Ninety years a cricket man with no regrets

Lynn McConnell

May 16, 2001

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Jack Kerr has often pondered what direction his career might have taken had a catch been taken in a club match the first time he faced legendary leg spinner Bill Merritt.

Kerr, 90 at Christmas last year, was a New Zealand tourist to England in 1931 and 1937, a chairman of the New Zealand Cricket Council and manager of the national side in South Africa in 1953/54. He had not long been living in Christchurch after transferring south from Marton in a bid to improve his chances of advancing his cricket career.

A chance to work in the accounting profession with Canterbury firm Beaths was behind his decision to choose Christchurch ahead of Wellington or Auckland.

"We had to work on Saturday mornings then and I can recall the office boy saying to me that it would be tough for me facing up to the classy Old Boys team and Bill Merritt that afternoon," Kerr said.

He was determined that leg spinner Merritt wouldn't get the better of him, especially after the office boy's comment.

Merritt today would have been a high-profile player on the national and international scene. On his tour to England with the first New Zealand team of 1927 he took 107 wickets at 23.64 and on the 1931 tour took 99 wickets on tour.

When Merritt came on to bowl against the West Christchurch team who Kerr was playing for, he enticed Kerr to attack him and a shot went just over the head of the mid off fieldsman and Kerr breathed a huge sigh of relief.

From that point, Kerr never fell to Merritt's bowling in the remainder of their careers and in that first club game Kerr went on to score 129.

"It was a piece of luck but I think that innings got me into the Canterbury team that year," he said.

Kerr was an undoubted talent. He had the benefit of sound education in cricket from his father, whose own love of cricket was fostered when he lived in the Chatham Islands and read about cricket in a Boys' Own Annual.

Then when attending Wanganui Technical College as a boarder Kerr was given some assistance by New Zealand batsman Stewie Dempster, who had been employed as a coach by the school for one season while working as a town traveller for Sargoods. Teddy Cakobau, a Fijian who later played for Auckland, also worked with Kerr on their cricket at the school.

It wasn't long before Kerr's skill was appreciated by the Wanganui selectors. He was included in the local representative team and was a 16-year-old when going to New Plymouth with the Wanganui team to take the Hawke Cup from Taranaki. He hit 72 but remembered going to hit a slow bowler over the sightscreen only to get out.

Despite the obvious potential he had, it was clear to him, and to many other players from what has become the Central Districts of New Zealand, that to gain selection in one of the four first-class teams in the country he would have to go to one of the main centres.

Canterbury was his next port of call and in one of his earlier matches he recalled playing on a low, slow Eden Park.

"I passed Curly Page on the way out to bat and he said, 'Play forward to everything'. That was completely foreign to me," Kerr said.

It was accepted policy that because of the low bounce you didn't hook on Eden Park. Kerr, however, was young and liked to get on with the game.

He recalled a bowler by the name of Elliott bowling slightly round arm deliveries and a comment that wicket-keeper Dick Rowntree made in response to a Kerr shot.

"I got into a position for a hook shot, and the thing about a hook shot is that once you are committed to it you have to go through with it. So I did, and Rowntree said as the ball hit the boundary, 'Good God'. I managed a couple of 60s in the game," he said.

If he was only considered a marginal possibility for selection on the 1931 tour to England, one innings in the summer of 1930/31 probably did much to advance his cause.

Canterbury was set a target of 473 runs by Auckland in 400 available minutes. Fast bowler Don Cleverley was regarded as the danger man but in one over Kerr took 16 runs from him and the chase was on. Kerr hit 73 and gave Canterbury the base from which it claimed the game with three minutes to spare.

He went to England but remembered it was a wet summer and recalled falling over on every ground the team played on. He didn't have a happy time with the bat, scoring 804 runs at 22.97. Because of his lack of experience he didn't get as much out of this tour as he was to take from the 1937 tour on which he scored 1205 runs at 31.71.

"I was much more receptive to learning cricket in 1937. I was more mature and I think I learnt a lot more about how to bat," he said.

