Last weekend saw the restart of the Hedley Howarth Trophy for 2020/21. Trevor Auger, author of ‘The Warm Sun On My Face – The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand’, remembers Howarth’s Auckland and New Zealand career.
The press down with hands joined in front of him, the short rhythmic approach, the swing of the left arm as the bowler comes around the umpire and then the high arc– and after release, the tantalising flight delivering the ball on a teasing length conjured to have the batsman in two minds.
Just another of the almost 37 and a half thousand balls which Hedley Howarth bowled in the course of a First-Class career which spanned 145 matches and 16 seasons from his debut for the New Zealand U23 XI in the summer of 1962-63.
It was not until 1969 that the tall left-arm spinner achieved International honours. After taking 21 wickets at less than 14 apiece in the five matches of Auckland’s successful Plunket Shield campaign, Howarth was selected for the North Island team to play the visiting West Indies at Napier. Here he took the wickets of six of the West Indian top seven – and for good measure caught Seymour Nurse, the seventh, off the bowling of Richard Collinge.
Until now, Howarth’s path to the National team had been blocked by Bryan Yuile, the Central Districts all-rounder who earlier in the decade had toured South Africa, and then England, India and Pakistan. He was a capable slow left-armer and a more accomplished batsman, and in 1969 he played in all three Tests against the West Indies, with Howarth carrying the drinks.
However, at the end of the series, the Aucklander was named in the touring party to England alongside Yuile and off-spinning all-rounder Victor Pollard. Both Yuile and Pollard were not available to play on Sundays for reasons of faith, and with a number of the tour matches incorporating play on the Sabbath, there was no doubt that Howarth would see a lot of time at the bowling crease.
The fifth First-Class match of the tour was against Essex, and it was the first to include a Sunday. As the home side collapsed to 102/8 in their second innings, Howarth led the attack. Though the county recovered to be all out or 192, Howarth finished with 7/43 from a marathon 44 overs, including 25 maidens.
He followed that up with 6/99 and 3/43 in the next match, against Middlesex at Lord’s and it was no surprise to see him win a Test debut at the same ground. It was an impressive start with 2/24 from 19 overs in the first innings and 3/102 from 49 overs in the second, when he dismissed three of England’s top six.
There was another five-wicket haul against Glamorgan, and Howarth finished the English portion of the tour with 57 wickets at 19.75. This was 18 more than the next best of the tourists, his Auckland team-mate Bob Cunis. Wisden commented that his old-fashioned ideas about flight and spin won him respect wherever he went.
From England, the tour continued on to India, where the series was drawn 1-1, and then Pakistan, where New Zealand enjoyed their first Test series victory.
In India, Howarth had 12 wickets in the three Tests, but tellingly he had figures of 4/66 and 5/34 in the second Test at Nagpur, New Zealand’s first victory on the sub-Continent. Three of his nine victims were caught and bowled, and dramatically so. Throughout his career, Howarth’s catching from his own bowling and in the gully was always secure, and often spectacular.
On to Pakistan, and Howarth’s 16 wickets in three Tests was twice as many as Dayle Hadlee, the next best of the tourists. There was a five-wicket bag in the first match and then 3/34 and 2/64 in the second Test at Lahore where New Zealand’s victory earned them the series.
New Zealand’s next major tour came in 1972, a first to the West Indies. By now Howarth was rightfully regarded as one of the world’s foremost purveyors of left-arm spin bowling, but the Caribbean offered challenging conditions for even the best of bowlers.
Pitches were slow and flat, the West Indian batting line-up formidable. Howarth found himself performing a containing role at the bowling crease as all five Tests were drawn, neither sides’ bowlers able to press home the advantage created by their batsmen.
30% of Howarth’s 338 Test match overs were maidens, but his 14 wickets came at a cost. His best figures of 3/70 came in the second innings of the final Test. Three times he was asked to bowl more than fifty overs in an innings, and in the third match, at Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, he sent down 74 overs in picking up 2/138.
Some said Howarth was never quite the same again, the conditions, the workload and the defensive gameplan taking the edge off his flight and the sharpness from his turn. Certainly he still made an impact with his 31 wickets in England in 1973, but this time they cost 17 more runs apiece than they had in 1969, and Wisden felt he looked “jaded”.
Injury kept him out of the first Test, and in the second at Lord’s he demonstrated his stamina once again, bowling 70 overs in the second innings and picking up 4/144.
The pressures of playing the amateur game were also beginning to impact Howarth’s career. While his younger brother Geoffrey was embarking on a professional career with Surrey in the English County Championship, Hedley was becoming more and more involved in the family fishing business.
His work commitments kept him out of the team which toured Australia in 1973-74, although he was back in the Test side for the return series at home, after taking 35 wickets in six matches for Auckland. At the time he was arriving at work at 5 AM and putting in a solid shift before arriving at Eden Park in time for the start of play in the Plunket Shield.
Again in 1976 he stayed at home, missing out on a return trip to India and Pakistan. In early 1977 his Test career came to an end, at home against Australia. In the first Test in Christchurch Howarth took the catch to dismiss Doug Walters for 250, but Australia reached 552. Howarth, batting at number nine, came to the crease with New Zealand 223/7, a long way shy of avoiding the follow-on, but he chose this occasion to compile his only Test match half-century.
When Dayle Hadlee joined him at 265/8, 88 were still required to avoid the possibility of being sent back in by the Australians, but by the time he was bowled by Max Walker for 61 after facing 151 balls and batting two and three quarter hours New Zealand needed just 15. Ewen Chatfield helped Hadlee ensure Australia batted again and the Test was drawn, but not before Greg Chappell had become Howarth’s final Test victim.
The second Test of the two-match series was at Eden Park, where the seamers dominated, and Howarth bowled only five overs in his last outing in the Black Cap. At the time his 86 Test wickets was the highest tally by a New Zealand slow bowler, and only the pace trio of Bruce Taylor, Dick Motz and Richard Collinge had taken more. There was also the small matter of 33 catches in 30 Tests, testimony to his very safe hands.
By now Howarth was in his second season as captain of Auckland and as well as gathering another 32 wickets for the province he averaged 44.8 in scoring 224 runs, including two more half-centuries to sit alongside the Test match 61 that remained his highest First-Class score. It was the best season of his career with the bat and he was also closing in on Bob Blair’s record for First-Class wickets taken by a New Zealander in New Zealand and for New Zealand abroad.
The following summer Graham Vivian succeeded Howarth at the helm of the Auckland side and the slow left-armer played just four matches, alongside an outing for the North Island, when his second innings 5/56 proved the 31st and final five-wicket haul of his career.
He finished the season still four shy of Blair’s record of 537 First-Class wickets but his four matches the following year saw him take the eight wickets which lifted him to the top of the New Zealand wicket-taking table. His 541 dismissals came at an average of 25.3, and his career economy rate was a frugal 2.19.
Now in 2021, Hedley Howarth still has 81 more First-Class wickets for Auckland than anyone else. Only five players have played more games for the province. No one has taken five wickets in an innings for the province as often, nor 10 in a match.
Sadly Howarth passed away in 2008, aged just 64, but he left behind the best of memories – his fierce competitive spirit, the grace of his bowling action, the guile and variety with ball in hand, his gritty batting and his agility in the field. He is fondly remembered by those who watched him in action as one of the great Auckland cricketers.