A weakness outside the off stump, Harry Ricketts

Stirred But Not Shaken
Geoff Howarth
Hodder Moa Beckett
$44.95
ISBN 1 86958 685 9

Lifting the Covers
Glenn Turner
Longacre Press
$39.95
ISBN 1 877135 19 4

Mark Twain once remarked that in autobiography “it is impossible for a man to tell the truth about himself or to avoid impressing the reader with the truth about himself.” Geoff Howarth’s autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken, is a case in point.

Howarth looks back more in sorrow than in anger over his 30-year life in cricket. He begins with the recent past, and we are given 90 pages on his rocky stint as New Zealand coach (1993-5) before the narrative circles back to offer a chronological account of his career from schoolboy fanatic at Auckland Grammar to overseas county pro with Surrey, to New Zealand Test player and captain. Thumb-nail reports on those Howarth has captained or coached, and the obligatory crystal-ball gazing into the future of New Zealand cricket, wrap up the book.

Howarth portrays himself as someone who always tried his best for the team and the game, but who at key moments was unforeseeably and unaccountably betrayed by friends – relegated at Surrey to non-playing captain by Mickey Stewart, dumped as New Zealand captain and player by Graham Dowling and Frank Cameron, forced to resign as New Zealand coach by Ron Fulton, Mike Sandlant et al. Yes, Howarth acknowledges ruefully, he was “naive on the political front”, always the last to see that the guillotine was up and the tricoteuses already busily knitting. All the same, as he reminds us twice, from 1978 to 1983 he was one of the top ten batsmen in the world, and his record as New Zealand captain was of course outstanding. Disarmingly, he confesses: “I did not make the most of my abilities as a county and international cricketer, not fulfilling my potential consistently.” Sure he drank a bit, but it was never a problem except just that once at early morning practice in Perth in 1982.

Howarth is so obviously sincere in his desire to put the record straight, still so hurt by the various betrayals, that it seems mean to suggest that his account is like an innings where the edges and misses outnumber the cuts and cover drives. That, for instance, there’s something frankly disingenuous about the gallant, naive figure he describes being so shamelessly shafted over the years by all those former friends. No one who was so canny and successful a Test captain can really have been that clueless – or if he was, be pitied for it.

Besides, at some level Howarth knows, and is keen to show, he was never that naive – that, on the contrary, he was perceptively aware of others and a shrewd reader of character. Of Martin Crowe, Howarth tellingly observes: “If Martin Crowe was happy then the rest of the world was happy. But if he was not happy then he could make life difficult for those around him.” And one could hardly think of a better phrase than Howarth’s “gun-shy of quick bowling” to sum up the sad spectacle of Greatbatch involuntarily flinching away from the ball at the end of his international career. It may be an essential ingredient of Howarth’s personal myth that he was a sacrificial lamb, but an equally essential ingredient is that “Geoff Howarth” (as he sometimes disconcertingly refers to himself) didn’t come down with the last shower.

Certainly Howarth plays the naivety card for all its worth in his version of the dope-smoking episode at Paarl, the event during the 1994-5 tour of South Africa which precipitated his resignation as coach. Given the open rumblings after the 1994 tour of England, it is hard to believe that Howarth seriously thought he could keep such an incident in-house. (Just to remind you, Fleming, Nash and Hart owned up to smoking, Pringle didn’t, and Morrison grassed.) When the team then lost the Test series (after being one-up), Howarth must have had some inkling that he would have to go. To lay the blame for his dismissal almost entirely on the evil machinations of the then Director of New Zealand Cricket, Ron Fulton, (with a little help from other friends) just doesn’t fit the facts.

And what of the celebrated drinking? Even allowing for media muckraking and the undoubted difference between New Zealand drinking habits and those of the English county pro circuit, there’s still something not quite persuasive about Howarth’s account of his over-socialising as he only half-ironically calls it. His own unease about the subject is implicit in that twitchy, would-be insouciant title, Stirred But Not Shaken, and even more so in the decision to call the chapter devoted to his drinking, “On the Rocks”.

I finished Howarth’s autobiography reminded of what an elegant batsman and exceptional captain he was, but unconvinced that he got a raw deal as coach. Something to do with boundaries perhaps.