The English professionals were all good to talk to about how to play different bowlers, something that Kerr had struggled with and he recalled the illumination provided by Joe Hardstaff when he described how to play off spinners. Hardstaff talked about taking a different guard and taking a different approach.

To a batsman who had never been comfortable playing Ted Badcock's in-swingers with a leg-side trap, it was an important lesson for Kerr.

"I learnt that there is a counter to every type of bowling," he said.

"Badcock was a coach in New Zealand but he never let the cat out of the bag about how to play it. But it is an art you have got to work out with time," he said.

It was a lesson that was as good now as it ever was.

"Cricket might be a completely different game now, but the batting skills are still the same," he said.

Kerr, like all players, had his moments when his form was not at its peak, but one summer that was especially significant was in 1935/36 against E R T Holmes' MCC side on its New Zealand tour. He scored 146 not out and 71 for Canterbury against them, and then hit two centuries in the "Test" matches with 105 not out at Wellington and 132 at Christchurch. His summer resulted in 655 runs.

Because of his sheer love of the game he was destined to be involved in administration, something that began in 1937.

While initially elected to the board of the NZCC, he soon became its treasurer and was a long-standing contributor in the position. He also served as a president, chairman and as a selector while one of his most memorable moments was as manager of the team on the 1953/54 tour of South Africa.

New Zealand did not have an especially successful tour. It was still floundering looking for its first Test victory, a goal that hadn't been helped by some different selection thinking for the tour where players who were not on the lighter side were overlooked.

But events at Ellis Park on Boxing Day earned the New Zealanders the respect of their hosts.

The game was played at Ellis Park, better known as a rugby venue, because the original Wanderers Ground had been closed down for a new railway station to be built in Johannesburg and a new Wanderers had not been completed.

The game was recalled recently with the death of Bert Sutcliffe and was regarded as one of the finest moments of his career. He had been hit on the head during a fiery morning of bowling by Neil Adcock but had returned from observation at hospital to literally take to the bowling of off spinner Hugh Tayfield.

New Zealand was playing one short as fast-medium bowler Bob Blair had stayed at the hotel after receiving news his fiancee had died in the Tangiwai train disaster on Christmas Eve in New Zealand.

Kerr recalled the occasion. "I got the phone call from New Zealand to tell me what had happened. I can't recall who it was that gave me the information. But I do remember discussing what to do with the captain Geoff Rabone early that morning.

"I had to tell Bob what had happened and then I stayed with him at the hotel while the others went to the ground.

"After the wickets started to fall and we got into some trouble I said to Bob: 'If it's OK with you we'll got down to the ground to see what's happening.'

"He agreed, he had got over the initial shock, and felt he would like to go down.

"When we got there Bert was at the hospital and I remember there was a bottle of Johnnie Walker on a table so I had a couple of shots of that. Finally, Bert arrived back and had been cleared of any serious damage and went back out to bat.

"The guys all knew Bob was there, and he finally decided when the ninth wicket fell that he would go out to bat. There was a big crowd of people and it was quite dramatic really.

"Bob got a tremendous reception and then Bert took to Tayfield.

"Somehow, the tour which had been one of those where the team had been accepted took on new significance and the guys were appreciated much more fully by the South Africans after that day.

"I was a bit dazed by the situation. It is not the kind of thing you want to get involved in really. It was dramatic, there's no doubt about that," he said.

During his lifetime he saw some of the finest players in action.

The Players:

Tom Lowry - "He was a good captain and he always tried things. He was a bit unorthodox but he knew his way around as far as captaincy went. He was a good cricketer. A hard disciplinarian he was out to win all the time."

Stewie Dempster - "One of our top five batsmen of all time. He was a short man with good defence and was a good hooker of the ball. He played all the shots."

Bill Merritt - "One of our top spinners. They said he was better in 1927 than he was in 1931 but he was a genuine spinner. He was reasonably slow but he seemed to get batsmen out and that's what matters.

