No time for hurrying in selection plans

Lynn McConnell

May 2, 2003

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During his playing career Frank Cameron was regarded as one of the better cricket brains in the New Zealand side, so it was no surprise that once he retired from playing, he was quickly snapped up as a selector.

It was a significant move, and the forerunner to New Zealand cricket's most successful years.

When he first joined the selection panel New Zealand, in 37 years, had won four Tests.

By the time he left in 1986, his teams had added 21 more to the list.

Cameron very much understood that he needed to learn the ropes and that the ultimate responsibility for selection rested with the chairman of selectors, the man who handed the names over to the Board of the day.

"Murray Chapple asked me if I would like to be a selector and the first year my name went forward I missed out by one vote. But I got in the next year, Chapple was the chairman with Ken Deas the other selector. Chapple tossed it in and Deas became chairman. In 1975 Deas dropped off and I was chairman. I had this feeling that it was up to us as selectors to get a winning team."

Having toured in 1965 with several of the players who were introduced to international cricket around that time, Cameron was well versed in their abilities.

New Zealand had become more consistent in selection policies after 1968, and this was borne out by better results.

From 1969-73, New Zealand fielded a competitive side built around Glenn Turner's emergence as an international batsman as the result of his county experiences, and the sheer skill and experience of players like Graham Dowling, Bevan Congdon, Mark Burgess, Vic Pollard, Bruce Taylor, Dayle Hadlee, Ken Wadsworth, Hedley Howarth and Richard Collinge.

But by the time Cameron became chairman of selectors in 1976, it was clear some rebuilding was required.

"I knew it was going to take time. I couldn't see us getting a really strong team in the immediate future. We'd lost a lot of players by 1976. In the early-70s we were losing fellows like Hedley Howarth to work commitments, Bryan Yuile, Bruce Murray and Vic Pollard opted out from playing on Sundays. Glenn Turner was dropping out occasionally and Graham Dowling had got injured and finished. You can't lose the guts of a side like that and recover quickly. That side from 1969-73 was a really good side.

"We still had a viable seam bowling group and we beat India easily enough in 1975/76. I can still remember Hedley's face when I told him he was 12th man in Wellington. He looked really unhappy and I don't blame him. It didn't look a good pitch, but the gamble was to play Richard Hadlee, who expected to be 12th man."

The result was vindicated as Hadlee's second innings 7-23 was the first of his 36 five-wicket bags Tests, and victory by an innings. As satisfying as that was, Cameron was still concerned that New Zealand wasn't doing well overseas.

"So from 1975-79 we were trying to rebuild and in the 1980s we went to another peak. The '83 side to England was a good side, but the 1985/86 side against Australia was a bit better.

"If you look at how long those guys in 1985/86 had been playing, Stephen Boock eight years, John Bracewell six years, Lance Cairns 13 years, Ewen Chatfield 12 years, Jeremy Coney 13 years, Jeff Crowe four years, Martin Crowe five years, Bruce Edgar eight years, Richard Hadlee 14 years, John Wright nine years, Ian Smith six years, Martin Snedden six years and John Reid eight years. The average number of years was around eight.

"That is lots of experience and that takes time to build up. You can't do it in a year or two years."

That is a tough ask in today's instant society and plenty of recent New Zealand coaches, Geoff Howarth, Turner, Steve Rixon, David Trist and Denis Aberhart would all attest to the demands of a public expecting success at every turn.

However, Cameron had a goal in mind and he stuck to it with a firm stance as chairman of selectors based on the principle that the selection buck always stopped with him.

His method was simple.

"You don't keep dropping players. You don't want to be in a hurry. You win Tests when you can but you also have to keep an eye on the future. And your players need to have at least two or three first-class seasons.

"The 1980s didn't come out of the blue," he said.

It wasn't just about getting the right batsmen, bowlers and wicket-keeper in a side. There was the captaincy factor and the fielding options, especially the all-important slips cordon when there is a bowler like Richard Hadlee in the attack.

"You have got to know what you are looking for and keep encouraging players. It might take five or six years till they reach maturity. But you get the team and keep them."

As a result New Zealand was unbeaten at home during the decade of the 1980s.

While the overall outcome of his selection policy was immensely satisfying, especially in a New Zealand context, there were also some individual moments he recalled with pleasure.

The punt on Richard Hadlee against India at the Basin Reserve in 1975/76 was one. Refusing to bow to public pressure and drop Geoff Howarth before the third Test against England in 1977/78 was another. Howarth went out and scored a century in each innings at Eden Park.

