October 29, 2011

Inver, the great communicator

You'd have difficulty finding a man more universally respected in the game in Australia than John Inverarity to fill the demanding role of national selector

In 13 years as headmaster of Perth's Hale School, some of John Inverarity's most indelible contributions to the lives of his pupils were made in the hour before lessons each morning.

As the clock ticked towards the commencement bell, Inverarity could commonly be found sitting outside as students milled around, happy to chat to anyone. Seldom would he resort to the typical headmasterly questions about subjects and study, preferring to learn about and encourage the things his students were most passionate about.

Such attentiveness, and genuine interest in the lives of those in his care, has served Inverarity well as a cricketer, a captain, a coach and an educator. It will now be essential to his role as Cricket Australia's National Selector, a position the Argus review equated to that of an "HR manager" for the nation's cricketers. Valuably for a position that will require bold decisions under the critical gaze of cricket watchers, one would have great difficulty finding a man more universally respected in the game in Australia.

It is a measure of how highly Inverarity was regarded as a thinker and leader that he came close to captaining Australia, though he played only six Test matches, and is best-known as the last man out when Derek Underwood won England the final Ashes Test of 1968 at The Oval. Inverarity was briefly Ian Chappell's vice-captain during the 1971-72 matches against the Rest of the World, then a tour selector on the 1972 Ashes tour that followed. Though never quite talented enough for international cricket as a batsman or a bowler, he extracted the most from himself in first-class combat, and had one of the cannier brains in the game - so much so that he was described more than once as the Australian Mike Brearley.

Inverarity lifted the Sheffield Shield four times in six summers as captain of Western Australia, demonstrating rare intelligence and a near photographic memory for the habits, strengths and failings of opposition batsmen and bowlers. He was aided and educated, too, by Laurie Sawle, then the WACA chairman of selectors, who later occupied the same role with rare distinction for Australia. "Most praise Inverarity's approachability," Christian Ryan wrote in Golden Boy, his biography of Kim Hughes. "He identified and articulated players' individual roles. This promoted belonging, empowerment. He was expert in chemistry, in who should bowl at who."

Ryan related the story of how, during a team meeting before a club final in Perth, Inverarity predicted the West Australian allrounder Ian Brayshaw could be run out as he hared back habitually for a second run. Inverarity sent Tony Mann, with his strong arm, to third man in anticipation, and was on hand at the bowler's end to accept the return and utterly humbug Brayshaw, yards short of his ground. "Inver knew every batsman backwards," Mann told Ryan.

Inverarity's powers of observation, common sense and intellect made him a worthwhile port of call for touring captains, too. Brearley perhaps found a kindred spirit when he took his Englishmen to Perth early in the 1978-79 Ashes series. Upon watching the stodgy seam bowling of Mike Hendrick, Inverarity challenged Brearley's view that Bob Willis and Ian Botham were the most vital members of his attack on Australia's bouncier but less capricious pitches.

"I think we had come to Australia with the idea that he was more dangerous in English conditions," Brearley recalled in the Guardian, "and couldn't quite believe our eyes when [Inverarity] told us that if we paid attention to him, he could be extremely awkward in Australia, too, and a perfect foil for Bob Willis and Ian Botham, who were less accurate if more penetrative on flat pitches." Hendrick took 19 wickets at 15.73, drying up an end as England mauled the hosts 5-1. Many felt it might have been closer had Inverarity, rather than Graham Yallop, led Australia.

Curiously, Inverarity was not called on by the national team as a player, coach or selector in his latter summers, even as Australian cricket battled through years of indifferent performance and worse leadership. Instead he collected record numbers of runs and wickets - bowling neat, nagging left-arm spin - with WA and then South Australia, where his influence on David Hookes, among others, was profound.

He identified and articulated players' individual roles. This promoted belonging, empowerment. He was expert in chemistry, in who should bowl at who
Christian Ryan on John Inverarity

At the same time Inverarity forged a career in education, advancing from mathematics teaching to serve as deputy principal at Adelaide's Pembroke School from 1981-88, and then accepting the head role at Hale. He was photographed once late in his playing career, following through after a delivery: eyes intense, body wiry, hair a little frazzled - the schoolmaster in flannels.

