When we arrive at the Kaipaki Sports Centre we walk in to find ex-New Zealand international cricketer, John Parker, sweeping the floor after a busy six-a-side cricket tournament the day before.
John’s heart for the community is evident from how he talks. The centre isn’t about him. He wants to give back to the community and in doing so ‘live out’ what he believes is a life changing discovery – that God made us, loves us and wants to know us!
We caught up with him to ask specifically about how being a Christian has changed his view on life, cricket and culture…
How did you get into playing cricket?
“We lived in a community called Kaipara Flats – about an hour north of Auckland. In New Zealand communities in those days it was really about who was the most energetic person in that community and if they were a swimmer we’d have all swum. If they were a golfer, we’d have all played golf. If they were a rugby player, which they all were, we’d have played rugby. Well, the person round the corner, Arthur Hatfull, was a cricketer, so he got my two older brothers into cricket and I tagged along.
So that’s how it started. And I had to play in a men’s team with men when I was nine years old, because that was the only option. I faced men bowlers but I never batted last. They knew how to treat you so I’d bat at six or seven, but if they couldn’t get you out their egos would take over and they’d bowl a lot quicker!”
As a cricketer you obviously had to bat but what about bowling?
“I bowled to the degree that I’d have loved to face my own bowling! (smiles)
I wasn’t very good. I got a test wicket with a full toss and got a wicket in an ODI (One Day International), mainly because the batsman was tired because he’d just whacked me out the district the ball before, so the next ball he didn’t hit quite as hard and it was caught about one millimetre inside the boundary.
Somebody once wrote that my bowling was better in theory than in practice and my victims could be counted on the fingers of an incompetent saw miller.”
Is that why you were a wicketkeeper?
“Yep, I did do a little bit of wicket keeping. That started up in Kaipara Flats when I filled in one day as a wicketkeeper and did that for a while so when it came to test selection they asked if I’d ever kept wicket. Well, I said yes. They didn’t ask for how long or how good I was. I got picked for the England tour and they made me reserve wicket keeper. They didn’t ask me many questions, thank goodness, but I didn’t tell them a lie either – I just didn’t tell them the full truth!”
So how did a small town Kiwi boy end up playing cricket in England alongside the world’s greatest cricketers?
“I was the luckiest person to ever play Country Cricket – there’s no doubt! Everybody else was a superstar. Big, fast bowlers that bowled at a thousand miles an hour or batsmen that were already proven internationally, but I hadn’t even played first class cricket!
Martin Houghton who was the national coach then, and he coached coaches – something that is sadly lacking these days – well he was the most fantastic operator that I’d ever come across.
We became friends and I played in the same club as him in Auckland. Well I broke some ‘Under 20’ records for a tournament in New Zealand and he saw some potential in me and liked my enthusiasm so he said he’d organise me a one month trial over in Worcestershire, England. Well I’d trained as a teacher and I absolutely loved it but this amazing opportunity came along, which in those days was incredibly rare. In fact, there’d probably only ever been 4 or 5 guys that had done that and they were all internationals
So I had to give up being a teacher and go over there for a month. So, yeah, it was very much a back door entry into professional cricket.”
You moved to England to play for Worcestershire. How did you adjust to playing at the top level of your sport?
“Well, because I wasn’t a superstar I had to play for the second team for one season and for the club & ground team for a season, then stay for the winter.
So, then I was able to play in the county team the next season. But at the end of that season there was a game against India that I could play in. India had just beaten England for the first time ever in England and so here we were playing India in the last game and they had to win this to be undefeated on the tour. Well they told me that if I made some runs they’d think about keeping me but if I didn’t, I was going home!
Well they made 402 for 2 and the chairman of selectors, Wing Commander Shakespeare, comes over to me and tells me that if I get runs I can stay and if I didn’t I was going home.
Well, I managed to get 91 runs so they said I could stay!”
“Same thing happened the next year when we played Australia. If I made runs I could stay. Well I did make runs so on it went and finally they said, “OK, We’ll sign you.”
So they did and I ended up having this career! Imran Khan was my flat mate during the winter and we went down and changed his bowling action for him because he wanted to be a quick bowler rather than a medium pace bowler. It was a lot of fun. He actually mentioned it in his book and we’ve been good friends ever since.
So it was a remarkable entrance into professional cricket, clearly orchestrated by the Lord and something that never happened to anyone else, ever!”
So looking back you see God’s hand in it all but did you realise that at the time?
“My mother was God’s best mate! She was an amazing lady and we were brought up in the church but we spent some time wandering in the ‘wilderness’, although we always believed in God.
In my fifth year in England I was driving through the countryside and I had one of those amazing moments where things became clear – I just knew I had to get out of cricket. I knew how good I was and I was pleased with that but it became incredibly clear that cricket wasn’t the only thing in life for me. I came to the conclusion that God had given me more talents than to just play cricket and so within six months I was finished.”
So how did that change you?
“I still made plenty of mistakes in business and my personal life. My first marriage didn’t work out which was more my fault than hers. I was still searching for who I was and how I fit into things. I had a sports retail shop, which was an absolute disaster from a business perspective because I wasn’t that interested in making money, but it was an excellent training ground for learning how to serve people. We had the most inventive sports shops you could ever imagine. Areas where you could hit hockey balls against foam walls, a volley board where you could try a tennis racquet or a squash racquet out, an area where you could hit a cricket ball without damaging anything so you could try a cricket bat out. It was absolutely fantastic but did it make any money? Not on your nelly!
