Being a cricket fan means your relationship with the game is marked by moments. For many of my generation, the earliest moments came in 1992. Crowe’s hundred. Harry’s runout. Pakistan. Pakistan redux.
Since then we’ve bumbled through, celebrating one-off moments in the absence of entire campaigns or tours that lit the imagination. We won a Test at Lord’s, at last. We won the ICC Knockout but, with only three games and played in Kenya, it was hardly the ride of 1992. It was barely a ride in a 1992 Corolla. Astle blasted a double ton. Fleming fought. Vettori battled. Bond briefly blazed.
These moments resonate with cricket fans but they never touched on the impact of 1992. During that summer, cricket rose above its normal status. Cricket fans could be open about their love of the game. Friends asked what was happening. Laypeople wanted to know the rules. They wanted to follow along. They wanted to be part of the story.
It took 2015 to bring that back. Organisers harked back to 1992. They captured its spirit and, thankfully, the BLACKCAPS did too. The team was on the rise, and the tournament was their crescendo. There were plenty of “I was there” moments and, I was there. I saw three of the sixes people still talk about: Williamson v Australia, Elliott v South Africa. I have stories for both: strangers hugged, proximity to the ball, why I love Glen Maxwell. The third six worth talking about was sent by Martin Guptill on to the roof of Wellington Regional Stadium. I missed that, and Vettori’s catch, for a kid’s birthday party. We watched the game through a neighbour’s window. Another story.
I also missed the game that would set about the events which lead to the 2019 Cricket World Cup Final. However, like those other games, those other moments captured as a fan, there’s a story for that too.
The day before England and New Zealand met at the 2015 World Cup, I was setting up two new exhibitions at the New Zealand Cricket Museum. One focused on items that had belonged to WG Grace. These remain among the most awe-inspiring items I have ever held. The other exhibition contained the collection of Nancy Doyle, a feisty Irishwoman who controlled the kitchen at Lord’s for many years. Working on the exhibition with Nancy’s family, telling her rich story, is among the greatest career privileges I’ve had.
As I finished these exhibits for the opening that day, English media started to filter in. Attracted by the scones and coffee, they were curious as to how these precious English artefacts had come to be on display in Wellington. While I worked, I listened as they chatted, breezy English accents bouncing off the Museum’s timber floors. Then, an altogether unfamiliar accent. American. No. Not just American. Bostonian.
Intrigued, I put the final touches on the exhibit and followed the sound to its source. I found Greg Conley, a keen sportsfan who had made the decision to come out to New Zealand just two weeks before. With him he had the only two books his local library had on cricket. Neither of them would be among the first 1000 books I would recommend to a cricket novice. My initial reaction has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, I thought he was mad.
As we talked, Greg’s story grew. He travelled the world attending sporting events. Olympics, summer and winter, were a given. Football – soccer to him – World Cups. Ryder Cup. French Open. Irish hurling championships. Back home, his Boston-based American franchises are never far from his mind. Bruins. Red Sox. Patriots. Celtics. He was a huge advocate for Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics. That the city’s bid fell over was in spite of an intense campaign from Greg. I have met few people as passionate.
In the end, I sold him my ticket to the game. New Zealand v England at the Cake Tin. I couldn’t go and this seemed like a good use of the ticket. It would turn out to be one of the games in BLACKCAPS’ history. Greg wanted to pay over the ticket price but I insisted that ticket scalping was a bad look for the Director of the national cricket museum. If I had known how the game would go…
Then, Greg’s story grew again. Before he leaves for his sporting sojourns, Greg stocks up on discount sports merchandise from his Boston teams. Often the shirts of players just traded, or from the previous season, it can take a whole suitcase to carry this additional load. Taking on the moniker the ‘Discount Diplomat’ which was given to him in an Associated Press interview at the 2016 Football World Cup, the contents of the suitcase are dished out to people who help him along the way. He leaves a wake of red and blue as he travels. My son is the only kid at his kindy who regularly turns up in Patriots gear.
Armed with a Tui shirt, hopes of winning a million dollars, and the promise of returning with a beer if he did, Greg set off to his first live cricket game.
He didn’t catch a six but he did return the following day with a beer. There has been barely a week since then where I haven’t had an email from Greg.
Via my inbox I have followed him around the globe. I took a phone call from Russia via New York for that Wall Street Journal article on him. It was on the front page. I have received his three-ring-binder epic, Citius Altius Exitus, a collection of emails and correspondence covering his support of the Boston Olympics. I’m not alone in receiving this, Jacinda Ardern has it, so does Taylor Swift, and it has been shipped to every corner of the globe from Antarctica to Yemen (where the postage cost US$408 and may have involved a camel). Boston sporting merchandise has arrived at my door.
Before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Greg’s older brother convinced him to join the world of Twitter, Discount Diplomat, @discountdiploma. He posts a couple of pictures each day during his trips. Usually photos of people decked out in American sports gear. The cleaners, a waitress, the concierge, a chap on the street who gave him directions. His diplomacy reaches everyone.
Through the 2019 Cricket World, attended by Greg of course, the emails continued. “Kia Kaha. Go Kiwis.” I wasn’t the only one – he pushed his local media to cover the tournament or, at least, the final. His updates came in through that match and his insight was spot on,
After 7 hours, 600 pitches/bowls, tied at 241. Announcers could not believe it. OT/Super Over. Tied 15 apiece. England won on tie-breaker by having more boundaries during regulation. Incredible.
For some crazy reason, I watched all 8 hours on Willow TV ($14.99). Riveting Rounders. Cracking Cricket. Totally reminded me of a 14 inning Sox-Yankees ALCS playoff game. Every single pitch/bowl mattered – a lot!
I have spent approximately one hour in the presence of Greg Conley. He is among my favourite people I have ever met. He is my story of the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
So, here we are, it’s 2019 and the BLACKCAPS haven’t lost the World Cup Final but they have watched England lift the trophy. There’s plenty of agonising about the result, largely, and strangely, from fans of cricket in countries other than those involved in the concluding game.
But, like 1992, like 2015, there are stories built on moments. From the semi: Guptill runs out Dhoni, Neesham takes a stunner, the might of the BCCI and Virat Kohli can’t overcome the New Zealand team. Then, to the Final, where Trent Boult steps on a rope, Ben Stokes’ bat unintentionally hits a four. Or a six. Or should that’ve been five. Run out. Run out. Tie. The ODI game’s first Super Over. Another tie.
England have been superb winners, they have upheld the spirit in which the final ended. New Zealand, the best example of good losers you could imagine. There have been nothing but plaudits for both sides.
As a New Zealand fan, winning would’ve been another story. A great story, without doubt. But, perhaps, when we look back and talk about this particular game, we’ll realise the story is bigger than a trophy. The story will last longer. It will touch more people. It will have more impact in backyards and on makeshift pitches. It will be told, again and again.
In the words of my friend Greg,
that’s why they play the game.
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