Review: Don Cameron*
This biography of Merv Wallace does more than pay tribute to one of the noblemen of New Zealand cricket. It shows that though in present times cricket administration seems out of kilter in terms of the practical and medical organisation of the national team, in Wallace's time - from the 1930s to the 1960s - progress was equally blighted by obtuse management.
This would not have been Wallace's aim in being interviewed for this book, written and published by the industrious Romanos with the financial backing of that ultimate of New Zealand cricket godfathers, Sir Ronald Brierley.
Wallace loves the game and was a sublime batsman and technician. He is certainly not a man to pursue revenge for the past wrongs which affected him and several teams with which he was connected.
Looking behind the career of Wallace as a player for the Parnell club in Auckland, as a junior and senior player for New Zealand, then as a magical coach, admiration is mixed with a sadness that an archaic administration prevented Wallace from achieving the fame he deserved.
Wallace was picked for New Zealand's tour of England in 1937, a tour that lacked the success of those that preceded it and, in 1949, brilliantly succeeded it.
Little wonder. The New Zealand Cricket Council's difficulty accepting the professional side of the game - which persisted until Glenn Turner dragged the council into the modern world 40 years later - brought the ruling that four outstanding New Zealand players - Stewie Dempster, Roger Blunt, Bill Merritt and Ken James - could not to be considered for the touring team because they had become professionals in England. And Tom Pritchard, the Taranaki Terror, probably the fastest and best bowler in New Zealand in 1937, was ignored because he lived away from a main centre.
The young Wallace seems bemused by the organisation of the 1937 team. Tom Lowry was an autocratic manager, spare-time wicketkeeper and batsman, and occasional captain. Curly Page had been brought from retirement to captain the side, but could not cope with picking up the reins again.
The youngsters of the side - including Wallace, Walter Hadlee and Martin Donnelly - were not offered the help they needed from senior players.
Success came with the 1949 tour simply because Hadlee, Wallace and Donnelly instilled the spirit lacking in 1937 and the players became a tight-knit family. Wallace, under Hadlee as captain, became the central figure of the side, the coaching master who dispensed advice and encouragement to all players.
From this point Wallace should have been established as the key man of New Zealand cricket, the expert analyst and fatherly adviser whose value did not need to be measured in terms of runs scored.
Romanos' book suggests that Wallace spent so much time working with his team-mates that his own game suffered. But the council did not use Wallace wisely or consistently. In 1956 he was summoned to help the New Zealanders after the West Indies scored two huge wins in the first two tests.
The fact that Wallace helped turn his team around to win the fourth test was miraculous. But the council, still beholden to the amateur ethos and parental control from the MCC, still did not use Wallace well.
John Reid wanted Wallace as coach for the raw side he led to England in 1958. The council declined - and Reid's men were slaughtered.
In 1965 the Auckland contingent and Reid resumed the crusade to have Wallace coach the 1965 team to England, managed by Walter Hadlee.
This provoked a long debate at a board meeting where Gordon Burgess of Auckland led the pro-Wallace campaign, and Hadlee the Canterbury-dominated demand that New Zealand would be demeaning itself in the eyes of world cricket by feeling the necessity that a national side should need a coach.
After the Wallace plan had been torpedoed, chairman Gordon Leggat leaked correspondence which showed that the Canterbury-based council executive had made a private approach to the MCC to see if an on-tour coach was acceptable. The MCC had seen no problem and offered one of their former internationals, Jack Ikin. He was accepted and Wallace was never again invited to put his immense gifts to use for New Zealand.
As Wallace moves towards his century he can look back to a career which, in terms of skill and love for the game, put him among the Sutcliffes and Dempsters, the Turners and Crowes. As Romanos' book shows, had Wallace's gifts been recognised, his impact on the game might have placed him at the top of the list.
* Don Cameron is a sports journalist.