February 1, 2017

'The underarm incident created a feeling for cricket in New Zealand'

Ian Smith talks about playing alongside the likes of Hadlee and Crowe, his world-record score, and a certain match against Australia
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Ian Smith (left), looks on as another Smith, Robin, vents on the field: "In our era sledging wasn't something we sat down and talked about. It just happened; it was usually a reaction" © PA Photos

Would you say the Test wins against Australia were the pinnacle of your career?
I played in an era where we won against sides for the first time. They were all pretty special. So to beat Australia in Australia in 1985 was a real highlight. I also regard beating India in Bombay as very much a highlight because it was such a hard thing to do, and to beat England in England. It was a time when we established ourselves and got more respect among the Test nations.

How did it all start for you?
I was brought up in Wellington. I fell in love with cricket at a very early age. I just wanted to play. In New Zealand, you get the opportunity to play lots of sports - rugby, soccer. I just thought that cricket was something special. I went through age-group and representative teams. I played with Bruce Edgar, who was the wicketkeeper in our teams. So I actually started cricket as a batsman and bowled a few offspinners. When I got to secondary school, someone suggested that wicketkeeping might be a better thing for me. So I followed through and gradually worked my way through it. I was understudy to Warren Lees when I came into the New Zealand side. He got injured on the tour of Australia and I got my opportunity. We swapped roles between 1980 and 1983, and I sort of made it my own, which was cool.

What was it like, keeping wicket to Richard Hadlee?
Lot of people ask me that. It was easy and it was hard. It was easy because his line and length was so consistent that you didn't find yourself ducking and diving down the leg side very often. You knew that he was going to be around or just outside off stump. The other thing about it was, you were always quite alert. He created so many opportunities and beat the bat so often. So you found yourself on edge a lot. The hard part was that he set very high standards, and you felt like you didn't want to let him down. Even towards the end, when Richard Hadlee came back into the attack during a day's play, along with the slip cordon, you were on edge a wee bit. It didn't matter if you had played your first Test with Richard Hadlee or your 50th.

You wouldn't want to drop a catch off his bowling…
In an era full of great fast bowlers, he was right up there with the very best. He carried New Zealand's attack in terms of penetration and wicket-taking by himself on his shoulders for a very long time.

Did you have a mental connection with him?
He didn't often ask for a lot of advice. He had his own game so well under control. His rhythm was absolutely spot-on. But every now and then he would feel it wasn't quite right, it wasn't coming out of the hand. He prided himself on the fingers going down the seam and the seam hitting the pitch, particularly with the new ball. And that's how he got movement off the pitch.

He would sometimes come to me and wanted to know if the wrist was coming over at 12 o'clock. He'd say, "I feel more 11 o'clock or 1 o'clock." He needed to know if it was coming down at 12 o'clock. That's when he felt the release gave the greatest opportunity to hit the seam.

That's how precise Richard Hadlee was. It was probably hard enough to catch it in the first place without looking to see if it was absolutely perfect. That's the perfectionist that he was. In the dressing room everything was immaculate. Boots were always perfectly cleaned and lined up. He left nothing to chance. When it came to preparation, he gave himself the best possible chance.

The New Zealand bowling attack of your time was once described as "like the World XI at one end, and Ilford 2nd XI at the other". The rest of the bowlers weren't that bad, were they?
It was a throwaway line from Mike Gatting [Graham Gooch] from back in 1986. He said that it was like facing the World XI at one end and the Ilford 2nd XI on the other. Those kind of comments can come back and bite you on the bum [laughs]. I think it did with Mike Gatting's particular situation.

"When Richard Hadlee came back into the attack during a day's play, you were on edge a wee bit. It didn't matter if you had played your first Test with Richard Hadlee or your 50th"

Those bowlers would be the first to say they weren't Richard Hadlees, but they had their role to play. Hadlee got 431 Test wickets but he got a lot of those wickets because pressure was created at the other end. It was maidens and dot balls. If they weren't scoring off Hadlee because they were defending, and they weren't scoring off [Ewen] Chatfield, how were they going to get runs? And at the end of the day, it is called bowling in tandem and combinations. Richard Hadlee would say that he had immense respect for Chatfield and [Lance] Cairns. We won a Test match in Headingley in 1983 and Richard Hadlee, believe it or not, did not get a wicket. It happens.

