Hadlee captained one of New Zealand's most highly regarded teams, the 1949 side which toured England in an era when New Zealand had yet to win a Test. As an administrator, he guided New Zealand cricket in the mid-1970s during years of increasing professionalism, the Kerry Packer threat and the sporting boycott of South Africa.
Hadlee was born in Lincoln, Canterbury. His father was a blacksmith with 9 siblings, whose parents arrived in Dunedin in 1869. The young Hadlee fell in love with cricket when he was about 10. He read cricket history avidly, kept scorebooks of all the big games at Lancaster Park, and practised assiduously. Though he initially appeared awkward, at Christchurch Boys' High School, he also played hockey and rugby, and developed into a punishing batsman, particularly strong on the drive. He finished his school career by captaining the first eleven. He trained as a chartered accountant.
In his first season for Canterbury – 1933-34 – Hadlee averaged over 50, and 94 in his second; he eventually scored 10 centuries for the province. Hadlee played 44 matches for Canterbury before retiring in 1951-52, having scored 3,183 runs at an average of 43.60. His highest score was 194 not out.
After playing against touring MCC teams, Hadlee made his Test debut for New Zealand against England at Lord's in 1937, only 11 years after New Zealand joined the Imperial Cricket Conference, and 7 years after it played in its first Test match. Tall and elegant, he was known as an upright and attacking opening batsman. He missed the opportunity to play during the Second World War. His short sight prevented him from joining the Armed Forces.
He scored 198 for Otago against the touring Australian team in 1945-46, and was appointed captain of New Zealand for the first Test in peacetime, against Australia that year. On a rain-affected pitch in Wellington, New Zealand were bowled out for 42 and 54, losing by an innings, and did not play Australia again in Tests until 1973-74.
Although he made 1,225 runs in 1937, including an innings of 93 in the Test at Old Trafford which ended after he trod on his stumps, it was his captaincy of the 1949 New Zealand team to England that proved to be the pinnacle of his playing career. The 1949 team is still cited as one of the finest New Zealand has sent abroad and there were some illustrious names in the side, including Bert Sutcliffe, Martin Donnelly, John Reid, Jack Cowie, Tom Burtt, Harry Cave, Merv Wallace, Verdun Scott, Geoff Rabone and Frank Mooney. During the tour, he scored 1,439 runs, averaging 36 an innings, with two centuries. Out of 35 matches, his team lost just one, to Oxford University, on a rain-damaged pitch, and drew the four-Test series 0-0.
As leading English writer John Woodcock noted: "Hadlee was a courageous and enterprising batsman, a popular and successful captain who played his cricket in the sporting manner usually associated with his country". John Arlott called him a "strategic commander of real ability".
In all, Hadlee played 19 innings in 11 Tests, scoring 543 runs at an average of 30.16. He was never dismissed in Tests in single figures. His last Test was against England in Wellington in 1950-51. His only Test century, 116, was scored against England at Christchurch in 1946-47 as an opening batsman. He retired from first-class cricket in 1952. He continued playing senior club cricket in Christchurch for another 15 years, eventually scoring a record 15,391 club runs.
In his first-class career, he scored 7523 runs from 117 matches, averaging 40.44 and notching up 18 centuries.
Hadlee was a national selector, a New Zealand team manager, and a member of the management committee and Board of Control of New Zealand cricket from 1950-83. He was chairman from 1973–78 and president from 1981-83.
He was a member of the "No Maoris, No Tour" protest movement, protesting against the All Blacks tour to South Africa in 1960. He was later blacklisted by the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) for writing an article in the 1982 Wisden which called for South Africa be permitted to play international cricket. He was appointed OBE in 1950, and advanced to CBE in 1978.
Hadlee married Lilla Monro in 1940. They had met on the ship to England in 1937. They had five sons. He took great pride in the fact that three of his five sons represented New Zealand: Dayle, a Test fast bowler, and Barry, a batsman in the inaugural 1975 Cricket World Cup, were eclipsed by Richard, who became a leading all rounder: he took 431 Test wickets – a world record at the time – and 1,490 first class wickets, and also finished with a Test batting average of 27.16. Richard was knighted for services to cricket. A fourth son, Martin, played club cricket in Christchurch.
He published an autobiography, Innings of a Lifetime, in 1993.
In later life, he enjoyed lawn bowls. He died, aged 91, at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Christchurch, reportedly from a stroke, some six weeks after hip replacement surgery.
On 20 January 2017, Walter Hadlee's son, Sir Richard Hadlee, spoke about a project he has undertaken about his father 's 1949 England tour as New Zealand captain. He shared how Walter Hadlee was an important figure in his life.