Gavin Larsen: The postman who always delivered

Author : Sougat Chakravartty
Gavin Larsen celebrates taking a wicket during the World Cup Group B match against Bangladesh in 1999. (Getty Images)

Gavin Larsen celebrates taking a wicket during the World Cup Group B match against Bangladesh in 1999. (Getty Images)

Cricket has seen a lot of fads over the years. The current craze is Twenty20: 40 overs of pure excitement with shorter boundaries, powerful hits and innovative strokes that has made life difficult for bowlers.

However, with the advent of batting-friendly tracks all over the world, there is a growing fear that the bowling – the yin  to batting’s yang – stocks around the world are slowly becoming one-dimensional, despite the depth in variety that exponents of this art possess. It simply kills the excitement that the game has generated since coloured uniforms made their appearance to distinguish ODI cricket from Test matches.

If it was pace that ruled the roost in the late seventies and early eighties, the subsequent decade belonged to a set of bowlers who neither set the stage on fire with contorted facial expressions, nor did they turn the ball as wickedly as the spinners. But these players were phenomenally accurate, sending down a mixture of off-cutters, leg-cutters, slower ones and straighter deliveries that made life tough for batsmen.

These bowlers made their presence felt in the cold climes of New Zealand. On slow decks in the late eighties and much of the nineties, exponents of this art refined their skills in order to give the national side more viable options. Little did anyone fathom how effective they would be.

‘Dibbly dobbly’ was the moniker attached to this motley crew. In terms of cricketing semantics, it sounds somewhat derogatory. While former all-rounder Chris Harris prefers not to be associated with that tag, there was one Kiwi great, who regarded it as a mark of respect and honour, and earned much glory for his nation as well as himself.

Gavin Rolf Larsen – for long the nemesis of many world-class exponents of the willow – was a natural at choking the flow of runs and checking the aggressive approach of batsmen. The grey-haired bowler was a regular feature in the ODI side, and with him in the ranks, New Zealand would dominate much of the ODI arena for most of the 1990s.

Born on September 27, 1962, Larsen made his first-class debut for Wellington in the 1984 season; he would go on to serve them with distinction for fifteen years. He earned a reputation as a useful lower-order batsman and an economical bowler, helped in large part due to the slow pitches on offer at the time.

There Larsen perfected his skills, focusing on a stump-to-stump line and rarely offering much room to the batsman to free his arms. Invariably, it would result in the willow-wielder getting so frustrated that he would lose his head and play a needless shot at the cost of his wicket.

His phenomenal success led to his first taste of international cricket against the visiting Indian team in 1990 during the Rothmans Cup tri-series. Though Larsen couldn’t do much with the ball in subsequent games against Australia, he returned to the grind of domestic cricket and worked harder on being as accurate as possible.

The 1992 World Cup was when a host of innovations and new strategies were utilised by skipper Martin Crowe. Larsen, Rodney Latham, Willie Watson and Chris Harris were New Zealand’s WMCs (Weapons of Mass Containment). In particular, Larsen couldn’t be hit all over the park by most of the world’s leading batsmen at the time, such was his accuracy.

His heroics with the ball led his teammates to nickname him ‘the Postman’ – always the consummate professional that he was. In crunch situations, Larsen was Crowe’s go-to man, and he always delivered. It was a mark of respect for his abilities in the one-day arena that he was chosen to step in as captain for three matches during the Austral-Asian Cup in Sharjah in 1994 after Crowe was sidelined due to his recurrent back injuries.

Gavin Larsen bowls during the 1999 World Cup semi-final against Pakistan - his last game before retiring. (Getty Images)

Gavin Larsen bowls during the 1999 World Cup semi-final against Pakistan – his last game before retiring. (Getty Images)

For someone who was NZ’s go-to man in limited-overs cricket, Larsen ended up playing only eight Test matches. Perhaps it was the difference in the type of ball used that blunted his effectiveness, or maybe the Kiwi selectors viewed his game to be suited for 100-over matches. A pity, given that Richard Hadlee’s successors in the longer format didn’t arrive until much later; he would have been more than a handful in white flannels too.

Outside New Zealand, though, Larsen’s economy rate suffered, but he was still quite miserly. Along with Harris, he kept the slow-medium flag fluttering high for a few more years. On subcontinent pitches, he was told that his style of bowling wouldn’t be as effective because there was more turn and very little seam prevalent in those days. Yet he did reasonably well in his trips to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan during the 1996 World Cup.

By 1999, though, new winds were blowing in the cricket world. New Zealand focused on making their pitches fast, hard and with more bounce, essentially trying to re-work their strategy to assist their fast bowlers. A new generation of slow bowlers was rising; ones who would pitch the ball in the right areas and then wait for the track to do the rest.

In addition, Larsen’s accuracy had been reduced a considerable bit, as batsmen now preferred to charge down the wicket to counter his deliveries. At 37, the old fox had been hampered by recurring back spasms, and his reflexes, although still refined, slowed him down.

Nevertheless, he became one of the few bowlers to have claimed the prized scalp of the legendary Sachin Tendulkar as his hundredth wicket in ODIs, though it took him over five thousand deliveries to reach the landmark; he also became the second oldest player to do so.

He finally bid farewell to the game in October 1999, having played a substantial role in steering the Kiwis to the semi-finals of the World Cup in June the same year – his last ODI.

And with the Postman gone, the era of the dibbly-dobblies eventually came to an end.

He kept himself fit by playing in and around various areas of Wellington, and eventually became the CEO of Cricket Wellington. Notably, he opposed the selection of England seamer James Anderson to the Auckland team prior to the Test series against NZ in early 2008, evoking mixed reactions.

His son Corey has shown promise as a batsman, plying his trade for the Onslow Cricket Club in Wellington.

The world considers the likes of Jesse Ryder to be ‘descendants’ of that bygone era, but he is just one of the many pretenders to the throne vacated by Larsen fourteen years ago. Even part-timers Nathan Astle and Craig McMillan could only be considered as stand-ins, but never the real deal.

Competitive on the field, and extremely professional both on and off it, Larsen would certainly have enjoyed playing Twenty20 cricket, but for now, he is happy handling the administrative side of the game that he gave fifteen years of his life to.

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