Chris Cairns – up there with the best, but…
By H Natarajan
His height and build could have been an asset in making him a powerhouse in rugby. Indeed, he may well have gone on to play for the famous All-Blacks had he sustained his interest in a game that won him a place as a fullback on the national under-17 team against Australia.
But cricket was Chris Cairns’s calling card – a game which his father, Lance, had played with distinction for New Zealand. Cairns Sr was just four years into retirement when his son Chris followed him into the New Zealand side. The son was talented, but when he looks back at his 16-year-old international career, it would be with an unmistakable sense of remorse – even if he does not publicly admit it. From the time he made his debut as a precocious youngster till the time he bade farewell, he had figured in 62 Tests. But what is staggering is that in the intervening years he missed out on 55 Tests, primarily because of a plethora of injuries ranging from back, knee, shoulder and groin problems, stress fractures, kidney ailment, ruptured spleen etc.
Cairns chose to end his Test career in mid-2004 against England at his adopted home away from home - Nottinghamshire. And despite missing so many matches, he finished alongside Sir Garfield Sobers, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock in the exclusive club of Test all-rounders with 3000 runs and 200 wickets. It was widely believed that he would take one last crack at the World Cup and try and help his nation the one title they had always promised to win but never managed to. But with just about a year to go for the quadrennial showpiece in the Caribbean Islands, Cairns brought an unexpected end to his international career by exiting the overs-limit format as well. The abridged version was right up his alley and at the time of retirement he had played 215 ODIs in which he took 201 wickets and just 50 runs short of completing 5000 runs - a double only Sanath Jayasuriya and Jacques Kallis have achieved.
One of the abiding memories I have of Cairns came at Pune 10 years back. India and New Zealand were locked 1-1 coming into the fourth and penultimate One-Day International of the series. New Zealand chose to bat first but got into big trouble losing their top four best batsmen - Nathan Astle, Mark Greatbatch, Martin Crowe and Stephen Fleming - with just 75 on the board. In walked Cairns into the crisis and pummeled into submission an attack comprising Javagal Srinath, Manoj Prabhakar, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble with pyrotechnics as brilliant as any that I had ever seen. He hammered 103 off just 87 balls and added 147 for the fifth with Roger Twose. Cairns was not through. He came back to pick up three of the five Indian wickets that fell (Prabhakar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja) for 37 runs in his quota of ten overs, but his fantastic all-round effort was not good enough to win the match for his team. It’s was a script not too unfamiliar in his international cricket career.
New Zealand’s biggest win on the world stage was Champions Trophy title at Nairobi, Kenya, in 2000. The mastermind of that victory was Cairns who scored a man-of-the-match-winning 102 in the final against India after his team was in trouble at 132 for five, chasing a target of 265.
Cairns's piece de resistance came on the tour of England in 1999. His 6-76 saw New Zealand's win by nine wickets at Lord's and in the decider at The Oval he got 5-31 in the England second innings to raise New Zealand’s hopes of a series victory. But that looked a distant dream as New Zealand were reeling at 39 for six – just 122 ahead - when Cairns came in to bat. When he was finally dismissed, he had scored 80 from 93 balls. Craig McMillan with 26 and two other batsmen with ten each were the only others to get into double figures. Cairns’s counter attack shattered England’s spirit as the hosts lost the Test and the series in which the Cairns played a decisive role with both bat and ball.
On his day, he can be as devastating as the best batsmen in the world. He can be audacious as well. He once took on Shane Warne facing the square leg, and drove the ball straight out of the ground over the square leg for a six!
The 87 sixes he hit in his Test career is a world record that he shares with Adam Gilchrist but in a lot fewer innings than the Aussie. He is also among the handful who has hammered over 100 sixes in ODIs – 153 to be precise. The skill and aggression were genetic blessings from his dad. Lance Cairns, at one point of time, held the fastest half-century in ODI, reaching the mark in 21 balls against an Australia attack of Dennis Lillee, Geoff Lawson and Rodney Hogg at Melbourne in 1982-83 and is the only player with a minimum of 20 ODI appearances to retire with a 100-plus batting strike-rate.
The younger Cairns was a flawed genius, in some ways similar to George Best that would have made him an interesting subject for psychoanalytical study. Cairns had a major row with coach Glenn Turner that led to his infamous walk-out on the 1995-96 tour to the West Indies and then there was also the infamous incident when he reportedly came back in an inebriated state in the wee hours of morning during the course of a Test match. Probably what he needed was a father figure like manager who would him and got the best out of him - someone like Matt Busby who nurtured the maverick Best.
Cairns leaves with lots of memories to cherish, but one cannot help feeling what he could have achieved had he not missed so many matches. I would like to quote what S Rajesh, my friend and a wizard with cricket numbers, has to say: “New Zealand played 119 Tests since Cairns's debut, of which he didn't play in 57. Extrapolate his rate of scoring runs and taking wickets, and Cairns would have ended with career stats of 6372 runs and 418 wickets, becoming the only man to achieve the 6000-run and 400-wicket double.”
It’s a pity that such a talented player has left the world stage as a relative under-achiever.