2

Between the end of Howarth’s reign and the start of Glenn Turner’s, there was a three-month interregnum with John F Reid as caretaker coach. In effect, however, Turner inherited the situation left by Howarth. It was, he claims, a shambles, and he cites a whole raft of shortcomings and omissions. These included: “A lack of self-esteem and confidence amongst the players”; “poor standards of personal and team preparation for matches (both practice and mental)”, and “a team culture that promoted over-use of alcohol and lack of adequate rest/sleep by many players”. As Turner dryly puts it in his new book, Lifting the Covers: “New Zealand cricket was suffering from an overdose of those who talk the talk but can’t, or won’t, walk the walk.”

Lifting the Covers, written in collaboration with his poet brother Brian, is Turner’s engrossing account of his brief second stint as New Zealand coach (1995-6): how he tried to “make a difference”, what he managed to achieve and why he ultimately failed. As a straight cricketing description of the packed schedule of matches during that year, the team preparation, game-planning and performances, the book makes compelling reading, and for the more serious student of the game the passages of technical analysis of current players will hold a particular interest. Passionate about the game, Turner also has a nice dry sense of humour: “I was well aware that certain people saw me as a determined and autocratic coot.”

Turner knew when he took on the job that he “would have to deal with some awkward buggers”. It will come as little surprise to readers that the most awkward were Crowe, Parore and Cairns. Turner, like Howarth, presents a number of saddening snapshots of Crowe in the premature twilight of his career, fighting a losing battle with his knee and desperately trying to keep fit. As a player Crowe is properly given his due (“Martin is one of the finest cricketers we have had”), but Turner, unfortunately, seems to speak for many when he adds that he found Crowe “about as temperamental as a cricketer can be, and those who know cricket and cricketers will realise that I am talking about heights Himalayan.”

Crowe at least had the excuse – and up to a point it is one – of being a great player. Nobody would seriously claim greatness for Parore and Cairns, good players as both can be. The duo emerge here in several sharply recorded scenes as a couple of spoilt brats, with Cairns, in particular, always ready to throw a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way. In a typically shrewd observation, Turner comments: “Cairns was convinced I didn’t like him. In fact I came to see Chris as a victim of the negative features of the culture of our times of which cricket is a reflection.”

It is such moments which underline the larger theme of Lifting the Covers. Because this is not just a book about the vicissitudes of a particular year in New Zealand cricket: cricket is seen as a microcosm of the country as a whole. Turner’s contention, half-echoing Hamlet, is that “there is a sickness at the heart of New Zealand cricket”, and that this sickness is a direct consequence of the sickness at the heart of New Zealand itself. The cause of the sickness is the modern business culture, the corporatisation that over the last decade has infected all aspects of our national life. As Turner powerfully argues, cricket has become just another “product” to be marketed and hyped: “the media and cricket’s administration are engaged in an elaborate, expensive, increasingly slick PR-exercise intended to persuade sponsors and the public that what they are seeing and hearing is the greatest.”

Early on in Lifting the Covers, the principal architect of this dismaying process is identified as Chris Doig, “a CEO determined to take [New Zealand cricket] down a path that could only lead to a perpetuation of the sorts of problems” that Turner himself had been “employed to fix”. During the course of the book, Turner builds up a disturbing picture of Doig’s influence and interference, from sanctioning petulant behaviour by players to trying to gag dissenting media voices to making the game itself secondary to the tacky, disruptive sideshows that increasingly distract from “the true drama” which, as Turner insists, “arises out of the cricket itself”. I know I’m not the only reader to feel that Turner puts a very strong case, and were this a match I’d give Doig out stumped, handled ball and caught at silly mid-on.

Lifting the Covers caused quite a stir when it came out a few months ago, and rightly so. Responding to a groundswell of public support for Turner, I remember Doig and Steve Rixon (Turner’s successor as coach) dismissing his views as “history” and saying that they were only interested in the future etc etc. To which Turner might justifiably reply that someone without a sense of history is all too conveniently forgetting the past.

Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books and a keen follower of New Zealand cricket.

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