September 15, 2000

Merv Wallace's legacy will live on

Merv Wallace - A Cricket Master. By Joseph Romanos. Published by Joel Publishing. Reviewed by Lynn McConnell.

"The most under-rated cricketer to have worn the silver fern." That was former New Zealand captain John Reid's summation of Merv Wallace, a player whose understanding of cricket and its technical intricacies have been unparalleled in the New Zealand game.

The failure to utilise his coaching resources in an official capacity beyond his involvement in the last two Tests of the 1956 series against the West Indies, which produced New Zealand's first Test victory, and the following summer against an Australian XI, has been well recorded. It was probably the most significant bungle in New Zealand cricket administration history.

Most who have any knowledge of the history of New Zealand cricket would be aware that he was almost the second non-Englishman behind Don Bradman to score 1000 runs before the end of May on an England tour.

They would also know that his Test average of 20.90 is not anything like a fair indication of his batting worth, interrupted as it was by the Second World War.

The publication of this book allows Wallace's qualities to be placed in more perspective and, apart from providing an insight into the development of Wallace as a preceptor of the highest order, it also rounds out an under-resourced area of the game's history, the 1937 tour of England.

Recent biographies of Walter Hadlee and Martin Donnelly have touched on the playing side of the tour, but Wallace has commented on the bizarre selection policy which smacked of a combination of colonial subservience to mis-guided notions of amateurism and basic lack of vision.

"I've always thought New Zealand cricketers were as good as anyone. Often it has just been a case of lack of opportunities. In 1937 there is no doubt we had the players to form a very strong team, but for various reasons at least eight of them were not in our touring team," he said.

"Four of our best players - Stewie Dempster, Roger Blunt, Bill Merritt and Ken James - had toured England in 1927 and 1931 and then moved to England to play cricket professionally.

"By 1937, they were playing either league or county cricket and the New Zealand selectors, following a Cricket Council guideline, did not consider them. This deprived us of two really good batsmen, a successful leg-spinner and one of the world's best wicketkeepers," Wallace said.

It is difficult nowadays to believe the folly of the Council decision. The 1931 tour of England had been undertaken in the midst of the Great Depression. With jobs non-existent for many, there was little chance of being able to follow a cricket career in New Zealand.

Instead of encouraging players to broaden their experience overseas, the NZCC actively discouraged the practice and ruled those players ineligible for New Zealand.

The game in this country paid a significant price for what could only have been class-based decision made by administrators out of touch with the plight of their players.

It has to be wondered if New Zealand's rugby administrators of today will have cause, in time, to rue a similar decision about players playing overseas.

But to have that ruling compounded by appalling selection made matters worse.

"The selectors did not show enough foresight when considering the home-based players. Our team badly lacked in pace bowling. We had Jack Cowie, who I still think was the best bowler in the world of his type. But Jack was fast-medium.

"What he needed was a genuinely quick bowler at the other end. In England, he had almost no pace bowling support. Yet the selectors did not select either Tom Pritchard or Ted Christensen.

"Everyone knew Pritchard was the best pace bowler in New Zealand. I'd played against him and it was obvious what a good bowler he was. He was genuinely quick, hostile and accurate. He should have been selected and his omission was a major error that our team paid for dearly."

Pritchard's figures for his side Manawatu in representative games that year were an astounding 30 wickets at 5.43.

Wallace recalled Christensen's bowling him first ball when Auckland played North Taranaki.

"Martin Donnelly knew both these players well and was emphatic they should have been in our touring team," Wallace said.

Two batsmen who missed selection were fellow Aucklander Paul Whitelaw and Otago's Ken Uttley.

Wallace compared the situation to the great team of the 1980s if it had been selected without, John Wright, Martin Crowe, Ian Smith, John Bracewell, Bruce Edgar, Jeff Crowe, Ewen Chatfield and Lance Cairns.

"That's what it was like in 1937. When you consider that, it is no wonder we struggled."

That's not to forget other aspects of the selection, including the rejection of Wellington leg-spinner Bernie Griffiths on so-called medical grounds.

It was coming home from England that Wallace made his mark on Australian critics and players, especially the redoubtable Bill O'Reilly who found Wallace was one of the few players prepared to play his bowling on its merit, not on who was doing the bowling.

Wallace's career record is given due attention in the book and the 1949 tour is revisited.

But if there was to be a section that might be of lasting influence as long as the game is played, it is that on the coaching observations Wallace dropped into conversation with Romanos while being interviewed for the book.

A few of the many gems demonstrate the quality of his comments:

Picking the spin (an appropriate choice given events this week in Zimbabwe): You hear various batsmen talk about how they can read the spin by watching which way the ball spins in the air. I am very sceptical of this, unless they are geniuses. My advice is to watch the bowler's hand very carefully. That's the best way of reading the spin. Failing that, most batsmen are best advised to play the ball off the pitch."

The grip: "This is crucial. If a batsman has a poor grip, he will always struggle. It is important not to have the handle in the palm of the hand; the strength is in the fingers and they should be holding the bat, otherwise batsmen will become 'bottom-handed'. When gripping a bat, the left hand should hold the bat as if shaking hands with it. Then the 'V' of the bottom hand should be under the 'V' of the top hand. The top glove should lightly touch the centre of the left thigh."

Watching the ball: "When I was with the New Zealand team in England in 1937, we were taken along to Wembley to watch a big soccer match. I noticed how whenever the player with the ball was tackled and went to ground, he kept his eye on the ball, even to the extent of controlling it while on the ground. Stanley Matthews was outstanding in this regard. The term 'watching the ball' applies in every sport. Its importance can't be over-estimated."

Merv Wallace's story deserved to be told. His impact on cricketers in the Auckland area is limitless. The respect for him is endless. Now his reputation and his thoughts will be timeless.

What a shame that like the greatest New Zealand sports coaches, Arthur Lydiard (athletics), Vic Cavanagh and Fred Allen (rugby) and no doubt several others, he was under-utilised by small-minded administrators thinking of themselves, and not the good of their sports.