Charger, Ken, and a right royal battle down south
Before Ken Rutherford's 1994-95 New Zealanders officially arrived in South Africa, Martin Crowe jetted in as a kind of one-man advance guard. Crowe, New Zealand's best batsman, had never played a Test against South Africa, and he wanted all the net time he could get. His dickey right knee was bothering him and he wanted the full flush of hundreds against all the Test-playing nations before he hobbled off into the sunset. Assiduous preparation on the quick Highveld decks was the thing.
"He practised with us at Transvaal for a couple of weeks before the rest of the team got here, and passed on a couple of tips about my batting," says Steven Jack, the South Africa fast bowler, who was to be locked in full-blown combat with Crowe later that summer. "He even fed balls into the bowling machine for me a couple of times. He couldn't have been nicer."
Rutherford and his jaunty band of semi-professionals were "hugely excited" tourists. He had read about South Africa and always wanted to play there, noting the epic backstory "of battles on the rugby field offering stories of legend". With the exception of Danny Morrison's injury - and a deeply inconvenient injury to Dion Nash while on tour - they were a settled side.
They had played five ODIs in India immediately prior to flying in to Johannesburg, and like Crowe, they arrived reasonably early. "We were in South Africa for about a week prior to our opening fixture at Randjesfontein," says Rutherford. "New Zealand cricket has always suffered from periods where there's a slight lack of depth. It's fair to say that we were in one such period. I don't think there was anyone we left back home who deserved to play."
Having acclimatised sufficiently with matches against Northern Transvaal, Griquas, and the Orange Free State, Rutherford and the coach, Geoff Howarth, took stock. Hansie Cronje would be in his first home Test as captain in the Wanderers opener and Cronje's relationship with South Africa's coach, Bob Woolmer, was still in the "getting to know you" phase. Rutherford walked down the infamous Wanderers walkway in his blazer for the toss convinced he'd bowl if he called correctly. The South Africans were without the injured Allan Donald and it looked muggy, with the sun just poking through the clouds.
Although Rutherford remembers being concerned about the early cracks in the pitch, he changed his mind literally as Cronje's spinning coin was coming to rest. "I went back into our dressing room and the bowlers were putting their boots on, preparing to hit the field. The batsmen got one helluva shock when told we were batting first. We got through to lunch, I think, two-down. Could easily have been five-down. We played and missed more than we middled the ball."
New Zealand looked slightly worse for wear at 92 for 3 but Rutherford, joining Crowe, held things together. Rutherford brought up an aggressive fifty with a Trumper-like dart down the wicket to hit left-arm spinner Clive Eksteen for six, but was caught out by a running Cronje attempting a repeat of the shot later.
Shane Thomson, batting at six, eased the innings to the first-day close with the not-out Crowe 19 runs shy of that elusive Test century. An entire dressing room was relieved that Rutherford's spontaneity at the toss hadn't backfired.
Ten wickets were lost on day two, the Test gaining rhythm. Crowe could only add two on the second morning (leg-before to Richard Snell for 83 after labouring in the first half-hour), while Thomson rode his luck for 84. Simon Doull and Richard de Groen, on 31 not out and 26, respectively, made a merry nuisance of themselves at the end.
New Zealand's 411 looked even more impressive when the home side finished day two on 109 for 4. Not only was the match running through Cronje's hands but the pitch was misbehaving. "Simon Doull bowled one to Jonty [Rhodes] that pitched on a length around off stump - it disappeared over Jonty's shoulder, past our wicketkeeper, down leg side for four byes," says Rutherford. "As with such pitches, the mind games that are created are significant and a batsman often gets out to a delivery that does very little. It's the thought of the crack that counts."
With Doull accounting for Cullinan and Rhodes in consecutive overs on the third morning, it was left to Dave Richardson to right the ship. He scored 93, the South Africans spluttering to 279, a deficit of 132. Chris Scott, the Wanderers groundsman, remembers feeling just slightly embarrassed. "It got so bad by the end of the match that you could literally wedge a bat into one of the cracks. I can't remember why that was exactly, if it had been very dry beforehand, but it wasn't one of my best, that I have to say."
New Zealand lost four second-innings wickets in getting from 32 to 34, including Crowe, Rutherford and their young prodigy, Stephen Fleming. Thomson, Adam Parore, Matthew Hart and Nash shored things up but could only patch and bandage. They hobbled to 194; Craig Matthews and Fanie de Villiers shared nine wickets.
Needing 327 to win on a wicket of consistently inconsistent bounce, Cronje led the way with a fighting 62; Brian McMillan, batting at three, chiselled out a patient 42 in just under three hours, but from then on it was a rabble. With a gambler's outside chance at 150 for 5, South Africa tumbled to 189 all out. Hart, the left-arm spinner, "bowled beautifully" according to his captain, who adds diplomatically that "a fair amount of Castle" was consumed afterwards. He rather spoils the impression when he clarifies matters, saying: "The party lasted for days - we were thirsty."
Jack remembers being in Port Elizabeth a couple of weeks later as part of the ODI side locked in a quadrangular with New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. After the Wanderers loss to New Zealand, the tournament had started badly for Cronje and Woolmer, and nerves were beginning to fray.
At St George's Park, Jack was summoned by Kevin McKenzie, then a national selector. McKenzie told him that he'd be making his Test debut in the Boxing Day Test against Rutherford's men at Kingsmead. Donald still wasn't fit and in all likelihood they'd dispense with Eksteen, the spinner. Richard Snell was also surplus to requirements, after having tried to heave Hart to kingdom come in the second innings at the Wanderers and being caught by Doull for 1.
