An on and off player for more than 13 summers, punctuated by controversies and visits to the surgeon’s table, Cairns is ‘guilty’ of not quite fulfilling the potential he has.
The best of Cairns came out during the 2000-01 season. One he will cherish most, unless of course he helps New Zealand win the World Cup this year. On the Kiwis tour to Zimbabwe, he scored his third Test century with 124 but in the process suffered an injury. Yet he held on to play a significant role in the icc knockout tournament in Kenya soon after.
Hampered by his right knee injury he bowled off a reduced run-up in the final against India and was instrumental in tying down Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly. Going in to bat, he slammed a brilliant 102 not out to see New Zealand home to its first tournament victory in one-dayers.
He was now being recognised as the No. 1 all-rounder in the world. On the domestic front, he was named the New Zealand Player of the Year and won both the Redpath Cup for batting and the Winsor Cup for bowling. In the series against West Indies he took 17 wickets at an average of 9.94, including a career-best seven for 27 in the first Test. In the same match the then 29-year-old Cairns joined his father, Lance, to become the only father and son to have captured 10 wickets in a Test match. Against the West Indies he averaged 51.50 with the bat, and against the Australians, he topped the Test batting averages with 56.83, including a century.
During the 2001-02 season, in the brief time he was available, he gave ample indication of how much he still has to offer. He smashed an outstanding century in the odi against South Africa at Brisbane—the only time New Zealand beat the South Africans in the VB Series. Then against Australia in the first Test at Brisbane, he brought his side almost to the doorstep of victory. The Kiwi challenge weakened only once Cairns left after smashing 43 in 38 balls.
Cairns seemed to be finally reaching his full potential. Alas, it was not to be. On his last Test appearance, before an injury felled him for the umpteenth time in his career, Cairns was close to a career landmark. Against England at Christchurch in 2001-02, Cairns started in style with two wickets in his first over on the first morning of the opening Test. But a knee injury later in the day effectively ended his contribution with the ball. On the last day, he played a big part in the afternoon drama as Nathan Astle scored a fired up innings of 222. Cairns, batting on one leg, was 23 not out in the last wicket partnership of 118 runs. But the Kiwis chasing a mammoth 550 for victory were 98 short.
And Cairns? Just like Richard Hadlee, who had been left waiting to take the world Test wicket record off Ian Botham when he injured himself on the first day of the 1987-88 Test series against England (ironically also at Jade Stadium, then called Lancaster Park), Cairns was left standing with 197 wickets, three short of becoming only the second New Zealander to pass the 200 mark.
How much more Cairns could have played can be seen from these figures: in the 13 years since he made his debut, Cairns has played 55 Test matches, an average of 4.23 Tests a year, while New Zealand during the same period has played 105 Tests, an average of just over eight Tests per year. That means Cairns missed 50 Tests during these years and more than half that figure was because he was not available due to injury.
It was a strange kind of a baptism into Test cricket for Cairns. Even before wearing the full Kiwi cap, he had played as a professional for Nottinghamshire in 1988. After a superb tour of England in 1989 with the New Zealand Youth team, Cairns was called for the one-off Test against Australia on a short tour across the Tasman Sea. Unfortunately for Cairns, Perth’s waca ground in stifling conditions took its toll. He bowled 12 overs for 60 runs and then he walked from the field clutching his back, an injury diagnosed as a stress fracture.
As for Cairns tryst with World Cup, a lot still remains to be fulfilled. The 2003 edition will be his fourth World Cup.
His first appearance at the quadrennial cricketing fest was at home in 1992, when New Zealand hosted part of it. Though Cairns was still not a regular member of the side, his performance in the opening game against Australia was superb. As runs were chased in the last overs, Cairns struck fours off three successive balls in the last over then managed to get a three off the fourth ball to allow captain Martin Crowe to achieve a century from the fifth.
In the time between the 1992 World Cup and the next one, he had controversial run-ins with coach Glenn Turner. But in between he also shone on the field. During the tour of India in late 1995, Cairns scored the fastest odi century, off 84 balls, by a New Zealander. However, at the 1996 World Cup in the Indian subcontinent, he struggled to find his form. He had a bad time between then and the next World Cup in 1999. After another brief spell of injury, he was fit by the time of the World Cup in May-June 1999. His record fifth-wicket stand of 148 with Roger Twose took New Zealand to an upset five-wicket win over Australia in Cardiff. New Zealand reached the semi-finals.
Now, in 2003, he is on a comeback trail after yet another injury setback, which cost him nearly 10 months. And the wait for his performance in South Africa has begun.