And you didn't take a catch when he took 9 for 52 against Australia.
Nothing [smiles]. But my hands were sore at the end of that day. He beat the bat a lot. He had a great battle with Kepler Wessels. He left the ball well. Richard Hadlee bowled slippery fast that day. I think he bowled a lot of deliveries around 150kph. The rhythm was absolutely perfect. He just kept smacking into the gloves. We were quite a long way back at the Gabba. It was close to perfect bowling.

You took seven dismissals in an innings against Sri Lanka once.
I know there weren't too many hard ones. I can recall a lot of fairly fine nicks. If you play long enough, it increases your chances to break records.

Did you talk shop with the great wicketkeepers from your time - Jeff Dujon, Syed Kirmani and Wasim Bari?
You form a bit of a bond with some. With some people, you say hello to in the morning and with others you chat a bit longer. I started off against Australia with Rod Marsh, who was an idol. You find yourself playing against a guy who has so much respect, and when you sit across from him in the dressing room at the end of the day's play and have a drink, it is awe-inspiring. When you feel that you can compete with him and be comfortable with him, I think it helps you feel that you belong in the Test environment.

I formed a pretty close association with Syed Kirmani, swapped some gear with him. Jack Russell, Ian Healy... I had great respect for Dujon because of the fact that his hands must have taken a hell of a pounding - 100-mile-an-hour bowler every single delivery. He was a great batsman too, and a terrific bloke. You still catch up with some of them who are in commentary boxes.

What was your finest moment in international cricket?
I got a 173 against India when we were in trouble. It enabled us to win the series.

I think the highlight of my career was longevity. Playing that long, and then trying to set and maintain that standard, and being well regarded, was probably the highlight. It is not a tough game physically; there's no tackling involved. But it is a tough game mentally. It can be taxing. There are long days in the field when nothing happens. You feel there's a million other places that you'd rather be. Those are the days that you get rewards out of sticking through, and then another day you might get five catches.

On his commentary career: "The real me is talking about cricket and recalling stories in a social situation, and having fun" Martin Hunter / © Getty Images

Stuart Broad nearly broke your record of highest Test score by a No. 9 a few years ago.
He got 169, didn't he? It is an interesting record because it was such a long-standing one. I think it was [from] 1908. I managed to get past it. One of those records that could stay another 100 years or could go this afternoon. Whoever is going to score it, has to do it quickly because not many batsmen come after No. 9 [laughs].

I love having that record. I am not going to hide from that. It is such a great game to hold on to something that is yours. I am not going to have the most dismissals and anything else. I have held this for 27 years and it is my little piece that I can every now and again throw at Richard Hadlee or someone like that. I've still got one!

I batted low in that Test match because we played seven specialist batsmen. We were 7 for 131 when I came to the crease. The pitch was a lot greener than this one. Richard Hadlee told me that he would smack anything that's up and he suggested I do the same. He made 83 [87] and it sort of turned the tide. I got great support from Martin Snedden and Danny Morrison. It was one of those afternoons that you as a kid think of - one day I will do something great. And it happened.

Who was the greatest wicketkeeper you've seen?
The best technician that I saw and played against, was Bob Taylor. As a wicketkeeper, he made it look very, very simple. I had great respect for Kirmani because he kept on spinning pitches in difficult conditions. Dujon would have been tailor-made for cricket these days. His batting had to be as good as his keeping. In our day you could exist on your glovework.

[Adam] Gilchrist was fantastic. And then Brendon McCullum comes along. They continue to set new standards. If you're not prepared to score runs and average 35-40, you're not going to play long these days.

Do you think wicketkeepers are born?
You can't be 6'5" and be a wicketkeeper. I think they are born in that respect - physically. I think to a large degree you typecast them to a role in cricket. If you are small, you can move and catch well.

"I love having that record [highest score by a Test No. 9]. I am not going to have the most dismissals and anything else. I have held this for 27 years and it is my little piece that I can every now and again throw at Richard Hadlee or someone like that"

Did you sledge the Australians?
We were always the underdogs when playing against Australia. New Zealanders would say something quietly in the slips, but it was not a tactic. It was sometimes a reaction rather than a plan. We might chip in if things get heated, but we are unlikely to have instigated it. Richard Hadlee said nothing. Chatfield said nothing. They just got back and bowled. At the end of the day, that's how they got their satisfaction. Our most confrontational bowler was John Bracewell, a spinner.