While still maintaining his academic pursuits, Inverarity found rich success as a coach in England, shepherding Kent and Warwickshire to county results well in advance of their means. At Edgbaston he collected trophies, guiding the team to championships with the pragmatic use of consistent, methodical batting to place opponents under pressure and give modest bowling resources their best chance.

Results were not Inverarity's only achievements, either. He developed the potential of a cricketer as talented as Ian Bell, encouraging the young batsman to further himself with club cricket in Perth, while maximising that of one as limited as Ashley Giles, who with Inverarity's help built an international career more substantial than many can have expected.

His coaching methods melded the old and the new, always retaining a strong sense that it is the captain, not the coach, who runs a team, and that the best players learn for themselves. He has also been known as a strong proponent of cricketers finding enthusiasms beyond the game. Ed Smith's batting developed at Kent, and so too did his writing. At Edgbaston, Mark Wagh grew into a player self-aware and eloquent enough to pen his own diary of a season, after Inverarity's departure.

Inverarity was in his final season with Warwickshire in 2005 when Ricky Ponting's Australians arrived for the second Test of a fabled Ashes series. Their coach, John Buchanan, sought his countryman's counsel about the nature of the pitch, and returned to the team room with the advice that it would be brimful of runs. Having heard the groundsman, Steve Rouse, worry about a potential "minefield" after unseasonal rain, Ponting paid no mind, and chose to bowl first upon winning the toss. His decision set in train the events that would lead to the loss of the urn, and Inverarity's judgement of the surface could not be questioned after England streaked past 400 on the first day.

Since returning home, Inverarity has spent most of his time as the master of St George's College at the University of Western Australia, a position occupied by highly regarded academics and holders of high office. Yet he has also kept in touch with cricket, coaching at club level, and has maintained relationships with many in high places in the game, including his former team-mate and now CA chairman Wally Edwards. He has looked out for fellow players who found the going harder in retirement, serving on the Player Hardship Committee of the Australian Cricketers' Association. There has also been travel to watch overseas Tests, including the 2009 Ashes series.

Guests at Inverarity's dinner table speak with enthusiasm of how no chance to discuss Australian cricket and cricketers is wasted, with the dialogue focused as much on moral fibre as on front-foot defence. Interviewed by the Wisden Cricketer about the state of Australian cricket during the Ashes last summer, he drew comparisons not with any cricket team but with the decline of the Roman and British Empires. "Things grow and then self-indulgence comes in and you start believing your own hype and things don't go so well," he said. "There are a lot of clichés and a lot of club cover-up, and you think that because you are the Australians or because you are the Romans, that you are inherently better and the whole thing comes crashing down."

It is probably this sort of perceptiveness that prompted CA's chief executive James Sutherland to seek Inverarity's application for national selector at a time when the 67-year-old master had started looking for the next challenge to meet beyond St George's. Pat Howard, the team's new performance manager, was similarly impressed, and the appointment was not long in following.

Under the redefinition of the head selection role in the Argus review, Inverarity will be less a chairman lording over the rest than a collaborative force between the captain, the coach and the two other part-time selectors. He will need to develop a strong relationship with Michael Clarke, and will continue to look out for men of robust character to take the team forward. It was the same kind of search Sawle mounted in the 1980s, and it has been made more difficult in the eyes of Inverarity by the advent of a more comfortable, professional culture in the domestic game. "State squads sign up 20 young professional cricketers," he said last year, "and their life is cricket, and the development in their life beyond cricket is diminished, and I think that leads to a lack of development of personal growth, of personality and of character, so you get a lack of leadership."

Clearly mindful of how empires rise and fall, Inverarity has never been one to bask in his own achievements. "He's never been one of those 'in my day' guys," a former pupil remarked. "He's WA's best captain and a legend at Hale, but you'd never know it by talking to him."

Speaking to Inverarity before the morning bell at Hale, new students found a mentor prepared to listen, a leader prepared to learn. Only later might they have noticed that the school's mighty performing arts centre bears his name, as does a stand at the WACA ground. Communication has its benefits.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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