The Wellingtonian interview: Don Neely
Former Wellington cricket captain and New Zealand selector Don Neely talks about the attractions of the eastern suburbs, listening to Winston McCarthy and why we don't win at cricket more often.
Wellingtonian: What inspired your love of sport?
Neely: I was fortunate I grew up close to Crawford Green. That park was everything to us. As kids we'd converge on it and play games of whatever sport was in vogue. If there'd been a rugby league test, we'd rush out and play rugby league. Or it might have been soccer, or rugby, or softball. We used to call ourselves the Crawford Green Champs. It turned out to be a breeding ground for a lot of people who made a mark in Wellington sport.
Wellingtonian: So it wasn't organised sport?
Neely: No, they were scratch games. But we were lucky that two former Waterside soccer players, Sonny Ward and Foster Henderson, lived nearby. They were like big kids, in the nicest sense of the expression. They'd play with us and encourage us. Sometimes Mr McGregor, the groundsman, would chase us off, but we'd be back the next day.
Wellingtonian: Was cricket always your main sport?
Neely: Not at all. The big summer sport in the eastern suburbs was softball. At the Polo Grounds, we'd cheer for the Miramar Aces, the Broadway Demons and Jenkins Gym. The softballers were our heroes. Then my older brother decided he'd switch from cricket to softball. I wasn't going to do the same as him, so I took up cricket.
Wellingtonian: So Kilbirnie Park became your second home?
Neely: In a way. We'd do the scoreboard for the Kilbirnie senior team. If we did a good job, we'd be invited upstairs for a glass of orange. One attraction of cricket was the books about the game. With softball there was almost nothing, but I found at the Miramar Public Library that I could borrow cricket books. From there I graduated to listening to radio commentators like Jim Swanton, John Arlott and Alan McGilvray.
Wellingtonian: And the Basin Reserve?
Neely: That was the obvious next step. We were lucky having the Basin. I played soccer there for my school, a curtain-raiser to a big Chatham Cup game. How many youngsters in Wellington today will get to play at the Westpac Stadium? As kids, we'd hang around down the northern end of the Basin, outside the van Winston McCarthy broadcast from. That van got incredibly hot, and Winston would open the roof to let in air. Then we could hear his commentary and it didn't always tie in with what we were seeing. When we mentioned that, Winston would feed us lollies to shut us up!
Wellingtonian: I notice you went into teaching, but didn't remain in the profession long. Why was that?
Neely: In hindsight, what I enjoyed was having my own class. So I enjoyed teaching at Masterton Intermediate in 1960. But then I went into physical education, travelling around the schools, and didn't enjoy that as much.
Wellingtonian: You went into fashion, shoes and then Rembrandt Suits. Were you always fashion-conscious?
Neely: Caesar Cohen, a great identity around Wellington and a real cricket follower, introduced me to Rembrandt. I became their marketing manager. I suppose I'd always been aware of clothes and style and dress sense.
Wellingtonian: How did the job tie in with your position as a New Zealand cricket selector?
Neely: Surprisingly well, especially once CER was introduced. We went into Australia that very day. I viewed every account we won in Australia as another one we had over the Aussies! I did enjoy dealing with Aussies, though. And cricket was a point in common with them.
Wellingtonian: The scoreboard at the Basin Reserve is named after you. That was an honour.
Neely: I am proud of that. Ron Brierley suggested it. They were going to name it after him, and he suggested me. Bob Vance sought me out when I was in my mid-20s and got me involved with the Wellington Cricket Association. Through my playing days and then selecting Wellington and New Zealand teams, I've had a long association with the Basin.
Wellingtonian: Why isn't New Zealand better at cricket?
Neely: I was very lucky to be selecting through the 1980s. It was an exciting time, with the one-day game coming in, coloured clothing, big crowds. We had some really good players. But there are a lot of diversions in New Zealand. Young kids can do anything from skateboarding to underwater hockey. Cricket doesn't automatically get all the talented youngsters.
Wellingtonian: What would you do to improve the behaviour in cricket?
Neely: I'd pinpoint the captains. When players misbehave, or over-rates are too slow, send off the captain for a couple of hours. That would get the message through quickly, and you'd soon see an improvement. The trouble is that umpires haven't had the power or the backing to make those sorts of decisions.
Wellingtonian: What changes have you noticed in Wellington over the years?
Neely: When I was a youngster, I thought Wellington was a huge place. Now I like how compact it is, almost like a village. One big difference is how clean it is now. Decades ago, the buildings were filthy. If you leaned against one, your clothes would be black. It's become a very exciting city. Lots of events. There's always something happening in Wellington.