A character beyond the boundary

Roger Brittenden sat down for a conversation with Heather Barker Vermeer at North Shore Cricket Club on a sunny spring morning, with one eye on the groundsmen readying the wickets for the season ahead…

Did you hear the one about the promising provincial rugby player who switched his boots for ballet shoes, before getting a call up for the Black Caps at the age of 40? It’s an unlikely tale. It just so happens to be Roger Brittenden’s.

If the term ‘cricket tragic’ were to have a Kiwi face, there are few who would wear it as well as Roger. Synonymous with North Shore Cricket Club, Roger has a history that’s as rich as the club itself. He proudly orchestrated the naming of the C.C. Dacre Pavilion at the club, he is its past chairman, unofficial historian, designer, reporter and life member. And he is never far from the boundary, home or away, at his beloved local club or watching the national side. Roger delights in having designed the motifs for both club and country: he created the Black Caps’ silver fern emblem, as it now appears, during his advertising agency days and gave NSCC’s three scimitars emblem its current incarnation too. He considers Jeff Crowe his best mate. He wrote Ian Smith’s biography, was selected for the Black Caps and has raised over $1 million to benefit underprivileged children through the cricket charity he founded. And that’s just a summary of the cricketing side of Roger’s colourful life.
Born in Christchurch to a family rich in railway history, Roger remembers the strict ‘don’t speak unless spoken to’ Victorian values he, his older brother, sisters and cousins encountered when they visited their grandparents. From the age of five, like many young Kiwi boys, Roger wanted to become an All Black. And he showed the sporting ability to support his dream, representing Canterbury in nine different grades, captaining seven.
When a promotion for his dad prompted a transfer to Taumarunui, Roger found himself plying his rugby skills in King Country. “I was a city kid in the country. They made me work hard: they wanted to test me and see what this city kid could do. I must have come through okay – they made me captain!” The emphasis was always on sportsmanship, he remembers. “Standing on the railway station waiting for the ‘Limited’ at 12 o’clock at night, I was sternly told we’d better not return home from the national Roller Mills tournament without winning the Johnson Sportsmanship Cup. We won it – we didn’t dare not to!”
When further promotion for his dad dictated a move to Whanganui, Roger, dreaming of becoming a dairy farmer, chose an agricultural course at secondary school there. However, that dream quickly dissolved into another, quite different aspiration – a career in advertising. A move back to Christchurch followed when his dad was made General Manager of Railways across the South Island (a position Roger’s grandfather had also held). In his first senior outing for Canterbury, playing as a front-row forward, Roger found himself propping against All Black Kerry Tanner. “First scrum, he put me nose-first into the mud, but after a grin, we were always okay after that,” says Roger.
Roger decided to study art and design at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch. “They didn’t quite know what to do with me, though, as I wasn’t wanting to be an artist like the rest. I remember, having never seen a nude woman before, my first life drawing class was quite an eye-opener!” But after a year, Roger realised art school was unlikely to help promote a career in advertising and joined a small agency in Christchurch as ‘the gofer’. “I’d ‘go for’ this and ‘go for’ that!”
Intent on expanding an advertising career, Roger set sail for England. “British advertising was the most creative and exciting in the world at that time,” he said. However, a promised job at respected agency, J Walter Thompson, never eventuated and Roger spent the next three years ‘rolling around’, enjoying himself.
Back home, after first selling advertising space in the New Zealand Herald before getting a job in an ad agency as a copywriter, Roger began to establish himself as a sought-after talent in the creative field. Among his achievements was writing the world-famous BASF cassette tape brand’s ‘Dear John’ television commercial. Roger says, “It was, and probably still is, the most awarded commercial ever produced in New Zealand. It won a Clio award in New York and a Gold Lion in Cannes, among others. To stand on the stage at Radio City in New York to accept the Clio was a truly humbling experience. I felt it was the closest thing to being named as an All Black and representing your country.”
In a social rugby game, Roger popped both his shoulders in a collapsing scrum. Contemplating the raft of similar injuries likely to come with a rugby career, Roger decided there and then to hang up his boots.
Chancing across a newspaper advert in Auckland prompted Roger to test his skill in a very different field to rugby. In the 1970s, he joined what later became known as the Limbs Dance Company. “I saw an ad for male dancers and thought, ‘I could do that’! I even had an afro. Boy dancers in the dance world back in the ‘70s were in very short supply, which is probably why I got accepted!”
Roger enjoyed using his strength and agility away from the rugby field and performed in two shows on the stage. “It was contemporary ballet, mostly set to modern music. However, after three or four years, I got sick of the creative pettiness in the dance world. I’d had enough!”