Danny Morrison was not a mean sledger; he was a funny sledger.

New Zealanders are not born to do that. It might have changed a little bit these days, but in our era sledging wasn't something we sat down and talked about. It just happened; it was usually a reaction.

Things must have been a bit heated on the day of the infamous underarm-ball match?
MCG back in those days was quite a big ground to walk off. I was walking off the field [eighth wicket down, having made 4]. I obviously was disappointed because I thought we'd lost. I had given away an opportunity to win the game. Brian McKechnie was walking on as I was walking off. You would've never met a more quiet, laid-back and calm bloke than Brian McKechnie. You just don't.

Then as I was walking up the stairs, I could detect something wasn't quite right. In those days in Melbourne, you had a players' viewing room, and a dressing room that was downstairs. I went through the players' viewing room from where I heard a bit of chatter. I heard a commotion when I was going downstairs. I went back upstairs and saw a lot of experienced New Zealand players who were visibly upset and verbal about something.

Geoff Howarth was our captain. He played a lot of county cricket. He actually ran out on the field. He thought it was illegal to bowl underarm, as it was in England. But it wasn't in Australia and other parts of the world. He went out to protest. We had a mixture of disappointment, bewilderment and amazement. And anger.

To be fair, the majority of Australian players had their heads down and were pretty disappointed about the whole thing. Two or three would support their captain, come hell or high water. We had to get through that. We stayed in the dressing room for an hour and half. When we went outside, it would have been 2000 to 3000 at the ground. They wanted to carry our bags to the bus. Most of them were Australians and they genuinely apologised and said how they regretted such a thing could happen. I don't think we quite realised the extent of it until then, and then the papers, of course, went absolutely nuts. End of the day, we felt like we won but we actually lost.

But what it did do was created a feeling about cricket in this country. Feeling of revenge. A lot of people who come to cricket today are too young to even know about it, but you still hear them talk about it. We got record crowds after that. It was amazing.

"There are long days in the field when nothing happens. You feel there's a million other places that you'd rather be. Those are the days that you get rewards out of sticking through, and then another day you might get five catches" © Getty Images

Was the 1992 World Cup semi-final your last memory of playing with Martin Crowe?
It was definitely my final memory of Martin Crowe as a cricketer. We remained friends until he passed away. I did the eulogy at his funeral.

It was really sad because he put so much into it. It was cruel fate on that day. I can't recall him ever pulling a hamstring the whole time he played. To do it at that particular moment was fate.

If he was on the ground, do you think you would have won?
Our chance of winning was greater [if he had been on]. We knew his style of captaincy. We knew our roles. John Wright came in and put a different slant on it. I am not saying it cost us. Inzamam [who made 60 off 37 balls] could have done that to anybody at any time. While Javed Miandad was at the crease, you knew Pakistan had a real chance.

They broke our pattern that worked really well until that point. I knew that Martin Crowe regretted not going out there, and he stood at slip and directed proceedings for a while. I remember vividly his tears. It hurt him more than anybody else.

It was a pretty sad note to finish on, but having said that, the six weeks before that was the best time of our lives - being on this wave of success. I am glad I did it. I choose not to make it my last memory of the game. I choose better times.

Crowe was a team-mate, a lifelong friend, a great batsman…
He is New Zealand's best ever batsman. [Kane] Williamson will end up breaking his records. He is a fantastic player, but I will never forget watching Martin Crowe as a team-mate, sitting in the dressing room here at the Basin, when he made 299. I was watching every shot he played, because he was so good to watch. You'd be a fool not to watch him.

We put on some pretty good partnerships. How calm and cool he was in difficult times. Not reacting in the middle. He was a fantastic player. A very inventive, proactive captain. My memories of him are really cool. He was a very close friend.

"End of the day, we felt like we won [the underarm game] but we actually lost. A lot of people who come to cricket today are too young to even know about it, but you still hear them talk about it. We got record crowds after that"

You are quite animated in the commentary box. Is that the real Ian Smith?
The real me is talking about cricket and recalling stories in a social situation, and having fun. The commentary box is a place for a lot more discipline. My job is to talk about the game today and doesn't involve my playing days. People at home like to hear about Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe. You've got the responsibility to bring that into your commentary from time to time. Sometimes I get frustrated at commentary, with things that you see out there.

