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SocietyAugust 2, 2022

Finding Heath Davis

FindingHeathDavis.jpg

In the 1990s, Heath Davis was a terrifyingly fast pace bowler with endless potential. Three decades later, he shares the lonely reality of being the first gay Black Cap.

The most-viewed video of Heath Davis on YouTube is titled “worst first ball in test cricket history”. It’s a clip from the 1994 Black Caps test vs England at Trent Bridge. Davis wasn’t expecting to play at all. The 22-year-old pace bowler had been performing well for Wellington but was inconsistent and raw. When he was selected for the 1994 New Zealand tour of England – to seemingly everyone’s surprise – Davis figured he’d play a few of the warm-up games and watch the big tests from the pavilion. But a spate of injuries across the Black Caps’ bowling attack meant that he instead found himself opening the bowling in the first test.

Standing at the top of his mark, Davis looks nervous, and very young. He’s about to bowl his first ever delivery for the Black Caps and knows that how he plays today could shape the rest of his career. He runs in, hits the crease and doesn’t fully complete his action. The ball shoots out the side of his hand and way down leg, too far for the wicket keeper to stretch as it runs away for four wides.

The fans commenting under the video share one common sentiment: whatever happened to Heath Davis?

A lot of things happened to Heath Davis. He became a cult hero among New Zealand cricket fans, with his bleached hair and gold chain and unpredictable style. He was dropped from the Black Caps squad after the 1994 tour, played exceptionally well on the domestic circuit and was re-selected in 1997. He had a stellar home season of international cricket, only to be dropped again by the next summer. He moved to Auckland, played out his domestic cricket career before retiring in 2004, aged 33. He moved to Australia and hasn’t been in the public eye since.

But on that day in 1994, Heath Davis was a star in the making. The Māori boy from Wainui had worked his way to the top and had seemingly endless potential if he could only tighten up his discipline. He ended up with half-decent figures (1/93) that test, once he’d settled down a bit, and spent the rest of the tour days building on his momentum.

And at night, Davis would go out with the team to unwind and celebrate. But while his teammates chatted up women at the bar, Davis kept to himself. His outlandish behaviour and brazenness disappeared. Before long, he’d excuse himself, with the team assuming he was headed back to the hotel. Instead, he’d take a taxi to a different part of town. There, his other life began. A life lived after hours, kept separate from his public cricketing profile.

Davis was out looking for all the usual things – connection, intimacy, sex, love. Some of them he found, though he wasn’t about to tell anyone where or with whom. Then he’d return to the team hotel, close the door quietly so as not to wake his roommate, and the next morning be back on the field, bowling terrifyingly fast.

Heath Te-Ihi-O-Te-Rangi Davis (Ngāti Porou) was born at Hutt Hospital in 1971. For nearly six years, he was an only child living in Taita, in what he remembers as “a pretty rough area”, before moving over the hill to Wainui. Living there, the big and fast Davis was able to let out his energy for hours at a time playing around the fire breaks and in the creeks. “I loved it,” he remembers. “And my parents weren’t too strict. They’d keep an eye out, they knew where I’d be so I used to take my bike up there and just enjoy being out in the bush, really.”

When Davis was still at primary school, his family moved to Australia for a few years. There he was introduced to cricket and fell in love. “I was mad passionate. I’d run off to school early, and we’d play cricket before we started. I needed an outlet, but cricket was just the one that was easiest for me, I think.”

Davis was a teenager with a man’s body and a growing reputation for both scaring and hurting batsmen. “Everyone knew about Heath before they met him,” remembers Stephen Mather, who played both with and against Davis throughout the 90s. “I’ve stood in the slips, and I’ve watched him bowl very fast spells, like world-class pace, and I’ve seen him frighten batters who are world class. You know when a batter’s frightened because they start moving away from their wickets, and I’ve seen lots of batters do that.”

There were plenty of stories about Davis and his bowling. One time, as a teenager, he got a batter out by hitting them so hard they fell back onto their stumps. Another time, he hit his Wellington teammate Graham Burnett in the box during a club cricket match and Burnett had to be taken to the emergency room. Some players in the Wellington team simply refused to face him in the dimly-lit, underground Basin Reserve nets. “He was too fast for the facility,” says Gavin Larsen, who played with Davis in the Wellington Firebirds as well as the Black Caps. “[The] older, more statesman-like figures in the team just banned Heath outright from bowling in the nets. Or he could bowl off two paces maximum because that at least took 10 kilometres an hour off his deliveries.”

Off the pitch, Davis had an appetite for training that was unmatched, especially at a time when cricketers weren’t considered to be the fittest athletes. “There’s quite a few cricketers who smoked and drank at the time,” says Mather, “and then there was Heath. He was a physical specimen. He was tall and strong and athletic, and he worked hard in the gym.”

