'My batting drove people away'

Jeremy Coney didn't put bums on seats, but he was New Zealand's most influential captain, and a bit of a renaissance man off the field

"I don't think I was a very popular captain, but I was determined we did not lose those decent behaviours. We kept our feet on the ground."  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

"I don't think I was a very popular captain, but I was determined we did not lose those decent behaviours. We kept our feet on the ground."  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

How did you get into cricket?
I used to watch my brothers - I almost threw my arm out throwing to my elder brother and then collecting the ball. "Can I bat now?" "NO!"
I would watch him clean his bat and the loving relationship he had with it. They don't do that these days. We used to put the bat up against the old sink that mum did the washing in, to dry the linseed oil into the grain.
It was the seductive slap of pads on leg, the sound of buckles. Then those gloves that had no palm and had green nipples as protection. The gear was attractive but I didn't like the long white trousers.
The fripperies of cricket started to appeal as well. You needed to have decent weather. There wasn't the mud and random acts of violence that rugby supplied. It entered me like a virus and never left. I don't remember any of my college lessons, but ask me cricket stats and I knew them. My friend Steve McKenzie used to set his pin number to Bert Sutcliffe's Test aggregate and I used to make the occasional withdrawal from his account.
Where did you play?
My first day-night games were on Colway Street [in Wellington] under the streetlights. Dodging cars as they came up the road was as much a difficulty as facing Steve McKenzie as he came down the hill with the breeze behind.
It became all-consuming. We'd play all the time. My on-side play was good because you got two by hitting it into the hedge. I was out lbw a lot in my career as I was always playing across it. Rugby was my winter sport - every boy reached the age of five and was taken by their father to rugby and told: "This is the game we play, son." I could catch and kick but I was too svelte. I got hammered. I didn't have enough beef.
How did you first get into the New Zealand side?
I can remember it was a slight interruption, a nuisance. I was an enthusiastic first-year teacher. I had just joined that unwieldy ladder that is New Zealand education and I was preparing my first school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I was the sole member of the orchestra, playing my own organ - there might have been a beginner flautist - but she didn't count. Then I got this call-up; New Zealand were touring Australia in 1973-74 and it was a fairly young team because New Zealand had had a long tour of England that year. Because of our amateur, cottage-industry status as cricketers, most of the players had to go back to work. Glenn Turner was one of the few senior players in the side and he got injured. I got the call. And I was thrust from going from one dress rehearsal to a different kind of rehearsal.
"My friend Steve McKenzie used to set his pin number to Bert Sutcliffe's Test aggregate and I used to make the occasional withdrawal from his account"
How did your Test debut go?
I didn't play in the first Test of that series but I did get on the field in front of Bay 13 at the MCG. I can remember having an exchange with a hostile crowd down there. I did give some back - which was stupid. "Ah, look, we've got a young goose here, there's only 35 shoplifting days to Christmas, Cornery," they shouted. Then they started to throw marbles and they were pinking me on the back of my jersey. There must have been a hundred marbles around me and I thought I was going to roll an ankle. Then they started throwing pies when they ran out of marbles. And that attracted the birds. I had undulating ground underfoot and above, flying wildly around me, were birds swooping to attack these bits of meat. It was a disaster. And it was from that day on that I was solely a slip fielder.
I played in the second Test and we should have won. I remember getting a 40 against guys like Max Walker and Doug Walters. They did not have Lillee or Thomson. I caught catches and got runs and did okay. It was a six-Test tour, three in Australia then three in New Zealand and we beat them for the first time, in Christchurch. We had established ourselves as opponents worthy of their attention.
Why didn't you play another Test for five years?
I was dropped for the third Test [of the New Zealand leg] when Mark Burgess, who was on the England tour, made himself available - he was an experienced player who had had to take a job on return. That was understandable. I went into a wilderness in the first-class cricket scene. After the Christchurch win I went back to being a teacher. I would play for Wellington when we were having holidays from school. It was getting to the point where I was saying, "Oh well, it is not going to happen again and teaching is going to be the thing." And I was happy with that. But there were some fearful rakings of the lawn when teams were announced in those five years. I kept on not scoring enough runs and that is why I missed out on going to India, which is a slight regret. I played everywhere else.
Why did you stop teaching?
When I got back in the side, we were playing so much I had to make a decision. I had a degree and had gone into secondary teaching. I was head of music at Onslow College. I had got to a point where I would say hello to my class in February and goodbye a week later. I was not able to work with the children and feel that I was giving them a fair go.
Did the diversity of your life help your game?
It helped me deal with the vicissitudes of the game. It was not possible to enjoy success every day. It gave me a perspective. It is easy to become insular and expect things. I don't think I was a very popular captain, but I was determined we did not lose those decent behaviours. We kept our feet on the ground. That was down to Dad and Mum as well as my middle-class upbringing.
What made you a good captain?
Keeping grounded. Honesty. Not frightened to tell people, "That was an important moment, that cost us the game." Team meetings seemed a waste of valuable time. We said similar things in each one. That was one thing that irritated me: re-offending. I don't mind people making mistakes but to make similar mistakes four times is ridiculous. That person doesn't care how he or the team does.
What was your proudest moment?
There were plenty of bad moments… but I think the run we had as a team to beat Australia in Australia for the first time in a series, then to beat them again in a series at home [both in 1985-86], then to beat England in England [1986]. Those times were pleasing tours.
Tours are difficult assignments. You have a disparate group of people coming together with a common interest. And you wouldn't necessarily meet otherwise. You might not even like some of them as people, yet there is a tolerance - it is one of the good things about the game. You have to get on and you find that some people do have nice parts that you can enjoy and they might even find things they like about you. On those tours we were tested and we responded. The changing room was a good, fun place. My mates like Lance Cairns - the Monsoon Bog we used to call him - he was terrific fun; and John Wright - Shaker Wright - he would never have his gear and would always be late.
"Team meetings seemed a waste of valuable time. We said similar things in each one"
How was your relationship with Richard Hadlee?
It was difficult at times. If you work with people as closely as you do in cricket, with failure and success rubbing against each other in the same room, you are going to have bad days. Richard was our best player, a mechanical genius. We always relied on him, gave him the ball at the right time when he wanted to bowl. We were different characters. There are bound to be little moments when things don't go quite so well, especially when there is pressure on. After we had lost to West Indies in New Zealand he had a go at the team in public, in his newspaper column. I thought that was a no-no and the team thought it was a no-no. Have a go at us in private by all means. That is fair game. If we are not doing things properly, talk to us, tell us. Don't use the paper as the forum. We are fine now. You get perspective once you've finished the game - it doesn't matter.
Do you have any regrets about your career?
Not being fit enough. Look at the number of 90s and 80s I scored. Fitness! Too much the amateur, not enough the pro. Because, to succeed, I had trimmed my game down so much in the early 1970s, I didn't play enough shots, didn't have enough boundary strokes. And because I was playing around guys like Martin Crowe, Richard Hadlee and Lance Cairns. They were boundary hitters. I felt it was better for the team for me to be a nurdler, so to get to 80 it took me a week! I used to drive people away from the ground. Once those players were on song, I could get a single and keep them on song, so we had good partnerships. It meant I was batting for a long time and not getting strike, then nurdling when I did. That is a slight regret but look, does it matter? No! Cricket is the greatest triviality in the world.

Edward Craig is deputy editor of the Wisden Cricketer, in the January 2010 issue of which this interview was first published. Subscribe here