Even as we go through the first days of autumn, there is still unfinished summer business to attend to before Easter. New Zealand is playing England in a test match, with a pink ball it is true, but nonetheless a traditional highlight of the season since 1879 when the first England team sailed into Christchurch after a thorough drubbing in Melbourne – and en route to a showdown with the gentlemen of Hoboken, New York.
Even though it wasn’t until 1956 that New Zealand won an official test match, and another 22 years before they finally beat England, cricket dominated summer sport here for a hundred years or more. There were dozens of clubs in Whanganui, many hundreds around the country, and a swirling social life beyond the boundary. Visiting teams came and went, though for many years not the cream of Australia as we were usually considered worthy only of non-test playing B teams – mixtures of old stagers and up-and-comers.
New Zealand did provide Australia with one legend of their game, Clarrie Grimmett. Born in Dunedin on 25 December 1891, Grimmett took his leg spin skills to Sydney at the age of 22 and eventually became the first bowler to take over 200 test wickets, all of them for Australia. Although his team mate Bill O’Reilly described him as “the best Christmas present Australia ever received from that country”, he joins Phar Lap and Russell Crowe as one that got away.
The Whanganui Regional Museum has unearthed a cricketing link with another trans-Tasman celebrity amongst its extensive collection of early gramophone records. Pat Hanna was a member of the Otago Regiment which fought in Egypt, France and Belgium during World War I, and remained behind with the occupation forces in 1919 as an entertainment officer. This posting grew into a fully-fledged vaudeville troupe called “The Diggers”. On Hanna’s return to New Zealand, the troupe was demobilised into “Pat Hanna’s Diggers”, a concert party of up to 25 singers, dancers and humourists, which toured the country to great acclaim.
His on-stage showstoppers, developed from war-time routines, were monologues in the role of a stereotypical army chaplain. The best-known of those were “The Gospel According to Cricket” and “Discourses on Cricket – Even Unto the Fifth Test Match”.
Hanna, like Grimmett, was soon lured away to Sydney where he became a bit of a star, first with the increasingly Aussie “Diggers” and then as a solo artiste. His stage and radio fame led to a recording career. A 78 rpm thermoplastic disc of one of those old hits, “Discourses on Cricket”, is in the Museum collection. He later tried his luck on the big screen as writer and star of the second-ever Australian sound movie called, perhaps inevitably, “Diggers”. Next he moved into directing with the sequel “Diggers in Blighty”, which was not a great success. Undeterred, Pat Hanna continued in film and radio for decades before retiring to Britain where he died in 1973.
Frank Stark is Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.