"Richard was pretty good about it," remembers Jack. "We'd come up from Durban to Wits [University of the Witwatersrand] together - originally he'd wanted to do physiotherapy at UCT [the University of Cape Town], but his grades weren't quite good enough - and we'd played together at Wits and Transvaal.
"I also partly got my chance because Peter Pollock, the convener, always felt that Allan and I were similar. I'm not comparing myself to Allan. I'm just saying that Peter liked variation, and with Allan out of the picture, there was an opportunity."
Jack had started the summer in a quandary, not knowing how to elbow his way into the national side. Brett Schultz had jumped the queue; then Matthews homed in from left-field. De Villiers had bowled mesmerisingly in England earlier that year, bending the Dukes ball like a boomerang. What did Jack need to do?
"Clive Rice [the Transvaal captain] was hugely influential and always very good to me, and I remember asking him what I needed to do during a round of golf with him and Sir Richard Hadlee at Royal Johannesburg earlier that summer. Clive said: 'If you want to be picked, get their attention.'
"I was picked for a Transvaal Invitation XI against Ken's side after the first Test and scored a quick fifty, and we got close [New Zealand won by nine runs]. Mark Rushmere wanted me to do it again, a couple of days later, in a 50-over game against them at the Wanderers. But Jimmy [Cook, our coach] was against it. He said, 'This is a proper game now', but Mark persisted and eventually we reached a consensus. The decision was that if we were chasing, I would open.
"Anyway, they batted first. I opened with Mark and was feeling pretty good, although my first scoring shot was a Chinese cut for four. 'This isn't the f****** Soweto Oval now, mate,' pipes up Rutherford, and I go on to score 107 in 75 balls. I remind him about it all the time."
The decision to opt for Jack's snarl at Kingsmead worked wonders. He had Bryan Young out, played on, off his 14th delivery and soon accounted for Crowe, the man who had fed balls into the Wanderers bowling machine for Jack. "I had a mandate to unsettle and bowl short, and I knew he liked to pull," remembers Jack. "After lunch I whacked it in, high and wide, the perfect spot, and he went for it without controlling the shot, and Fanie [De Villiers] gobbled him at fine leg. Hey, I might have had a word or two and asked him to have a go. It was great - he obliged."
New Zealand's first-innings 185 v South Africa's 226 - game on. Rutherford remembers a good Kingsmead deck with some "tennis-ball" bounce, well exploited by Morrison, who was back in the side and bowled as quickly at Kingsmead as anyone on either side in the series. "With Charger [Jack's nickname] we knew they would come hard at us. He was a great guy to have in your team because he added a real competitive zest to the contest. He was in your face. Full of shit, for want of a better expression."
In their second innings it took the visitors 100.2 overs to eke out 192, leaving South Africa 152 to win. This they imperiously did, Gary Kirsten taking charge with 66 not out.
The series was now poised at 1-1 and the Castle-quaffing revelry of the Wanderers change room seemed some way off. Three younger New Zealanders - Fleming, Nash and Hart - admitted to smoking reefer at an informal function in the Boland before the second Test and the balance seemed to be tilting in South Africa's favour, though Rutherford doesn't necessarily agree. "We were just keen to play at Newlands," he says. "What a setting. There was even a section of the crowd that barracked for us. Felt like home. And that considerable hoppy whiff from the brewery next door - just tremendous."
The Test was umpired by KT Francis from Sri Lanka and Barry Lambson, a local. By his own admission Lambson wasn't feeling particularly confident about his game, which was strange, he says, given that he'd umpired in England versus New Zealand Test at Old Trafford earlier that year (for which Rutherford had given him "an outstanding mark") and had umpired in the Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah the previous April.
Things really began to sour on the fourth afternoon, when Lambson gave Rutherford out leg-before to McMillan for 26, half an hour before the close. Neither Rutherford nor Jack believes it was out, but Lambson is adamant the decision was the right one. Railing at the perceived injustice, Rutherford either smashed his bat against the closed door of the umpire's room (Lambson's version) or damaged a vending machine (Jack's version). He was asked to appear before match referee Peter Burge after play.
Matters got worse on the fifth morning, when Lambson called back Fleming after giving him out caught behind. "I'd done a couple of matches in the [ODI] quadrangular series in East London where I wasn't particularly good," he admits. "The thing was that when Burge called Ken in, Brian Basson [the cricket affairs manager at CSA] said he was 100% behind me. But Brian was never really behind you. He just wasn't that kind of guy."
The New Zealanders were bristling because on day three they believed Lambson had got things wrong when he rejected a caught-behind appeal against Cronje off Morrison early on in the captain's innings. Rutherford remembers a sotto voce apology at the end of the over, while Lambson remembers an institutional lack of support.
As it was, the South Africans' first-innings lead of 152 - built on the back of Cronje's 112 - proved decisive. New Zealand's second-dig 239 meant the hosts only needed to score 89 to win the Test and the series. This they did at a canter, wrapping up with seven wickets.
Rutherford only played five more Tests for New Zealand, while Jack's run at Newlands was the last of his two Tests, a hurt that smarted for years. Rutherford made friends and influenced people while in South Africa, his penchant for attacking cricket, dry humour, and sometimes antic hunches always keeping the game alive.
Things soured in New Zealand when he and his team returned and, having been offered the overseas-professional gig at Transvaal for the coming season, he returned to captain the side, initiating a happy and successful period for the province.
"I thought he was an absolute prick," remembers Jack. "But I always noticed that his players loved him. They couldn't do enough for him. After training one night just after he arrived, we had a long chat over a couple of beers and he said to me that when I was an opponent things were different but now we were in the same side together, he needed ten mates. We became such great mates that I was master of ceremonies at his wedding."
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg