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Bats out of hell: The CLEAR© Black Caps and the science of musical sting selection

Alaister Moghan dives deep into the recesses of New Zealand cricket history to uncover the ballads and bangers to which our men in teal once entered the oval.

In 1999 sports science was still in its infancy. In my chosen sport of childhood focus, cricket, this was a time of naivety where ice bathing had yet to become common practice and design technology peaked with the mysterious Kookaburra ‘Bubble’ Bat, whose distinctive stickers alone were rumoured to add ten runs to your average.

Yet, left behind in this era of unfortunate teal-coloured uniforms (which would eerily predict the core elements of the Lockwood designed referendum flag) the brain trust of the CLEAR© Black Caps unearthed a powerful weapon – TUNES!

At the time, the power of music in sport was not in itself new. Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ convinced many a natural rugby fan to give league a go, while Rocky IV’s manic musical montages made it my go-to childhood choice to inspire a short spurt of vigorous exercise. Then, circa cricket season 1998/1999, the CLEAR © Black Caps – seemingly out of the (teal) blue – systematically unleashed a weapon which harnessed the power of sting selection as an all out audible assault on the touring Indian and West Indian teams.

On the 12th of January 1999, on the grassy banks of McLean Park, accompanied by my dutiful older sister, I saw my first ever live international cricket game: New Zealand vs India. Not only did I get to see my cricketing heroes and legends of the games in the flesh – the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Matthew Horne (with his distinctive but technically unsound head nodding pre-movement) but I also got a memento – the match programme. In it was the CLEAR © Black Caps team list, each player listed with their playing number and, most crucially, their music ‘sting’ which would accompany their entrance to the batting crease.

With the programme now lost forever in an attic in the suburbs of Raureka, for years I could only vaguely recall details, most notably Craig McMillan’s use of the incredible power and pun of Mark Morrison’s ‘Return of the Mac’ and Dion Nash further establishing his bad boy credentials by walking out to the Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’.

So you can imagine my glee when the Twitter-sphere unearthed this gem from @elliottnz (via@TheACCnz):

Each sting selection could be an essay in itself. However, in the interests of your attention span I have grouped the music stings into five categories. Each category explores the sting selection from the perspective of culture, sports science and, most importantly, player intent.

Category 1: Word Play

‘Horny as Funk’ (Horne)

‘Return of the Mac’ (McMillian)

‘Sultans of Swing’ (Doull)

‘Bat Out of Hell’ (TBC)

The world is a strange place, and especially so in the late-’90s. But still, it beggars belief that a young professional cricketer, opening the batting for his country, trying to prove himself, gain respect and establish a career in one of the most difficult roles in a difficult sport, would choose to walk out to Soapy singing “I’m Horny, Horny, Horny, Horn / I’m Horny, I’m Horny, Horny, Horny tonight..”

That is unless you are Matthew Jeffrey Horne. As the collected titles of any ghost-written cricket biography will tell you, one of the foolproof ways to mark your name in the annals of cricket history (beyond having your name on the honours boards of Lords, an accomplishment also achieved by Horne) is to embrace the pun.

On the face of it, Horne appears to be subjecting the entirety of the 1999 McLean Park crowd to a punishingly bad novelty hit; in fact he is making a hilarious subtextual joke. This bombastic nightmare of sexual desire has a clever double meaning here: Matthew is not demonstrating that he is sexually aroused, but rather humorously playing on the double meaning of ‘Horny’, or ‘Horney’, his cricketing nickname.

Similar intentions were behind other song choices – Craig McMillian’s ‘Return of the Mac’ (as Craig ‘Mac’ McMillan yet again returned to the batting crease, most likely following another top order collapse), Simon Doull’s selection of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans of Swing’ (Doull was a swing bowler and was also notorious for his aggressive lower order batting – always ‘having a swing’, so to speak) as well another player, whose name is now lost to the fog of memory, but who I remember cleverly utilised Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat out of Hell’ as he walked out to bat.

Category 2: Admirable Earnestness

‘Braveheart Guilt of A Thistle’ (Twose)

‘Eye of the Tiger’ (Harris)

In stark contrast to the punning players above, Messrs Twose and Harris didn’t take their sting selection lightly. Indeed, Twose’s pious facial expression while walking out to bat, accompanied by the mournful theme to Braveheart, may perhaps be the pivotal factor in his eventual rise to becoming the second best one day international batsman in the world by late 2000.

