Hedley John Howarth was a distinguished slow left-arm bowler, obdurate left-hand batsman and one of the nicest human beings to have played test cricket.
I first saw Hedley bowling when I was staying in a motel in Shelley Beach Road. From the verandah I looked down onto a practice pitch and saw Hedley bowling to his younger brother, Geoffrey. I did not know who they were but thought, wow, there is some genuine talent coming through in this city.
Standing over 184 cms, broad of shoulders, long of limb, Hedley Howarth could always be found helping his father manage the family business of Kia Ora Fisheries that was sited at the Viaduct Basin before it was refurbished for the America’s Cup. The company moved closer to the airport and became Kia Ora Seafoods. His working day began at 4am and frequently he arrived to play for Auckland having done six hours work.
His father George was from England and was an avid lover of cricket. The great English left-arm slow bowler Hedley Verity died in action in July 1943, five months before Hedley was born on Christmas Day, 1943. It was rumoured that George named his second son after Hedley Verity. Fortunately for George, his son also achieved cricketing fame as a left-arm slow bowler.
Left-hand bowling seemed to be in his blood and Hedley possessed the secrets of the art. He was always a keen student of the game and his bowling was of such a type, that brains and experience played a greater part in his success than natural genius. On good pitches he worked away, tireless, determined, with unerring accuracy, and in length, immaculate, relying on subtle variations of pace.
One of the secrets of his bowling could be seen, if never quite understood and only from very close. When playing against him, balls that you thought were overtossed, suddenly dropped as the under-spun ball fell short of the anticipated length This was the reason that of the 541 wickets that he captured in first-class cricket, 49 of them (9%), were caught and bowled, an exceptional statistic and one that might be unparalleled in a game riddled with statistics.
After an apprenticeship of six years with Auckland, Hedley was chosen in 1969 for New Zealand’s tour of England, India and Pakistan. He made the leap from test debutant at Lord’s to the cornerstone of the attack in the space of 113 days spread over the three countries where three tests were played in each. He thrived on hard work and bowled twice as many overs, 436, as the next bowler, Dayle Hadlee, 217.
In the second test against India at Nagpur he was instrumental in New Zealand achieving their first test victory on the subcontinent having match figures of 9-100 off 53 overs. Within a month the team won their first test series win against Pakistan.
In his first nine tests he had made an immediate impact, capturing 38 wickets. He was calm at the bowling crease and completely in charge of his emotions even when subjected to attack by some of the worlds best batsmen in their home conditions. New Zealand Cricket awarded him the Windsor Cup for the Most Meritorious bowler for 1969.
In 1972 New Zealand made their first tour of the West Indies and were confronted by comatosed wickets that were made for batsmen of both sides to churn out runs with monotonous regularity. Bruce Taylor was the only bowler in either side to capture wickets. Hedley’s concentration, patience and stamina were put to the test as he bowled the vast number of 337 overs in five tests and conceded only 703 runs under the broiling sun against such great batsmen as Gary Sobers, Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran, Roy Fredericks and Charlie Davis. On these shirt-front wickets he perplexed and imprisoned their normal flamboyant batting skills by accuracy of length and subtlety of flight.
This series appeared to drain Hedley’s attacking spirit and in future tests he appeared more in a containing role than in an attacking role. When he retired from test cricket he had played 30 tests and taken a New Zealand record for a test slow bowler of 86 wickets.
For Auckland his 332 wickets from 80 games is 85 more than the next player, John Sparling. He is one of nine New Zealand players who have captured over 500 first-class wickets without playing county cricket or for another country. When his younger brother Geoffrey played test cricket they became the second set of brothers to represent their country.
Hedley was a more than competent batsman. His height, reach, concentration, knowledge of what to avoid and heart, made him a gritty performer. He delighted in making his highest first-class score of 61 in a test against Australia at Christchurch in 1976 against Dennis Lillee, Gary Gilmour, Max Walker and Kerry O’Keeffe.
In the gully Hedley was a remarkably efficient fieldsman, where safe hands and courage are comparable attributes to agility, while few in the world have been as memorable off their own bowling.
Judged by any standard Hedley Howarth was a great bowler. Merely to watch him was to know from the balance of the run-up, the high ease of the left-arm action, the scrupulous length and the pensive variety, all proclaimed him a master of his art.
Hedley Howarth was a gentleman first and a cricketer second. His character and disposition never changed amidst all his many triumphs; he just remained Hedley Howarth.