Big hits are a hallmark of Tom Bruce’s cricket and Pukekura Park’s short square boundaries made it the perfect place for a powerful, crisp striker of the ball to grow up and make his mark.
He just never imagined it would happen.
With a claim to fame as one of top 10 most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, Pukekura Park is set between three pyramid-like terraces — the result of extraordinary vision that saw it hand-carved out of the natural landscape in the 1880s.
Tom Bruce has been coming here every summer with his family for as long as he can remember, from the days when he was a scrap of a lad running around up on those history-laden terraces and hunting autographs after the games.
Now he’s the one in the middle himself, entertaining the hundreds of local boys and girls doing exactly the same things that he used to.
The local crowd rolls in over the holiday season to see the big hits in the Dream11 Super Smash — New Zealand’s national T20 championship — and the Central Stags captain still pinches himself when he looks up from the pitch to see the symphony of sun umbrellas dotted all over the terraces, and the crowd all looking back his way.
“The Stags seemed superhuman to me when I was a boy,” he reminisces. “I guess everything seems so much bigger when you’re young and I thought they all bowled at the speed of light and hit the biggest sixes in the world. I remember watching Jake Oram and Glen Sulzberger there. Lance Hamilton, Robbie Shaw, Brett Hefford. I thought they were all amazing.”
Blackcaps star Dion Nash came to town to play Sri Lanka and made a big impression. “I got to meet him when I was nine. He chatted to me and signed my cricket ball so he became my favourite player, even though he didn’t play for the Stags.”
Playing for the Blackcaps was not something Bruce ever envisaged either when he was growing up, but things happened quickly after he made his Stags debut eight years ago. He was picked for the national T20 squad in 2016, and most recently played for New Zealand in 2020. It’s a tough echelon to crack, but he’s one of two Taranaki batsmen to have pulled on the black shirt in recent times, alongside good friend and Stags teammate, Will Young.
At 31, Bruce has been in the form of his life over the last year. He won New Zealand Cricket’s 2021/22 trophy for the best men’s domestic player and became the first in the country to score first-class double centuries back-to-back, last summer.
Professional cricket has taken him all over New Zealand and the world, from India — where he captained New Zealand A earlier this year — to England, to USA leagues. But Pukekura Park will always be his number one.
On average, he scores more than 40 per innings here, the hallmark of a quality player. And he smashed the national record for the fastest one-day fifty at the ground, a whirlwind of just 16 balls. No wonder his nickname is “Brutal”.
In last summer’s traditional New Year’s Eve game at Pukekura Park, he blasted his T20 career best 93 not out off just 36 balls. Never a dull moment.
“That was a cool game and very entertaining for the crowd, even though the Canterbury Kings chased down our total,” Bruce recalls. “I was batting in the last over with no chance of getting a century, but one of my big goals still is to score a hundred in T20s.
“I’d actually been talking about that to [fellow Stag and Blackcap] Dane Cleaver before our first game last summer. We were rooming together in Dunedin and looking up some stats the night before the game, as you do.
“In the last 20 or so years, only five Stags have scored a T20 century. It doesn’t happen often, and we both said we really wanted to get ourselves on that list. And lo and behold, the next day Dane goes out and scores a hundred! So I’ll have to room with Dane again this summer, and make sure I look up stats the night before!”
For a player like Bruce who likes to hit a high percentage of fours and sixes, Pukekura Park is ideal, “but I also love it for the emotional connection. I love the crowd support, I love the vibe, the atmosphere, everything about it. It brings the best out of me, and I feel pretty lucky to have it as my home ground.”
The Stags are drawn from eight provinces across central New Zealand, and get to play three of their five home Super Smash games each season in New Plymouth — T20 doubleheaders with sister team the Central Hinds opening the bill.
The Central Stags and Hinds play at Pukekura Park on 30 December v Canterbury, 31 December v Northern Brave and 5 January v Auckland, information and tickets: cdcricket.co.nz.
LIKE FATHER LIKE DAUGHTER
Emily Cunningham thought her father was having her on. “You’ve been picked for New Zealand? Haha Dad.”
The Central Hinds batter had just picked up Steve Cunningham from the airport; he’d been in Christchurch at an Over-60s cricket tournament.
Official over-50s and Over-60s cricket has been taking off around the cricketing world, and Steve had indeed just been selected to go over to Australia for an Over-60s interstate tournament — to which New Zealand had been invited to send a team. The arrival of COVID-19 saw that trip scratched, but Cunningham got picked for New Zealand again this year as one of two Taranaki players, with Roger Stachurski, for the inaugural Over 60 Cricket World Cup on the Sunshine Coast — where New Zealand finished runner-up to Pakistan.
“Dad was so over the moon when he was picked, it was so cool,” says 26-year-old Emily — a Central Hinds rep since 2017, “but I’m still getting used to the idea of there being two representative cricketers in the family. It’s been a role reversal. All of this time my mum and dad and sister have been supporting me at cricket, and now we’re the ones cheering him on!”
Emily started playing Milo junior cricket in boys’ teams when she was just six years old, “then at high school, I wanted to play club cricket, so Dad came and played with me, even though he hadn’t played for a few years. We played third grade together for Inglewood, and we’ve been playing together in the same team for the club ever since. When I was away with the Hinds, he used to fill in for me there. Now Dad’s the star of the family because he’s been to a World Cup. I’ve got some catching up to do!”