Martin Donnelly/Bert Sutcliffe - "He looked to be a real up and coming player going to England and he justified that. He was a more rugged player than Bert Sutcliffe who I regard as our greatest left-hander. They were both great batsmen.

Merv Wallace/Sonny Moloney/Bill Carson - "Merv showed out on the 1937 tour and then had that great start in 1949 when almost getting 1000 runs by the end of May. His career was affected like most of us had all our lives affected by the Second World War. Sonny Moloney was a good player while Bill Carson wasn't quite so successful in England in 1937 but he would have developed. He was a powerful player." [Moloney and Carson both died during the War.]

Tom Pritchard - "If we had had Tom in 1937 we would have won a Test against England. He was quicker than Jack Cowie but if we had them bowling from either end together they would have been very effective. Not taking him was a mistake."

Walter Hadlee - "When things got tough Walter knew what he was doing."

Walter Hammond - "He was the best player I saw. He was a great batsman, but he could have played as a bowler and he was a great fielder. He was just a great cricketer.

Clarrie Grimmett - "Grimmett didn't put the ball up so high but on a turning wicket he was great. He was at you the whole time, like Bill O'Reilly, and like any spinners they were hard to read on turning wickets because you never knew how much the ball was going to turn."

Harold Larwood - "I never faced him. I came out to bat at Nottingham about five minutes before stumps and was at the bowler's end when Walter Hadlee hit one to fine leg and I said to him, "Stay there Wal." It was no point me facing him with only a couple of minutes to go. And the next day he didn't play as he was injured so I never faced him."

The Administrators:

Banning players after 1931: The decision in 1931 of the NZCC to ask players to sign a pledge not to return to England as professionals after the tour, in hindsight, was not a sensible one.

"Several players had no other attributes but to play cricket. But if you take people like John Wright and Chris Cairns in later years, their cricket and ours benefited from them playing in England.

"It wasn't a wise decision to prevent them from playing for New Zealand for going."

Australia's snubbing of New Zealand: Kerr believed the reason Australia didn't tour New Zealand after the 1927/28 tour was due to the MCC's desire to give New Zealand Test status.

"England were more disposed towards us but Australia weren't. The Australians wanted to bring Western Australia into their set up so that MCC tours could finish with their last games in Perth instead of coming to New Zealand."

South African matters: While apartheid had not been an issue on the 1953/54 tour, it became one later as the protest movement grew regarding rugby tours. Kerr remembers attending a meeting in Wellington which had among its participants the Bishop of Wellington as New Zealand sports bodies attempted to deal with the issue.

"By the time of our 1961/62 tour it was an issue you couldn't avoid getting tied up in. We were agin apartheid but we also wanted to keep the lines of communication open in South Africa. It was tricky because no matter what you did say someone would always jump on you.

"And later, whenever we had meetings in Christchurch there was always a delegation of antis to line you up.

"It was a strange situation to be in and it has finally been resolved although I think it was always the South Africans who had to do it. And they've still got quite a distance to go," he said.

The Packer Revolution: "You have to give all due credit to Kerry Packer. He never interfered with cricket. We were quite wrong about him and he has added another dimension to the game. What he did definitely has a place. I think he revived county cricket. As far back as 1937 I thought they couldn't carry on forever the way they were going."

New Zealand cricket now: "They seem to be developing the players to cope now that they are almost playing 12 months a year. The New Zealand side still has someway to go but they are getting there slowly. They lack a bit of consistency and that worries me. But it is pleasing to see some progress with the opening batsmen because the first three positions are the most important.

"We've got all the setup to deliver the players but for all that, the player is still the one who has got to be motivated. Motivation is the important thing. It is a team game, but an individual team game and each individual has got to be motivated."

Kerr still enjoys watching his cricket. He attempts to get to what he still recognises as Lancaster Park instead of its modern saleable name of Jade Stadium, whenever internationals are played and he takes it all in on television.

His love for the game has never waned and his service has been rewarded with the New Zealand Order of Merit.

But his continuing love of the game is best summed up in his own words, "I'd be much poorer if I hadn't been a cricketer."

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