The misunderstood Merv

Merv Hughes was always more of a thinker than he pretended, and every bit as much a cricketer. He is a thinker dressed as a joker, writes PETER ROEBUCK

MERV Hughes sat in the JW Morton room at Junction Oval waiting for the rain to stop. Massive man, groomed moustache, underestimated. Had been fishing the previous day, caught some trout salmon too, and said they tasted better when blooded properly. Couldn't stay all day. Had to collect one of his mites from Kindergarten. Hoping to see a bit of cricket. Not giving much away. Didn't want to talk about his background; bush, Werribee and all that. Reckoned it had been done to death. Selector now. Had seen the forecast. Didn't think play was likely. Rain followed by storms.

Duty had called Merv to the top of the table clash between NSW and Victoria. Not that he finds it hard to watch cricket. Enjoys the game. Had always wanted to stay involved. After limping from the field in his last representative match he had continued playing for Victoria, then ACT for a couple of years, then Footscray, eventually captaining the 2nd X1 before finally throwing his boots away and concentrating on coaching and selection.

His appointment as a national selector had come as a surprise. Our mistake. Misread the bloke. Hughes was always more of a thinker than he pretended, and every bit as much a cricketer. He was not called to higher office on a whim or because he was a Victorian or a former Test player. He had studied selection. Same with coaching. A thinker dressed as a joker. Not that he has gone all po-faced.

Hughes says he started captaining his club 2nd X1 because of the selection responsibilities involved. Also he wanted a leadership role, wanted to teach the youngsters to play his way, hard on the field, fun off it. Needed to find a way back into the game. The media was not for him. Too many past players seemed unforgiving, and he had not captained his country so the television door was closed. He took charge of a young side, standing at slip and offering advice. Hadn't caught much. Hardly anything. Better luck with fish. Told the boys to regard a drop as three runs saved. Hadn't scored many runs either! Modesty? Looking back, ought to have been more involved in the action. Hughes has the ability to recognise his mistakes, and to learn from them.

Captaining had automatically made him a club selector. He wanted to understand the weighing of the pros and the cons. Next step was to serve as a Victorian Under 19 selector. Much harder task, 18 teams. Had to manage his time, trying to watch a bowler and batsman at different ovals on the same day. Also realised that the criteria had changed. Club selectors trying to choose winning sides. Youth selectors thinking about the future. Winning the title important but not everything. Needed to recognise the players capable of taking the next step. Besides choosing the Victorian Under 19 side, Hughes was also helping the State's bowlers. He wanted to widen his knowledge. One thing for a player to know his own game, another thing to know the game. Strong support from the VCA. Plenty of opportunities. Also he had been taking touring parties to watch overseas Test matches. Had been to four countries. An advantage. His commitment to the game was obvious. No ego involved.

Allan Border's withdrawal as a national selector had created an opening. Victoria put forward Ray Bright. Someone suggested he try his luck. Thought he might as well. Nothing ventured. Might learn something. Hadn't expected to advance. Rigorous process. Several interviews. Not expecting to progress, he spoke candidly. Started to realise that he might have something to offer.

Upon learning that he was the preferred candidate, Hughes said that his main concern lay with Board members who did not know him. He was worried they might dismiss him as a larrikin. He thought they might not understand that he was serious. Reputations die hard. Credibility was the issue. Twice the word appears in conversation. Credibility. Hughes knew he had it inside Victorian cricket but was not as confident about the opinions of outsiders. Still, Boonie was a selector. Hadn't he broken a record of some sort?

Much to his amazement, Hughes was given the gig. It was an excellent appointment. Forget about the moustache, the kissing, the belly and the rest of it. Hughes talks about the game with passion and intelligence. He understands that he represents not a mere State but an entire country. He is the product of a young, democratic nation and he will serve without fear or favour.