Republished from Outright 51 - by Margot Butcher
There’s no placard to mark it, but everybody knows Gary Bartlett’s spot at Horton Park. Watching the bowler’s arm from the rough wooden seat behind long on — where else.
Horton Park and Bartlett are inextricably linked. He literally grew up across the road, ran around here as a nipper. By the time he’d grown into a fully-fledged fast bowler, he was up in the dark curating the pitch here, rolling in the natural dew — no irrigation in the 1950s. A deck that dries too early will stress out the grass cover, and you don’t want that as a fast bowler.
Horton Park used to be renowned as the quickest pitch in New Zealand, but there hasn’t been a Central Stags match in Blenheim since 2002. The advent of venue warrants of fitness changed the game. It’s been a particular shame for Bartlett, now 81, who doesn’t get to watch live first-class cricket, and particularly first-class bowlers, anymore. So, he’s watching the four local men’s club flagship sides take each other on, and tomorrow he’ll be back to watch the Marlborough versus Nelson’s women’s match.
Former Canterbury coach & player Garry McDonald rings up Bartlett regularly. So does former Blackcap and Stag Tony Blain, from England. Carl Bulfin still lives in Blenheim, and catches up with Bartlett — the pair share a unique bond as Marlborough men once considered the quickest in the country, with the grumbling bodies to show for it.
McDonald too was once a young player making his way from the sleepy corner of Blenheim. He is 15 years younger that Bartlett who debuted for Central in 1958/59, terrorised opponents in the Hawke Cup for Marlborough, and played 10 Tests in the 1960s. Bartlett’s impact on the 1961/62 five-Test series in South Africa (his debut series) had cemented his reputation as a fearsome quick, and McDonald looked up to him as a hero. “He was everyone’s hero in Marlborough,” says McDonald, still working in cricket in Nelson. “Then he became my mentor in coaching, and he still is. Everyone needs a mentor, even at my age. He’s helped me immensely. If I ever have something I can’t pinpoint about a bowler, I ring Gary.”
McDonald still takes players over to Blenheim to see him. Josh Clarkson was one, back when he was a young lad at Nelson College. Netherlands international Paul van Meekeren found himself running around Horton Park in front of the Tohunga as well. Andrew Penn — any CD bowler who could dig it in a bit, would be sent to see him. “It’s a shame cricket hasn’t used Gary’s talents more over the years but the one thing he is not is mainstream,” says McDonald.
“Barters can be stinging in his analysis, but he will be right. He has got the best cricket brain I have ever come across — not just for pace bowling, but especially for pace bowling because he resonates very strongly with them. He understands the pain they go through, pain that you don’t know unless you are a fast bowler. “He doesn’t have pay TV or the internet so all he sees these days sometimes is the snippets of a player on the news, which might be a matter of seconds. He’ll ring me up and say, ‘Did you see so-and-so on the news? He needs to get his back leg through.’ It never ceases to astound me that he can look at a player for such a very short period of time and understand what is going on with him — and he’s always spot on.”
“I don’t like to call it coaching,” says Bartlett, sitting on the sidelines in the Saturday morning sun. “I think helping is a better word. I just help people.” He has ‘helped’ a lot of people, players and coaches. Former Auckland coach Tony Sail says he learned more from rooming with Bartlett than he ever did elsewhere on the coaching courses they attended together, back in the day. Pretty much everyone has a Gary Bartlett story like that — if you won his trust and let you in.
Cricket can be a cruel obsession. Bartlett’s own playing career left its mark; people are still talking about it five decades later. If you haven’t heard the stories, you’ve been under a rock.
On his impressive debut tour in South Africa he was said to be hitting 160kph — and also bowled a hell of a lot of overs on the tour. It wrecked his body and he came down with shingles from the stress. It was never the same after that, even though he took 6-38 against India in Christchurch in 1967/68, at the time New Zealand’s best Test haul. It was New Zealand’s first win against India.
Africa,” says Bartlett, “but I had things I want to prove to myself.” McDonald: “If you saw him run, when he was younger — they talk about Michael Holding and whispering death. Well, Barters was absolutely poetry, then he would rock back and unleash these missiles. When he was out of rhythm, he would spray it, but on his day, he was truly magnificent."
Recently Bartlett broke his ribs, and his constant friend now is on a solid-looking walking stick. A spiritual man, he says the tough, beautiful piece of manuka was blessed for him. He was always very strong. It wasn’t unknown for him carry a boar on his shoulders down from the hills after a spot of pig-hunting and then head off to play cricket.
What we call Strength and Conditioning (S&C) these days was a do-it-yourself school. He points out a tree on a ridgeline halfway up an otherwise bare, steep hill that frames the town “That tree was just up to my knee when I used to run up there.”
He worked a lot of things out for himself, as you had to in those days. He understood that good rhythm and balance in his run-up was central to his bowling action, so he took an active interest in how athletes like Peter Snell ran. He talked to Snell about running. Decades later, when Chris Donaldson was still chasing Olympic sprinting dreams rather than training Blackcaps as an S&C coach, Bartlett was following Donaldson’s running career with interest, too.
“You can’t bowl fast if you can’t run,” he states. “I was all about rhythm and timing. Without that, what have you got?”
Strong and wiry, his natural strength also allowed him to sustain the slingy action that started almost from his ankle. He also has an arm that doesn’t naturally straighten and, as the injuries kicked in and his action got a bit more front-on at an earlier point in his delivery stride, that no doubt exacerbated the chat about him throwing that led to an infamous protest by that Indian Test squad in 1968 that pretty much ended his career.
Bartlett has fond words for players who were good to him, and not so fond of a few whom he felt threw him under a bridge. He carried on walking the hills, professionally shooting thousands, if not millions, of rabbits and other pests to help farmers and vineyards, and was a legendary sports masseur for anyone brave enough to let his big, strong hands sort out their tight calf or quad. Former CD and Blackcaps paceman Lance Hamilton tells a story of once having to be held down by two other Stags players on the table while Bartlett worked on him — but the next morning, his calf was magic.
The original Bartlett family home no longer stands, replaced by a service building, so Bartlett has to drive to Horton Park these days. Age is a bugger, as we all find out sooner or later. He’s been grateful for contact and support from the NZCPA. Paul Hobbs visited in person, and helped him sort out some maintenance issues around his flat.
“It’s nice that they remember us older players,” he says. “We didn’t have all that in our day, you had to fend for yourself. I was quite touched.”
Cricket, for all its cruelty, is a community you come to belong to, with no boundaries or borders, and never a shortage of conversation. If he’s not parked up at his spot on the sidelines, he might be off for a beer and a yarn with Bully. Chill Blain might have called. Someone really needs to get the man the internet.