Any early inclination of a selector having a hunch was borne out in his first year of selection when Chapple decided Wadsworth might be worth more of a look. He was selected for the South Island team to play against the West Indies at Carisbrook and scored a century and did well enough with the wicket-keeping gloves to be taken on the tour to England and India and Pakistan that season.

That South Island match was also notable for the decision to pluck from nowhere three young Canterbury bowlers, Alan Hounsell, Trist and Dayle Hadlee. Cameron watched all three with interest and went with Hadlee as the bowler with the immediate potential to harness for New Zealand.

"It was obvious that Hadlee was the bowler we wanted because he could move the ball and I knew that being a Hadlee he would be competitive. It was unfortunate that he had problems with injuries, but he came back from them, a still reasonable bowler.

"Murray also felt that Hedley Howarth was ready and predicted he would come back from the 1969 tour the country's No 1 spinner. At his best, he was one of our best.

"I remember a year or two later we needed to pick a team to go to Australia while the New Zealand team was in the West Indies and I asked Martin Horton who was the best young fast bowler around and he said Richard Hadlee. I went and watched him and knew after seeing him take a wicket that he was quick with a loose action. We had him picked in the team before he took a hat-trick just before the side was announced and that was what everybody thought got him in the team."

Cameron also made it a policy to keep an eye out for emerging talent and was a regular visitor to national Under-23 and Under-20 competitions.

There was never a "bolter" that Cameron wasn't well familiar with.

With no coach appointed to the team in those years, Cameron had a lot to do with the side and he never left a pitch cover unturned in doing his homework. He always talked with groundsmen and a classic instance was at Carisbrook, early in the morning before the first Test against the West Indies in 1980.

When the covers were taken off there appeared to be a ridge down one side of the pitch, so he had the pitch moved taking the ridge out of the match equation.

"It is in the interests of everyone to get the best pitch. It came across about a foot. It was one of the more worthwhile exercises. We didn't like the idea of them having four seamers against us."

There was an interesting piece of subterfuge from the chairman who was normally a reluctant communicator with the press.

He was sure the West Indies would have been well aware of Carisbrook's past reputation as a spinner's pitch, which it wasn't on this occasion.

"I wanted them to play Derick Parry because he had looked to be an average off-spinner in the one-dayer in Christchurch. So I called the press over the day before at practice and said we were going to add John Bracewell to our side because we thought the track might take spin. And the West Indies fell for it."

As Lance Cairns clubbed three balls in one over from Parry for six runs, they were to turn out to be vital runs in New Zealand's exciting one-wicket win.

There was also one notable occasion when the Board of New Zealand Cricket over-ruled the selectors. It concerned Brian McKechnie who had suffered a broken finger after being named in the New Zealand team for the 1976 tour of Pakistan and India.

McKechnie, who had already represented New Zealand at the 1975 World Cup, was to become a double All Black, a dual rugby/cricket international, by the end of the following year.

"We had been getting some serious stuff from the Board about not playing injured players over the previous year or two. McKechnie injured his finger and as the tour got closer I was told there was a question mark over McKechnie as far as the Board members were concerned. So I arranged a fitness test. I rang Gren Alabaster and got him to arrange it. Gren rang me back and said he got McKechnie to bowl, he hit the ball to him in the deep and up close, he had him fielding and batting in the nets and none of it seemed to be affecting his finger. He was in no pain and would be able to bowl all right. I reported that back to the Board and that was the last I heard of it."

In the meantime, the Board named Geoff Howarth as the replacement for McKechnie who, they said, had failed a fitness test.

Within a week or two McKechnie was playing rugby for Southland in a Ranfurly Shield challenge match, a tougher test of a damaged digit it is hard to imagine.

For many on the outside of the game, the thought of being a national selector in cricket, when New Zealand wasn't doing well, must have seemed like an exercise in futility.

It was the job for someone who truly loved the game. Cameron was never perturbed.

"As a selector you got rubbished everywhere because we never won. There weren't too many queuing up as selectors. You knew when you stood you were going to take punishment. It got so bad at one lunch I attended at Eden Park that I got up and walked out.

"Generally I tried to avoid the media. I had enough responsibilities as it was, so I always put the media onto the captain."

No-one could deny Cameron made his impact by sticking to his plan and gaining the rewards. Just as he had a long wait to play for New Zealand, so his selection plan took time.

But he got his rewards in both fields, and he also left when it suited him and while still on top of his game. Not all who have been associated with cricket can say that.

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