The ultimate team man

The real architect of Australia's cricket resurgence has been chairman of selectors Laurie Sawle

Mark Ray
The Ultimate Team Man
From the Sunday Age, 29 Jan 1995
The real architect of Australia's cricket resurgence has been chairman of selectors Laurie Sawle. Mark Ray reports.
Although this is only the fourth test of this Ashes series, most eyes and minds are already focused on the coming series against the West Indies. That applies most to one of the shrewdest observers in Australian cricket, chairman of selectors Laurie Sawle.
This week, at the Adelaide Oval, Sawle watched play in the fourth tests in the same seat from which he saw Australia fail by one run to take an unbeatable 2-0 lead in the last series against the West Indies two years ago. The memory hurts.
"Two years ago I sat in this same seat and saw us get to within one bloody run of beating the West Indies in a series," Sawle says, "I suppose you shouldn't have to rely on a last wicket stand to get you that close, but a win is a win."
If Australia does finally defeat the West Indies - becoming the first side to do so in 25 year the cycle of rebuilding Australian cricket that began in the dark days of the early to mid-1980s will be complete, the last mountain finally conquered.
If so, it is likely that legspinner Shane Warne will have played a crucial role. Fore Sawle, the man credited by former selector John Benaud as "the most unrecognised person in Australian cricket" and widely considered the leading architect of that rebuilding, the satisfaction will be intense, not least because on of his priorities in his 10 years as chairman has been to find a Test-class leg-spinner.
Sawle is the classic "quiet Achiever", a self-effacing, shy man with a sharp mind and a desert-dry wit whose influence over the regeneration of Australian cricket, from Test to under-17s, has been huge, although done largely from the background rather than the foreground.
Benaud rates his former chairman's influence so highly he even uses the term "the Sawle era", the fruits of which he says we are seeing this season as Sawle's long term planning brings its rewards.
Alan Crompton, chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, describes Sawle's contribution over the past decade as "maginificent".
"He has brought an enormous amnount of wisdom and stability to our game," Crompton says.
From the days in the midd-1980s when England and the West Indies were beating Autralia, when captain Kim Hughes resigned in tears, when many senior Sheffield Shield players defected on rebel tours of South Africa and when the big three of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh retired, Australian cricket has gradually regained its strength and purpose. Laurie Sawle has been a major player in that resurgence.
A few of the things Sawle has pushed through in his dual role as selector and ACB member include: the resurgence of spin bowling, especailly leg-spin, long-term selection policies, the linking of youth cricket at state and national level with the senior selection process through talent-spotting, the establishment of the AIS cricket academy and the specailist skills clinics run through it by a host of former Test players , and the introduction of the Australian XI games in Hobart for fringe players.
Sawle has had a lot to do with all of these intiatives. In many cases he has been the leading light.
"Three things have characterised Laurie's work as a selector," Benaud says. "He has always said stability was important. He is a good long term planner. He's a very good chairman because he doesn't press his opinions on the rest of the panel.
"He allows the other selectors to fully express their views and the discussions are always open and constructive. In my years on the panel under Laurie, there was never a raised voice and never formal vote. It was very enjoyable. The third thing he has been strong on has been youth cricket."
After a modest career as an opening batsman for Western Australia in its early years in the Shield, and a successful career at the University club in Perth, Sawle, now 69, became a national selector in 1982 and chairman two years later.
Sawle became a selector during a period he describes as perhaps the lowest ever for Australian cricket. The panel at the time worked in a desperate scatter-gun way, and at one stage there were more than 40 current or ex-Test players among the 70 or so Shield players in action.
When Sawle, known from is University days as "the Colonel", became chairman, he stablised selection policy. The selector's job was to identify the 16 or so players capable of playing Test cricket, pick them and encourage them to feel relatively secure so they could learn and develop.
The likes of David Bon, Dean Jones, and Geoff Marsh are classic examples.
Benaud says Sawle was never obsessed with finding players, whose behaviour was beyond reproach. "Lawrie was always alert to character, but it was never a case of players having to obey the Ten Commandments or else. What he was after were players who were mentally focused."
The first major success of the rebuildign was winning the 1987 World Cup in India and Pakistan, but Sawle rates the 1989 Ashes tour as the highlight of his involvement, not least beacuse he was there as manager.
That 4-0 thrashing began domination of the old enemy that continures this summer. Such has been Australia's dominance that England captain Mike Atherton has alluded to the success of Australia's rebuilding programs and, in articles he has written this summer for "The Daily Telegraph" in London, has named Sawle as a key figure in that process Recognition for "the Colonel" seems to be coming at last.
"The 1989 tour was a highlight for me," says Sawle. "We wanted badly to get the Ashes back and it was hard to balance the team. There were a few unlucky players who missed out but that is just part of the job.
"After losing the first game we won everything. The '89 tour was the most satisfying for me from a selection point of view and because I was able to see it through as manager."
The Australian Cricket Board had to ask the reticent Sawle three times to manage the 1989 tour before he accepted.
"It was the enormity of the job and I wasn't sure how I would handle it all." Here his characteristic self-effacing chuckle breaks in.
"I'm glad I did. It was the experience of a lifetime."
Sawle has had such a profound influence at many levels of Australian cricket because he is a member of the Australian Cricket Board executive as well as chairman of selectors.
It is a link between two decision making bodies that he has used to bring structure to the game.
It was Sawle who introduced the practice of one of the national selectors chairing the panel that chooses under-19 national teams. John Benaud did that for some time and now Steve Bernard is involved.
"It means the national philosophies are transferred to the youth teams," says Benaud.
"I was most involved in the under-19s from the mid-80's for six or seven years," Sawle says. "I thought it was important for us to know what talent was comingthrough so that we could fast-tracj them. Players like the Waugh twins, Ian Healy and Mark Taylor all came through the system."
Typically, Sawle sees the Cricket Academy as another aspect of the wider structure rather than the ultimate example.
"The academy is only an adjunct," he says. "You need a structure in place to get the talent to put into the academy.
"We are very happy with out youth program now. It helped set up our strength today."
Sawle is committed to finding bowlers who move the ball away from the bat, especailly the leg-spinners and swing bowlers. He was a prime mover in the ACB's push in the late 1980s to have the state associations do away with defensive 100-overs-a-day club cricket in favour of open rules where taking wickets was as important as scoring runs.
The fruits of Sawle's preoccupations are evident in this Adelaide Test. There are two legspinners in the Australia team for the firt itme in more than 20 years. But then there are also two former leg-spinners on the selection panel, Jim Higgs and Trevor Hohns.
The swing-bowling situation is not as healthy, with Damien Fleming the only one of any consistent achievement in the game today.
Sawle admits he is lost for an answer as to why that is.
Should Warne, Fleming, and perhaps the leg-spinner Peter McIntyre contribute to an Australian series win in the Caribbean in the next few months, there will be no more satisifed man than Laurie Sawle.
"We'll have a better balanced team this time than for the last tour there," he says.
"Better spin bowling and better batting. Our chances must be good."