World Cup mavericks: Lance Cairns—swinging Excalibur

The Kiwi bowler who overcame deafness to gain cricketing glory

52-Lance-Cairns Illustration: Job P.K.

The 1983 World Cup saw no magic from Lance Cairns; he took seven wickets in the tournament. Perhaps he had exhausted his quota of wizardry in Melbourne the same year, when he unsheathed King Arthur’s sword and whacked the Aussies for six sixes, including a one-hander off Dennis Lillee. He raced to 52 off 21 balls, the fastest 50 at the time, but all the commentators could talk about was Excalibur―the bat with its shoulders shaved off, which almost made it look like a club.

John Guy, a former Kiwi batter who designed the bat, said in an ESPNcricinfo article: “It was just a marketing ploy. Although if you have no shoulders, you can’t get caught off the shoulder of the bat.”

A bat is only as good as the man who wields it. And man, was he good. Cairns was an attraction. Not only did he bludgeon balls with the bat, he also bowled front-on, off the wrong foot. There was substance to go with the unorthodox style, though. He took more than 200 international wickets for New Zealand and used to partner the legendary Richard Hadlee for a time. He was raw, unvarnished talent that had not been coached a single day in his life. He credits his ability to swing the ball to the lack of coaching. If he had been coached into bowling side-on, he would have lost his swing, he reckoned.

As a kid, Cairns had been a promising hockey and rugby player, but he disliked the violence in the latter. He came closer to cricket through the radio, but hardly went to any matches before he started playing.

What makes his story more captivating is that Cairns started going deaf at 17. “I would scream for these appeals and all my team-mates would be silent as anything,” he said in a 2010 interview to Stuff. “Then it would work the other way, I would get a nick and the wicketkeeper would catch it and they would all scream the appeal and I wouldn’t appeal because I hadn’t heard the nick.”

The problems, of course, extended beyond the field. As he could not pick a lot of what people were saying, he would avoid social situations and stay in his room to watch television.

Cairns finally got a cochlear implant in 2010 and did something he had wanted to do for years―talk to his son, Chris, on the phone. Yes, Chris Cairns.