Saturday marks 22 years to the day since Alex Tait’s memorable ODI cricket debut for the Black Caps. Given his propensity for rare sporting feats, you wouldn’t rule out the talented Northlander marking the day with another fairytale, this time at the 118th New Zealand Amateur Championship in Gisborne.
Tait has ruled out any thought of being the central character in any such scenario. Given his recent lack of golf, due to his nocturnal work commitments in the slaughterhouse at Waikato Pet Foods, he’ll be surprised to advance beyond Wednesday and Thursday’s 36-holes of strokeplay qualifying, much less make it all the way to Saturday’s semifinals.
But the 48-year-old hasn’t ruled out being in the thick of the matchplay action caddying for his talented young Mangawhai club-mate, fellow Tara iti bagman and lockdown flatmate Tyler Wood. More on the prospects of Wood, the 20-year-old national squad member, later. For now, let’s focus on the latest chapter in one of New Zealand’s more diverse top-flight sporting careers, owned by the nervous debutant at the non-strikers end when Chris Harris secured a thrilling last-ball victory over Zimbabwe in Dhaka back in 1998.
After initially showing promise on the squash court, Tait “almost accidentally slid into cricket”. After five years of playing league cricket in the UK in the early 1990s, he turned himself into an influential bowling all-rounder for Northern Districts and to this day holds the record for the best match figures in New Zealand first-class cricket. As with most stories involving Tait, there is a colourful twist to that Shell Trophy haul of 16-130 against Auckland in 1997 and it was not the magical return of 9-48 in the first innings. Despite Tait’s heroics, including being last man out, ND were skittled for a paltry 32 in their second innings to be thrashed by 202 runs.
He went on to make five far more positive ODI appearances for New Zealand including three as a late call-up to India in 1999. His debut, in a match the Black Caps needed to win to advance to the main draw of what is now the Champions Trophy, remains the standout. After taking 2-37 as Zimbabwe were restricted to 258, Tait finished 10 not out and at the non-striker’s end as “Harry”, needing three runs off the last ball of the match, danced down the wicket and dispatched said delivery to the cover boundary.
In total, Tait played 32 first-class and 105 List A matches but wasn’t done with elite sport, turning his attention to golf after hanging up his cricket whites.
This week will be one of his rare appearances at the NZ Amateur. He recalls making the cut in what was then 72-holes of strokeplay qualifying at Centennial Golf Club in Taupo back in 2004 but not the matchplay phase. Unfazed, he worked on his game and decided to turn pro the next season.
“I went to England in March of 2005 and qualified for the EuroPro Tour. I missed my first five cuts and realised after six events that even if I’d played well, it would have been difficult not to lose money,” Tait recalls.
He went back to England the following year to compete on the pay-to-play Jamega Tour and “made just enough money” before having an unsuccessful crack at Asian Tour Q-School in 2007. After that there were sporadic appearances on the New Zealand PGA circuit, essentially one-day Pro-Ams where you play for pride and beer money.
Tait regained his amateur status in March 2019 and nowadays lives in Mangawhai, home to Tom Doak’s world-renowned creation Tara Iti. He loves looping for the rich and sometimes famous at the spectacular links and supplements his income working for his mate processing bobby calves in Hamilton during the winter.
“Mangawhai is a nice place to live. I get a bit of fishing in, it’s a nice course to play [his home Mangawhai G.C.] and I even get a bit of hunting,” Tait said. “Tara Iti is a good gig for me. I get to walk 10km in the morning and have a few beers at night so you can keep yourself in reasonable shape and get a few 100 bucks doing it.
“In Tyler’s case it’s about perfect. We’re outside contractors, not actually employed by Tara Iti, so when the caddie master calls and says ‘can you work now’, it’s up to you. So you can caddie in the morning and then hit balls, take care of your own game, in the afternoon.
“I wish I had this opportunity when I was turning pro.”
Now playing off scratch but only sporadically so due to his day jobs, Tait is taking his trademark laidback attitude into Gisborne. Mind you, you don’t play international cricket without being able to grind and upset the odds. In Tait’s case, that would be making the matchplay phase.
“I’ve been helping out in the slaughterhouse so I haven’t really played for three months. We work six days a week, start at 11am and work until midnight or 2am. So I sleep till lunch and then do it all over again.
“I just had a practice round [at Poverty Bay] with Tyler and I can hardly move. That said, I just played one ball and I think I finished one under which isn’t too bad for a rusty old guy.
“To be serious, if I make the matchplay, I’ll be surprised. I’m not here to muck around but I’m here really because it’s one of my favourite courses, my family are from Gisborne so I get to visit them. So I thought even if I only get two rounds in, I could then caddy for Tyler.”
Which brings us back to Woods and Tait’s hope that he won’t have too much time to reminisce about that 1998 ODI in Dhaka come Saturday.
“Tyler’s got the potential to do really well around here, although I was just telling him, if I am caddying for you, I’ll be handing that 2-iron of yours to you a lot,” Tait said.
“He’s one of the longest players I’ve played with but he’s not going to need his power around here. Other than the par 5s, if he can get his 2-iron into the fairways I think he could do really well.”
Alex Tait. International cricketer turned golf pro, Tara Iti looper, sometimes slaughterhouse assistant and maybe winning New Zealand Amateur Championship caddie. Crazier things have happened.