Unsung cricket hero just as ‘nifty’ with racquet as he was with the bat

2013-10-25 00:00

IN his playing days, Neville Wright (56) was an unsung hero, predominantly in the Transvaal cricket side and three years for Natal, where he finished his cricketing days.

He was born in Durban into a sporting life, his father Derrick a strong tennis player who played doubles at Wimbledon with Cliff Drysdale and also made an appearance at the French Open. He also played cricket for Umbilo, playing with South African great Dudley Nourse and represented Natal at baseball and squash.

“I grew up on the sides of cricket fields and tennis courts and in later life, followed the same trend, playing first class cricket and tennis,” said Wright. “I still play tennis these days and am ranked in the top 10 in South Africa in my age group.”

Wright moved to Johannesburg after primary school, living there for 30 years and it was there where he made in-roads into the domestic cricket season.

“I went to high school at KES [King Edward School], which had a rich sport heritage. I played club cricket for Old Edwardians and there were six Springboks in that team,” said Wright. “It was like a provincial side with the likes of Lee Barnard, Graeme Pollock, Ray Jennings, Kevin McKenzie and Hugh Page.”

A right-hand opening batsman, Wright played with a steely resolve to always prove himself. “I played in the KES first team in my matric year and at Nuffield Week. I always felt I had the pedigree, but was up against it, feeling I had to be exceptional to be noticed,” he said. “Every time I batted, I always thought I might be dropped for the next game.”

Nevertheless, he persevered and continued his cricket career. This was in the time of the Transvaal “Mean Machine” team, a side that laid waste all in its path with the likes of Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, McKenzie, Clive Rice, Ray Jennings, Rupert Hanley and Graeme Pollock in the side.

“I was entrenched in the Transvaal B side for 10 years as an opener. I studied at Wits, qualifying as a quantity surveyor and played cricket because I could and saw it as a privilege to play for your province,” said Wright. “I even cancelled an overseas trip to play my first provincial game.”

Wright played inter-varsity cricket for five years, representing Wits.

“For three years, I was the best batsman and made the SA Varsities side four times,” he said. “I remember one match when we played Western Province at Stellenbosch and we chased in the region of 500 to win, after Peter Kirsten had made a double hundred.

“Our whole top order fired. I got 97, Adrian Kuiper got a hundred, Barnard got 70 plus. Hylton Ackerman was the Province coach and he gave the side gears afterwards for losing to a bunch of students.”

In 1983, Wright went to Kimberley on work commitments and met Griquas player Alan Beukes. “He invited me to nets and next thing I was playing for Griquas against the 1983 West Indian rebel side,” said Wright. “I even bowled some leg spinners.”

Wright continued to play at club level and in 1988, played a pre-season friendly against Free State, at the Wanderers. The Free State side had a young tearaway bowler named Allan Donald and Wright scored 68 in a total of less than 200. It was enough to be noticed by the selectors and in 1989, he made his debut for the Transvaal A side, opening with Jimmy Cook after Fotheringham had retired.

“People must remember conditions were tough then. We played on green tops and the ball did all sorts of things,” said Wright. “As an opener, even if I didn’t score much, I wanted to be there long enough to take the shine off the ball.

“I came along just as the ‘Mean Machine’ players were retiring. It was a change of the guard and everyone expected the good times to continue. It was impossible to emulate as all the new players in the side had been playing B side cricket for so long it was a whole new environment and challenge.”

Wright returned to Natal for three seasons, from 1993-96, where he was privileged to play under the great West Indian Malcolm Marshall.

“Without a doubt the best captain I played under. He could make the ball do something and had a magnificent cricket brain,” said Wright.

“Joining Natal for my swansong seasons was a great move. There was a great philosophy among the players and in hindsight, I should have come earlier.

“I opened with Mark Logan and Andrew Hudson and then slotted in at three. I still opened in the one-dayers and enjoyed the 45-over format we played then. My task was to knuckle down, not give my wicket away and learn from other players.”

In between his domestic cricket, Wright played in the English Leagues in 1989 and 1991. “It was not county cricket but North and South leagues. I found this tremendously helpful and I was treated like a professional,” he said. “Because of the weather, many of the games were shortened to 20 overs and it helped mentally as a batsman. There were good players in the league such as West Indians Phil Simmonds and Clayton Lambert. It was great competition.”

These days, Wright is a more than average tennis player, by his own admission playing better tennis than when he was 18. He’s played overseas and is big mates with Kevin Curren, having even knocked up on court with him.

Perhaps his nickname best describes his prowess at sport. “Steve Smith, the Australian batsman who toured with Kim Hughes’s rebel Aussie side, played for us at Transvaal and he gave me the name ‘Nifty’. I think its because I have small feet for a tall bloke and was able to move quite well in the field and between the wickets.” Whatever the reason, when it comes to sport, Wright is definitely a “nifty” opponent.

Wright lifestyle

Enjoys rugby and squash and is a Chelsea supporter.

Is a music fanatic and plays keyboards. He plays by ear and enjoys instrumentals and solid rock. Jazz is not a favourite.

Is a beer man.

Stroganoff and chicken a la King are his cooking specialities.

Eats healthy to benefit his tennis.

Fillet steak with vegetables is a preferred meal.

Plays golf off a poor 18 handicap.

At the movies he enjoys thrillers.

Reads autobiographies and Jeffrey Archer.

Quickest bowler faced is Otis Gibson.

Advice to youngsters

Play club and inter-varsity cricket. Get a degree and then focus on playing. Playing the game is not enough, you need something to fall back on in later life. While playing, keep motivated and always dig deep. Show what you are capable of and do not be put off by other people’s feats.

Scariest moment batting

Being hit on the side of the helmet by Sylvester Clarke in a Transvaal v Northern Transvaal game. It was a white helmet and the ball left a big red mark. In the dressing room afterwards, Clarke signed the helmet, added the date and wrote ‘sorry’.

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