Look too, at the swagger of Christopher Zinzan Harris walking out to bat to Survivor’s stirring ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ carrying the mantle of the battling Rocky Balboa of New Zealand cricket. Surely this was a crucial aspect of Harris’ success, pivoting off a signature move: from a shaky start, a lower-order match-winning cameo replete with flowing cover drives.

Category 3: Bangers/Crowd Pleasers

‘Blue’ (Fleming)

‘Mambo #5’ (Astle)

‘Miami’ and ‘Return of the Mac’ (McMillan)

‘Song 2’ (O’Connor)

‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (Allott)

‘Walking on the Sun’ (Wiseman)

In an ever changing world some things remain the same: bangers, always bangers, please. While history may look cruelly on a number of these selections there is no doubt that in the late 90s these songs had massive popular appeal.

Wiseman’s choice is the most apt. With the threat of Y2K approaching, his choice demonstrates what the crowd really wanted: a hedonistic anthem for the pending apocalypse. In the words of Smash Mouth –

And if you follow, there may be a tomorrow 

But if the offer is shun, you might as well be walkin’ on the sun

Category 4: Attitude

‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’ (listed as ‘Here We Go’ in the programme) (Parore)

‘Sweet Caroline’ (Cairns)

‘Scar Tissue’ (Nash)

‘People of the Sun’ (Vettori)

‘O Fortuna’ (Styris)

While the all-conquering All Blacks collected trophies, respect and national acclaim by the bucket load, their little brothers the Black Caps struggled to forge their own identity. This angst was expressed as a bad boy attitude (Chris Cairn’s nickname for a period of time was indeed ‘B.A’ (short for ‘Bad Attitude’) while Parore was known as ‘Mav’, short for ‘Maverick’ – a reference to Tom Cruise’s volatile protagonist in the movie Top Gun). The Black Caps’ “bad attitude” manifested itself in earrings, misbehaviour, questionable sunglasses and distinctive haircuts and/or facial stubble.

Forget The Kick – an entire mini series could be written about New Zealand’s infamous 1994/1995 tour of South Africa.

Without going into details and naming names, it can perhaps best be summarised by the New Zealand Cricket chairman of the time who deemed the behaviour of selected players as “endemic of a wider malaise that appears to have infected the game”.

Category 5: Bits n Pieces

‘Just Another Saturday Night’ (Spearman)

‘The Boxer’ (Stead)

‘Do You See What I See’ (Drum)

‘Paint It Black’ (Penn)

In some ways, this final category is the most quintessential to New Zealand cricket in ’90s. Forgotten and fleeting players Spearman, Stead, Drum and Penn, each of them highly successful domestic cricketers, had relatively forgettable international careers.

It’s perhaps not surprising that their sting selections are similarly unremarkable. The choices in this category is best left to the intimate community of cricket nerds who, alone, recall the highs and lows of the careers of these largely forgotten players.

The practice of systematic sting selection appears to have been abandoned at some point in the early 2000s. Music cues are these days selected by the cruel dictator known as ‘DJ A Hole’ by the knowledgeable Alternative Commentary Collective.

Shortly after stings were abandoned, A-Hole subjected a McLean Park crowd to his dad-joke sense of humour, blasting Abba’s ‘Fernando’ everytime Sri Lankan Fast Bowler Dilhara Fernando made an appearance or was hit to the boundary.

One can’t help but ponder, post-McCullum, is a reinvigorated sting selection programme the way forward for the Black Caps?

In this post-ironic world, can Kane ‘Steady the Ship’ Williamson still walk out to Nick Cave’s ‘Ship Song’ amplifying the emotion on the faces of proud Black Caps supporters as this nimble, hairy, well-mannered, batting genius makes his way to the middle?

While the authorities at New Zealand cricket focus on the apparent ‘big issues’ of the sport – international governance, the future of test cricket, drainage failures at McLean Park – sting selection languishes as a forgotten bullet point in the 2001 annual meeting minutes.

The situation has become urgent. Just like the careers of Chris Drum and Andrew Penn there is a distinct risk that the most vital issue of the all – the reinstatement of carefully selected, printed and distributed music sting selections for the New Zealand batting line-up – will continued to be ignored. That, my friends, would make me blue (da ba dee da ba daa).

Postscript: The author encourages any member of the public with any further information on Black Caps sting selection to get in touch with him on Twitter at @ajmoghan


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