You also do rugby commentary.
I probably do 40-50 games of rugby a year for Sky TV New Zealand. When they bought the rights to cricket on television, I did commentary for four to five months in this country. The boss at Sky TV told me that I should do a job in rugby on the sidelines. This was 19 years ago. I have done rugby commentary in 120 rugby Tests and 150-160 cricket Tests. This summer I'm commentating on rugby on February 24, and then the next day, New Zealand v South Africa in cricket.

Your son represented New Zealand in soccer.
When he made the decision to go to soccer, he was actually Ross Taylor's 1st XI captain. They are lifelong friends, went to boarding school together in Palmerston North. Jarrod could have gone either way. He progressed through the university system in America and then went on to play for New Zealand.

If you are an international sportsman yourself, you think it is enough in your life to be able to do it. But when you've got your son reaching the same level - there's nothing quite like standing in the crowd watching him stand for the national anthem. It is a real choker.

I think he played for New Zealand ten times. He went to the Confederations Cup. He played against Brazil and marked Roberto Carlos. He played with Freddie Ljungberg and scored against LA Galaxy. He had his moments but he had terrible injury problems and had to finish his international career early.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • pauln2 on February 4, 2017, 10:56 GMT

    You had to watch Smithy to see how good a keeper he was, because otherwise you'd miss his skill. The thing I remember most about his work was that he very seldom left his feet unless the nick was going way wide ... his footwork was impeccable. Because of that, he always seemed to be where he needed to be to take the ball. We had a number of good keepers in New Zealand during his career, but he was definitely the best, and by some margin. Now he's a broadcasting professional rather than a former player who does commentary. I often think his rugby work is some of his best, because he's such a great noticer of what's going on. Very quick eye, and processes info in a flash. Super career on both sides of the white line.

  • mr.aeroboy on February 4, 2017, 1:49 GMT

    Mohammad Isam, great work !

  • Kris Bharki on February 3, 2017, 18:27 GMT

    Haven't watched him play, but I just watch even the most boring and pointless games just to hear his voice behind the microphone. He has the ability to make viewer understand the game better and also to enjoy it a lot more. Absolute pleasure to hear talk about the game.

  • DJRNZ on February 3, 2017, 15:42 GMT

    I remember being a kid and watching these guys. Crowe, Hadlee, Jones, Smith .... really looked up to these guys as heroes when I was young ....

  • Sarvi on February 3, 2017, 14:21 GMT

    I clearly remember the 1988 Mumbai test. At the end of 3rd day play India was in the driver seat and had a great opportunity to dismiss NZ cheaply for a below par 4th innings target and to go 2 nil up. But Smith had other ideas. John Bracewell stonewalled in the other end and Smith attacked the Indian spin trio to score a crucial half century. NZ managed to set a 280+ target and Hadlee fashioned a famous victory. But India came back to win the 3rd test at Hyderabad and also the series.

  • zs32 on February 3, 2017, 7:24 GMT

    I remember that test in 1990 when Azhar made an equally fine 192 giving India first innings lead. But pitch was easing out after first day while none of the teams had an impact bowler since both Hadlee and Kapil were at the ends of their careers and managed just two wickets each in this test (Specially Kapil had dropped way down the ladder). Hence the match ended in a lame draw and New Zealand won the series 1-0 .

  • whitebull3 on February 3, 2017, 5:47 GMT

    He was more than meat n potatoes, and a little less than champagne, somewhere in between i strongly suspect, anyhow a damn good bloke!

  • Ms.Cricket on February 3, 2017, 1:19 GMT

    New Zealand should move on with the underarm incident. It was perfectly legal at the time and a brilliant piece of thinking by Greg Chappell. Why are NZ so stuck up with that loss, other countries would have forgotten about that long ago.

  • Cricinfouser on February 3, 2017, 0:46 GMT

    always good to affirm that the chip on every kiwis shoulder is still there, standing proud

  • cricfan30019954 on February 2, 2017, 17:54 GMT

    Always good to remind our aussie friends about the underarm bowling when they whinge about bodyline bowling being against the spirit of the game