So we began creating regional sports trusts in New Zealand and started Sport Waikato. I got involved in sports consultancy and got involved with organisations all over the world. Again we didn’t make a lot of money but we had a lot of fun and learned a lot!
And I guess we’re always going through learning times where God is preparing us for the tiny roles we have in His grand plan.”
You seem far more interested in lessons learned than money. Is that true of you generally?
“Fortunately, I think, money’s just not of any interest to me at all.
It’s only a means to an end. My mother and my father would often say, “You’re born naked, you die naked and you can’t take it with you!”
If you look at the Bible God often chose ordinary people, fisherman and carpenters, all sorts of incredibly ordinary people to spread the good news. It wasn’t the rich folk or the academics!
When Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich men to enter the kingdom of heaven, that says a lot really. You can’t worship money and God. So the bible is full of messages about where money should fit in.”
Your faith became real later on in life. At what point did it become personal and life changing?
“For me it was progressive really. I don’t really remember a moment. But about 7 or 8 years ago I remember talking to Peter Thomas from Capernwray and he was really helpful. We had lots of good chats. He had an amazing ability to always say what I needed to hear.
As young person I was very observant. I’d go to a church and see farmers all dressed up but then they’d go home and swear at their wife and kick the dog and it just wasn’t real.
It just didn’t fit for me and I think a lot of young people still struggle with that today. They notice that what is said is different from what people do and I think it has more of an impact.
Well, Peter was a genuine Christian. He had a great sense of humour and he cared for people. Just a great guy to be around. He and his friend Clyde have become great friends of mine.”
As you look back, you seem to be very assured of God’s hand on your life over the years. How does that impact you as you look forward?
“It’s fantastic really. I feel I can absolutely relax and trust that He’s in charge. There’s no pressure on me. So if I’m working on something and it doesn’t work out I can just trust that He’s got something else in mind. I don’t feel I have to impress anyone really. The only person who’s opinion really matters is God. My wife often says how she’s amazed that I don’t care about what anybody thinks – and I don’t. I never have really. I’ve been taught a few lessons over the years through being shouted at by 35,000 people all at once – you learn to put that into perspective – but even that was God slowly getting me to a place where I can trust Him and say, “It’s over to you.” And that’s why I find praying interesting because I don’t ask for things. I just talk to Him and trust Him with whatever He’s doing. So my expectations are high because I trust Him and He’s in charge!”
You’re involved in a few charity projects including the Kaipaki Centre (a renovated sports centre near Cambridge). What’s your motivation for this type of work?
“We were brought up in a state house, and it wasn’t flash. But as far as Mum was concerned it was the best place you could ever have had. She didn’t care less what other people thought of our house. There was always baking and she always had visitors. It was a warm family home. Mum would say, “A House is a roof over your head. Your home is where your family is.”
Life has to be more about other things. I’ve never really taken life too seriously.
Jeremy Coney and I have had a bit of a pact over the years, that we’ll never have a serious nine to five job ever and so far, we’re both 66 and we’ve succeeded so far! And the reason for that is that we work to get money to buy things that aren’t that important. So why don’t we work to make communities better and to help people. Those just things seem more important.
Clyde and I spent about 20 hours the other day mowing lawns and preparing for a six-a-side cricket tournament at the centre, but it wasn’t so we’d get thanked. In fact most people probably wouldn’t even notice. But we got pleasure just knowing we were doing it for others to enjoy. And it made us both smile that God was watching and that He appreciated it.”
I’m sure you’ve got hundreds of stories to tell about life. What’s your favourite story?
“Well, the bible is full of stories. As a young person I read the bible from cover to cover and I thought I was going through the motions but these days in my bible study with these guys that know their bibles inside out, I often find that I’ve retained a lot more than I realised. Part of the reason is because of all the stories. That’s how I retained so much.
Now, if you mean ‘cricket stories’ then there is one that always makes me smile, but not because it makes me look good ‘cause it doesn’t!
Ian Botham was a young 18 or 19 year old when I first bumped into him when he was playing for Somerset. But a few years later, when it was my last game and the season was petering out, we go down to Somerset. Botham’s a few years younger than me but he says to me, “Go on, Dag [Parker’s nickname], I bet you’re too scared to hook the first ball you get.” ‘Cause he knew I wasn’t a hooker, you see. I always just cut it and ducked it, but I said, “Oh, yeah. Right-o, I’m on”. Well I learned a severe lesson. Unfortunately, Botham was bowling and he bowled me a yorker first ball. I went back and across to hook it and totally missed it and got all my poles knocked over. He just dropped to the ground laughing. In fact, he was still laughing about it in the changing room afterwards.”
You mentioned earlier that you go to a weekly Bible Study. Do you still do that regularly?
“6.45am every Friday morning! There’s just a few of us but it’s fantastic. I’ve met these guys that know the bible incredibly well. I don’t think I’ll ever know the bible that well. I’m more of a story person, so I’m not sure I help them very much but they really help me. It is a good mix though because we’re all different. I’ve got a story for every situation so that seems to help.
We’re wading our way through John’s gospel at the moment and thoroughly enjoying studying and seeing how Jesus taught his disciples. There’s some great leadership lessons in there too! What a gift that the Bible is written in a way that we can all get something out of it.”
Amen to that!
You can get in touch with John and find out more about the Kaipaki Community Sports Centre at www.kaipaki.com