Larsen always knew when Davis had been on an exercise machine before him because there would be “a pool of sweat” around it. “He would jump on a running machine and he would flick it to the maximum… and it would keep going, 12 or 15 minutes later.

“He had a really big engine and we saw that engine a lot over the years where you could throw Davo the ball late in the day after he’d already bowled 15 overs and it would still be coming out at top speed.”

On the field, Davis was remarkable, but off the field, he was hopelessly disorganised. Late to practices, nearly missing flights, forgetting to pack the right gear. “Some of the basic things in life were a bit missing,” says Mather. “If you go out for dinner, some of his table manners… just those little things, they were missing. And that helped play into some of the myth about this wild, wild man.”

But the myth of the wild Heath Davis was just that. “He’s nothing like the myth of this big, frightening fast bowler. He’s kind, gentle, cares about other people, and fun. He was a lot of fun to be around.”

Heath Davis at 50 years old is kind, gentle and speaks very quietly. He’s still a striking figure, over six feet tall with broad shoulders and the same green eyes that got him modelling contracts as a cricketer, though the famous bleached blonde hair is gone and the beard has streaks of grey now. He doesn’t wear the gold chain any more.

Having been out of the public eye since 2004, Davis has a lot to talk about. There’s all the funny stories, yes, including how he played a couple of matches for Wellington while on acid. There’s the particular experience of being a beloved athlete who many believe didn’t reach his full potential. But more importantly, there’s the surprising reality that despite it being nearly 30 years since he debuted for the national side, in appearing on Scratched, The Spinoff’s documentary series on lost sporting legends, Davis will be the first gay Black Cap to speak publicly about his sexuality.

He wasn’t the first gay Black Cap in the 90s, because to most people he wasn’t gay. He says he wasn’t necessarily hiding it, but he certainly wasn’t shouting it from the rooftops. He knew he was gay from a young age and had come out to his mum as a teenager while sitting atop Wainui hill.“ She wasn’t surprised,” he says. “She had an inkling. Mothers do.” He didn’t tell his dad, who was a “disciplinarian”, and it was otherwise uneventful. “I shed a tear or two, went back, and just got on with it.”

While he knew who he was, Davis preferred to keep that part of himself private while playing cricket. He had a reputation for being wild and extreme, the type of player to commit to a dare at age-group tournaments or shock teammates during drinking games as a senior player, but those antics were his persona. Looking back, Davis thinks some of his teammates “might have talked in private as people do” but otherwise didn’t question Davis’s sexuality. “It’s just, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a bit different’. I certainly wasn’t living a gay life, wasn’t part of the scene, didn’t have a partner. There was nothing to tie it to, if you know what I mean.”

Instead of “living a gay life”, Davis played his role within different teams and his teammates responded in kind. Larsen, who was a senior player in the Wellington Firebirds when Davis was first recruited, found himself rooming with Davis more often than not. “I realised pretty quickly rooming with him that Davo was a… He was a little bit different, and he did enjoy his own space,” Larsen says. He hasn’t seen Davis in more than a decade but remembers his former roommate “didn’t want to be in the company most nights with guys from around the team. Davo went off and enjoyed himself and then would be back later that night and the next morning you’d be back into your cricket work.”

Unlike some of the other players, Larsen didn’t mind the potential disruption of Davis’s comings and goings, so the two developed a quiet understanding. “When you’re rooming with someone, because you’re in their company a lot, you do tend to get to know that person at a friendship level quicker than you do with other people. So it certainly didn’t surprise me when it became more obvious, I guess, but it wasn’t something that was talked about within the environment.”

Larsen had a feeling, as did some others, but Davis didn’t outright tell anyone until 1997 when he separately told Mather and then Auckland teammate Matt Horne. Until then, he says, it was a lonely time. “There’s a lot of going to saunas and seedy places to get sex because you didn’t want to be seen and that sort of stuff. I didn’t have a lot of friends, I would just go out and see what happened. And yeah, I was young and fit and might have been better looking than now and got preyed on a bit.” He pauses. “And wanted to be preyed on a bit too, I suppose.”

At 27, Davis was still very much in the mix for Black Caps selection and playing well for Wellington. He found a partner but felt like he couldn’t be public with him. It was his first gay relationship. Then an offer came from Auckland for a contract. Davis remembers discussing a potential move with his new partner. “I said, ‘Well, I didn’t feel comfortable in Wellington, being out. And then now I’m with you and you’ve lost your job. So here’s an opportunity. You could find a job. I could find another part of the country and we could start again.’ For Davis, a selection for the national side was no longer the “be-all and end-all”. “I just needed a cricket career to continue with.”

