Saturday, September 17, 2011

Classic Reads: Merv Wallace by Joseph Romanos

During the winter off-season in New Zealand, I’ve been reading a book about New Zealand’s hugely under-rated batsman Merv Wallace. Wallace was a member of the 1937 and 1949 New Zealand touring teams to England. Wallace receives considerable attention in Rod Nye’s Martin Donnelly biography and Richard Boock’s recent Bert Sutcliffe biography. The respectful mentions of him in these books made me want to read further.
Merv Wallace: A Cricket Master (Joel Publishing, 2000) is researched and written by Joseph Romanos in discussion with the late Merv himself, and is, I feel, an important addition to New Zealand’s cricket history. Much has been said and written about other members of the ’49ers such as Walter Hadlee, Martin Donnelly, John R Reid and Bert Sutcliffe, but till this book appeared little was known about the extent of Wallace’s contribution to New Zealand cricket.
Romanos expertly fills in the gaps with enthusiasm and energy. He is an ardent admirer of all sports but cricket is a large part of his focus. Romanos has again produced an excellent biography with impressive knowledge, artful use of photos and memorabilia, comprehensive research and a humanist empathy for the subject and his life. I must thank too the benefactor Sir Ron Brierley’s financial commitment to the publication of this book.
The story about Merv begins in Grey Lynn, Auckland, where he was born and raised. It follows his early advances into cricket as a schoolboy and later as a young man playing his club cricket for Point Chevalier (which amalgamated with Parnell) and his First Class cricket for Auckland (captaining them 23 times from 1939-1958). Wallace’s final First Class match was for Lord Cobham’s Governor-General’s XI in the 1960-61 season.
The two main chapters of interest (as a player) are the tours of England in 1937 and 1949 where he was among New Zealand’s best batsmen on both tours. In 1937, under Curly Page’s captaincy, it’s safe to say he was the leading New Zealand batsmen of the period (between Stewie Dempster and Bert Sutcliffe) and was well written up by the English cricket writers. Pelham Warner wrote in The Cricketer: ‘Wallace has, so far, proved himself the best batsman … Short in height, Wallace is strongly built and times the ball beautifully. He has a very good eye, is quick on his feet and seems to possess all the strokes.’
He topped the 1937 tour averages in England and Australia with 1887 runs at 41.02 but, as Romanos points out, never fulfilled his Test potential, losing his best years of Test cricket to the Second World War. Wallace’s contribution as a player could’ve been greater at Test level marking him out clearly as one of our greats. Instead, he finished with a modest Test average of 20.90, no Test century, and sadly a mostly forgotten player status in the game.
The other side to Wallace’s story is his role as a coach and selector and his influential job as a sporting goods proprietor. Wallace spent a good deal of time, after retiring as a player, coaching and selecting teams, both at international and domestic level. His major success came when he coached New Zealand to their first ever Test victory over the West Indies in 1956-57. Yet, as Romanos notes for reasons unknown, Wallace was not used often as a coach and selector by the New Zealand Cricket Council. It’s baffling to know why. Walter Hadlee and other members were clearly friends of Wallace’s with no axe to grind and who respected Wallace’s ability. Wallace’s input as a coach and selector for New Zealand should’ve been greater at international level but instead, as with his batting, we only had tantalising glimpses of what he could’ve done for New Zealand cricket.
Despite this, Wallace was always involved one way or another. For years, he ran a sporting shop in Auckland: Wallace and Webb Ltd. There are delightful chapters here on Wallace’s influence through the shop, his passing on of tips to players, coaches, fathers and schoolboys who visited. As well, Romanos captures the essence of Wallace by presenting a whole chapter of Wallace’s views on cricket giving out his handy tips. Some of these appear dated now, but it seems a nice way to preserve Wallace’s mind and thoughts on the game throughout the period where he made his largest contribution.
This book proved hard to track down but was worth the effort. I searched local book fairs, second hand shops and the Wellington Public Library and could find no copy. It wasn’t until I stopped by the New Zealand Cricket Museum’s Library at the Basin Reserve, Wellington, that I was able to borrow a copy and it was well worth the wait.
Merv Wallace: A Cricket Master is a must read for those interested in the key figures who’ve developed the game here as well as New Zealand’s reputation as a cricketing nation over the past century. As John R Reid writes on the cover: “Merv Wallace was the most under-rated player to have worn the Silver Fern. This long overdue book pays eloquent tribute to a great cricketer.”

Merv Wallace: A Cricket Master
by Joseph Romanos
(Joel Publishing, Wellington, 2000)

Article © Mark Pirie 2011

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