Dance was a new frontier among the Brittendens. Cricket, however, had always been in the family. His uncle, Dick Brittenden MBE, was sports editor of the Christchurch Press and the author of 17 books on New Zealand cricket, including John Reid’s autobiography. He toured overseas with the New Zealand team throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Roger admired him greatly. “His writing was almost poetic. He is recognised as one of the best cricket writers that ever lived.”
Having rarely picked up a cricket bat beyond primary school and social games with ‘the ad men’, Roger found a renewed interest in the game at the age of 40. He got wind of Tuesday training sessions at Devonport Domain and thought he’d head along. He recalls, “I’d made some commercials with Jeff Crowe and he’d given me a jersey, which just so happened to be a South Australia team jersey – I didn’t know this at the time. So, when I turned up to the nets wearing this, and full whites, they all assumed I must be a decent player. About three minutes in the nets dissolved that illusion!”
Roger maintained his friendship with Jeff Crowe and, after a business venture turned sour for Roger in the mid-80s, Jeff invited him to join the New Zealand Cricket team on an overseas tour to lift his spirits. “I’d come to know Jeff Crowe pretty well, and if you were a friend of Jeff’s, you were a friend of the team. In those days you could just go along, they’d invite you do that.”
He alludes to memorable times in the team hotel in London (the details of which remain diplomatically undisclosed) before the group flew to Holland. At their base in The Hague, captain Jeremy Coney scheduled a team meeting for that evening. Roger says, “It was a meeting in the hotel bar, which I thought sounded like a bit of me, and Coney insisted I be there. So, of course, I went along. When he read out the team list, he said, ‘And 12th man is… Brittenden!’ I couldn’t believe my ears – my international call up!”
After borrowing Martin Crowe’s shirt and trousers and John Wright’s shoes, Roger didn’t get the game time he wished for, but had a lot of fun, nonetheless, running on and off the field with drinks. “I must have done all right, the crowd began to applaud me every time I ran off. However, the match was eventually called off due to rain just as John Wright was in the process of pulling a hamstring to get me on the field. So that was my international career over before it had begun!”
He maintained close links with the team and a pub conversation with Ian Smith led to him writing the wicketkeeper’s bestselling biography, ‘Just a Drummer in the Band’. He’s also proud to be the subject of an obscure Trivial Pursuit question due to his one-off international selection at the age of 40. “Which New Zealand cricketer took up the game at the age of 40, rose to represent New Zealand in one match, then disappeared into obscurity thereafter?” Cricket trivia and history have become passions, and his research of the game’s local heritage proudly covers the walls at the club.
After a decade playing for North Shore, ‘not very well’ he recalls, Roger received an invitation at his home to become a social member. “That said it all!” He laughs.
He has lived nearby, in a house he bought ‘with the love of his life’, for over 45 years. He never misses a Premier game at home, or away, unless he’s travelling to watch the Black Caps or touring with Queen Street Cricket Club, the charity he established in 1989. “The QSCC is a big part of my life and one I am very proud of. We raise money by fining members $5 for every 'duck' scored by a New Zealand player in a Test match. A guaranteed form of cashflow, some believe!
“We now have over 270 members and $500,000 invested - making us the wealthiest cricket club in the country! This year, we’ve already donated nearly $70,000 to support low decile youth cricket.”
‘Accidental politician’ is another of Roger’s monikers. He served on the Devonport Community Board (now Devonport-Takapuna Local Board), after being persuaded to stand by fellow Devonport locals Simon Gundry and Dianne Hale. Roger got elected in 2000 and stood for nine years. “I enjoyed the years I spent on the board and was quite honoured to be able to serve Devonport. Not a natural politician, I tried to use my creativity and common sense to solve problems. I was described as ‘a maverick’, which I took as a compliment.”
As for cricket in 2020, Roger is one of many hoping for an uninterrupted season ahead. He’d love to see NSCC win the league, though he is delighted with the club maintaining its spot in the Premier grade.
In terms of the sport as a whole, Roger recognises how the professional set up has changed enormously. When following the national team overseas in recent years, he found he could no longer chat with the players and taking photos during the teams’ training in Bangalore, for example, was prohibited. “Players aren’t allowed to talk to members of the public so much anymore; officials are worried what might be said will appear the next day on social media, that kind of thing. But I guess that’s just the way it is now.” He doesn’t bemoan these differences. He does, however, maintain a strong traditionalist stance when it comes to formats. “T20 is the mutant growth on the side of cricket! I think Hunter S. Thompson said something like that, but I couldn’t agree more. I think T20 is an abominable form of the game.
“There are some, those whose main interest is money, who’d like to see T20 become the norm. I’m strongly against that. One-day cricket I can watch, but Test cricket is everything cricket should be.
“Sport represents life itself. And cricket, with its courage, determination, patience, skill… There are too many attributes needed in cricket to list,” he concludes. “But cricket represents life more than any other sport.”