He took the offer from Auckland and prepared to start fresh with his partner in a new city. “I was a bit afraid of just being out in Wellington. Being able to take my partner to the game or something.”

In Auckland, Davis and his partner lived near the city and got to know “the scene”, as he puts it, a little more. He wasn’t as notorious in Auckland as he was in Wellington, and felt like he could go out more freely without being recognised. He told the manager of the Auckland team that he was gay, and it was shared with the players. “Everyone in Auckland knew I was gay, in the team, but it didn’t seem to be that big an issue,” he says, before clarifying a little. “Maybe some of the young ones were a little bit..” he scrunches up his face “if you’re sharing a room with them or something, but yeah, that’s just petty shit. It’s rubbish. On the field it was all good.”

A new city, a new partner, a new team, a new outlook. Things were going well for Davis, who had spent his life until then in a tug-of-war with himself, trying to juggle his personal life with his professional career. Despite the hair and the outfits and the blistering pace and potential, Davis’s aspirations were heartbreakingly simple.

“I just wanted a partner… I wanted a normal life. The life I’d grown up in wasn’t that. There was a part of me that needed to break free and I wanted a partner to love. That was really all.”

Heath Davis is single now. In 2004, he wasn’t offered a contract by Auckland and his relationship had ended, so he moved again. In Brisbane, Davis moved back in with his parents, who had emigrated three years earlier. Davis’s relationship with his dad had been strained after a childhood filled with discipline and expectation. Being back under their roof was a difficult transition for a man who’d found a sense of himself while living in Auckland. “It was tough for a while,” he remembers. “I couldn’t get permanent work, and I was used to living my lifestyle, and they have Christian beliefs. It’s their rules.”

He eventually found work and was able to move out, even buy a house. His known attitude to processes and organisation found him let go from more than one job (“There’s a pattern there, isn’t there? Doing silly things.”) In 2009, the forklift he was operating slid on some chicken fat and collided with a bollard, crushing his left foot in the process. A portion of it had to be amputated, which he soon joked was all a ruse to prevent him from bowling more no-balls. He still lives in Brisbane, doing manual labour for work and keeping in regular contact with his parents and siblings who live nearby.

When asked if he ever found the love he was looking for, Davis considers the question carefully. “I don’t know if it was love,” he eventually says. “I think it was lust, in all honesty. Love, I can’t say I’ve really had it in a relationship like that.”

Is he still looking for it?

“Honestly, yes. And this might sound really weird. I would like you to include it briefly if you can. I’m seeking Christ now. That might sound really weird to you. I’m living single, part of a group of other men as a Christian group.”

For two years now, roughly since the beginning of the pandemic, Davis has been on a faith journey and living single. The surprising shift in beliefs followed his dad turning to Christianity and reconciling with Davis after decades of tension. Once again, Davis’s two lives are forcing him to make sacrifices. For Mather, who has known Davis since they were teenagers, it makes sense. “It’s consistent that he should be grappling with these issues now,” he says. “He seems to have been grappling with them all his life, or something all of his life.”

And Davis is grappling. He’s very candid and happy to speak about his time as a cricketer and the realities of being a gay athlete in the public eye, but has no desire to be a role model for young athletes today. He says he regrets not being more open with himself and who he was earlier in life, but now holds the belief that his sexuality is against god’s will. It sounds like an exhausting tension, but is Davis happy? Yes – sort of.
“Happier than I’ve been in a while,” he says. “I would like a partner, but I realise that it’s not biblical to have a partner of the same sex. And there’s all the dealing with that. And I can’t do it. Not on my strength, anyway.”

At 50 years old and having first played international cricket nearly three decades ago, Davis is now the first gay Black Cap (or All Black) and only the second gay international first class male cricketer from any nation. Or, he’s the second to talk publicly about it. He thought there’d have been someone else in New Zealand by now but doesn’t put much stock in being the first. As he said more than once, he just wants the truth out there.

Heath Davis always knew how to bowl fast. Talent and work ethic were never a problem for him. It was always the other, peripheral things that got in his way. An unstructured home life, a lack of discipline, and a turbulent sense of self all worked to disrupt a simple motion with a simple goal: to bowl the ball down the pitch. Since he retired from cricket, those peripheral things have changed shape but are still very much in Davis’s life, working to disrupt an equally simple notion with an equally simple goal: to have a partner and to be loved.

In both realities, Davis has struggled to settle into a rhythm and stay on track, though never for lack of trying. At 50, it would be fair to assume that his latest approach to life and to himself is going to stick. But as anyone who ever saw him play could attest, when Heath Davis is at the top of his mark with ball in hand and nothing in his way, literally anything could happen.


Where to find support

OutLine NZ  – Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463)

Rainbow Youth – Phone (09)3764155

InsideOUT – Phone 027 331 4507

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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