Sport

TEST CRICKET

New Zealand and Proteas contest the Tangiwai Shield – a reminder of tragedy and bravery

New Zealand and Proteas contest the Tangiwai Shield – a reminder of tragedy and bravery
South Africa celebrate after dismissing Tom Latham during day one of the first Test in the series between New Zealand and South Africa at Bay Oval on 4 February 2024 in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. (Photo: Joe Allison / Getty Images)

New Zealand and South Africa will from now on play for the Tangiwai Shield when they meet in the Test arena. It has a remarkable back story.

As South Africa take on New Zealand in the first Test of the 2024 series at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui, the memory of a Test match played between these two countries 70 years ago looms large.

The series winner takes home the Tangiwai Shield, which commemorates the tragic events of the night of 24 December 1953. A train travelling from Wellington to Auckland crashed into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai.

nz proteas tangiwai shield bob blair

The Tangiwai Shield, the series trophy for New Zealand vs Proteas Tests. (Photo: NZC)

In what became known as the Tangiwai Disaster, the worst rail accident in New Zealand history, 151 people died when a bridge over the river, damaged by floodwater, collapsed under the weight of the train, causing it to plummet into the swollen waters.

Among those who drowned was 21-year-old Nerissa Love. At the time of the tragedy, her fiancé, Bob Blair, was playing for New Zealand in a Test match against South Africa at Ellis Park.

nz proteas tangiwai shield bob blair

New Zealand cricketer Bob Blair. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The tragedy occurred at the same time as Blair was bowling in South Africa’s first innings, taking two for 50. The next day, Christmas Day, was a rest day and that’s when the fateful telegram arrived at the New Zealand team’s Hillbrow hotel with the news that Nerissa had died.

When play resumed on Boxing Day, flags flew at half-mast and the sombre crowd, still digesting the awful news, was informed over the public address that Bob Blair would take no further part in the match.

Torrid time

In the crowd was a seven-year-old boy, Albie During, who was watching his first cricket Test match with his father and grandfather.

The young boy, who went on to play first-class cricket for Transvaal and later become chief executive officer of Gauteng Cricket, clearly remembers the mood that day. “We had heard the news of the train crash and the tragic death of Bob Blair’s fiancée that morning, so it wasn’t a surprise that he wouldn’t play,” said During.

The New Zealanders faced a torrid time from the South African bowlers with Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller having to receive treatment in hospital after being hit by thunderbolts from Neil Adcock.

During recalled what happened after the ninth New Zealand wicket fell with Sutcliffe out of partners and New Zealand still 117 runs behind SA’s first innings score.

“The players started walking off the field when suddenly we saw a tall figure striding out to the middle. There was a brief silence as the crowd tried to make sense of what was happening. When they realised it was Bob Blair coming out to help his team, there was a huge roar.

nz bob blair

Cricketer Bob Blair bowls at Basin Reserve, Wellington. (Photo: National Library of New Zealand)

I remember how Sutcliffe, his head swathed in a bloodied bandage, hugged Blair. The South African players applauded Blair all the way to the wicket,” he said.

He recalled being amazed at the sight of people around him weeping as they cheered for Blair. “I had never seen my father cry before, let alone my grandad. It seemed everyone was in tears. The significance of the moment affected me deeply,” he said.

In the very next over, Sutcliffe hit three sixes and a single off Hugh Tayfield’s bowling, and then Blair hit a six off the first ball he faced, much to the crowd’s delight. “I remember a deafening roar adding to the emotions of the moment,” said During. The next ball, Blair was stumped and the innings came to a close.

Emotional

In later life, as a young cricketer, During talked to South African players who were on the field that day, including SA captain Jack Cheetham, opening batsman Jackie McGlew, and wicketkeeper Johnny Waite, who stumped Blair.

“They all remembered how emotional it was for them as they, too, were very upset by the tragic news. They spoke of how profoundly they were affected by Blair’s sudden appearance, and some of them were tearful as they applauded this young man coming out to bat.”

During also had an opportunity to discuss the incident with the great New Zealand batsman John Reid who recalled how there was no players’ viewing area attached to the dressing room at Ellis Park, a rugby stadium being used while the Wanderers was under construction.

The New Zealand players were watching the game from a VIP area high up in the stands, far away from the dressing room.

“Reid told me how they were unaware that Blair had even arrived at the ground,” During said. “They were starting to make their way down to the dressing room and were stunned as everyone else to see Bob walking to the wicket.”

During met Blair 35 years later at a schoolboys’ cricket match in which his son Andrew was playing for St Stithian’s against St Alban’s, where Blair was the first team coach.

“Bob was very happy to reminisce about the day and told me how he had been sitting in his hotel room listening to the radio commentary, and hearing of the carnage on the field with his teammates being taken to hospital and wickets tumbling.

“He said he realised he couldn’t bring his fiancée back, so he might as well help his team. He caught a taxi to the stadium and walked into an empty dressing room because the 10th batsman was already at the crease.

“As he finished padding up, the roar of the crowd told him another wicket had fallen, and he better go out to bat.”

If there was any amusement in the moment, it was Blair’s realisation that Sutcliffe, his batting partner, was somewhat drunk. To fortify himself against the pain of the blow to the head, he had downed several whiskeys before going back to face Adcock.

The 24th of December 1953 is a tragic day in New Zealand’s history, and the 26th of December 1953 is one of the most poignant days in both New Zealand and South Africa’s sporting history.

It’s fitting that the events that occurred more than 70 years ago are remembered every time the Proteas and the Black Caps do battle on the cricket field for the Tangiwai Shield. DM

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