100 wickets, and Nottinghamshire were on course for the victory that took the County Championship title to Trent Bridge for the first time since 1929.

Yet Richard John Hadlee, born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on July 3, 1951, might not have participated in the celebrations that followed – in the unlikely event, that is, of Nottinghamshire winning the title without his all-round contribution of 105 wickets and 745 runs. Unhappy with a disastrous 1980 season, when fitness problems limited him to seven Championship games, he was hesitant of renewing his contract in 1981. “I’m not happy playing my cricket on the sidelines,” he said in his forthright way. “But the club asked me to re-think.”

It says much for their opinion of his ability: in his three seasons with them he had played only 23 games for his 96 wickets (from 641 overs) and 549 runs, though he missed half of his first season by joining the 1978 New Zealand touring party. Many ordinary professionals play that number of games in a season.4

Richard Hadlee, however, is no ordinary performer, and he set out to prove to the English public that he was what his Test record states: a world-class fast bowler whose aggressive left-handed batting entitles him to all-rounder status. The rigours of a full Australasian summer not withstanding – six Tests and the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup, in which New Zealand reached the finals – he embarked on a pre-season training programme with the dedication of a true professional. Its fulfilment was seen day in day out as he played in every Championship match in 1981 and missed only two of the county’s 21 limited-overs matches.

Usually operating off a shorter run – 15 paces as opposed to 23 – he bowled to telling effect: a lean, hard six-footer, with his Lillee-smooth approach to the delivery stride of a text-book high action, he was still too sharp and too uncomfortable for most batsmen, still able to stick him on his backside or beat the bat. And he could make the ball do more; as his great rival and idol, Dennis Lillee, had shown.

In 1981 he bowled 708.4 overs. No seam bowler delivered more and only five others exceeded 600. The more overs you get through, the better your chances was his philosophy, and certainly his striking-rate was evenly distributed: 31 wickets in May and June, 35 in July, and 33 in August and September. His best innings return was seven for 25 against Lancashire at Liverpool: for Nottinghamshire he never once took ten wickets in a match.

Such whole-hearted effort with the ball was not Hadlee’s only contribution to Nottinghamshire’s success. A maiden Test hundred against West Indies from 92 deliveries was testament to a hard-hitting approach, in addition to belying criticism that he was reluctant to become involved with the fastest bowling. “For Nottinghamshire,” said Rice, “he was just the person to come in at No.7 and belt the ball all over the place.” His stroke-play took them to maximum batting points on a number of occasions, and was also used to advantage in the knockout competitions.

“The helmet makes a difference,” Hadlee admitted. “No-one likes being hit, but now I get into line more. Also, I’ve been writing a coaching manual (a reprint of his autobiography was already out of print) and I began putting the theory into practice out in the middle.” The result, effective and entertaining, included a career-best 142 not out against Yorkshire, but then his theory on batting is uncomplicated. The ball should be hit as hard and as often as possible.

Fourth son of Walter Hadlee, who captained New Zealand in the post-war years and later became chairman and then president of the country’s governing body, Richard Hadlee did not suffer from the expectations that accompany the sons of famous fathers. Those pressures had fallen on his elder brother Barry, a batsman like his father, and had been further absorbed by another older brother, Dayle, a fast-medium bowler who first played for New Zealand in 1969. The three brothers were in the New Zealand party for the 1975 World Cup.

When Richard left Christchurch Boys’ High School, by rights he should have joined his brothers at the Old Boys club – a third brother, Martin, was also there – but Old Boys could boast a first-class opening attack and he wanted the new ball. He went instead to Lancaster Park, opened the bowling for their first team in his first season out of school, and at 20, in January 1972, made his debut for Canterbury in the Plunket Shield. Two matches later, against Central Districts at Nelson, he did the hat-trick. Next year, against Pakistan at Wellington, came his Test debut: he took two wickets for 112 and blazed his way to 46 in New Zealand’s first innings. For the next two Tests he gave way to brother Dayle and so set the pattern of his Test career for the next three years: sometimes in, as often out.

Wisden’s headmasterly assessment after his first tour of England, in 1973, was that his best bowling came late in the tour, but he has considerable prospects ahead. Those words were not yet wet ink when he helped bowl New Zealand to a moral victory in Sydney and, a few months later in Christchurch, with returns of three for 59 and four for 75, to their first-ever victory over Australia.

Still his place was not secure, and even he did not expect to play when he was included in the 12 for the third Test against the visiting Indians in 1976. However, New Zealand excluded the spinner, Hedley Howarth, and Richard Hadlee, coming on initially as fourth seamer, finished with a match return of eleven for 58, Test record figures by a New Zealander.

Later that year he led the New Zealand attack in India and Pakistan, bowling with pace and hostility in conditions that have tested the heart and stamina of more experienced fast bowlers. “Richard Hadlee has come of age,” said the New Zealand captain, Glenn Turner, after the tour, and England’s batsmen were to taste the fire of the new Hadlee when, with match figures of ten for 100 at Wellington in February 1978, he bowled New Zealand to their first Test victory over England.

Another double-figure haul, eleven for 102, was responsible for New Zealand’s dramatic win over West Indies two years later, as well as making him New Zealand’s leading wicket-taker. In addition, he is the only New Zealander to have taken 100 wickets and scored 1,000 runs in Tests. For his services to cricket, he was awarded the MBE in the 1980 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

If a sportsman’s agent in any way signifies his professional standing, then Richard Hadlee ranks among the foremost, for his affairs are handled by the prestigious Mark McCormack group. Yet when he travelled to England in 1978 to represent New Zealand in a double-wicket tournament, he had to give up his job as a sales manager in Christchurch. Time off to play for Canterbury or New Zealand in first-class cricket was all right: not so double-wicket ventures!

And it was while in England that he was approached by Nottinghamshire to replace Clive Rice, sacked by the county for his involvement with World Series Cricket. Happily for all concerned, Nottinghamshire reconsidered. Rice returned, and Hadlee remained. They became firm friends, the New Zealander and the South African, both dedicated to their profession and hungry for success. Richard and his wife, Karen (batswoman and medium-pace bowler for New Zealand on two tours to India), shared a house with Sue and Clive Rice not far from Trent Bridge: all four went on holiday together to Spain when the 1981 season’s work was done. Then, for Richard Hadlee, it was back to New Zealand, helping the Cricket Council discover and develop young fast-bowling talent. He was a little apprehensive, though, of the New Zealand fans’ attitude to that shorter run-up.

It turned out that Richard Hadlee was not yet at the peak of his powers. When he retired from international cricket – soon after being knighted – in 1990, he had taken 431 wickets at 22.29. In 1984, he did the double of 100 wickets and 1,000 runs for Nottinghamshire.

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