Australian cricket has lost one of its most pioneering, effective and graceful decision-makers, after the death of Laurie Sawle, aged 96, in Perth on Tuesday.
As chair of the Australian men’s selection panel between 1984 and 1995, he oversaw the years between the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh and the rise of the teams led by Allan Border and Mark Taylor to world dominance.
In parallel, Sawle was one of the most respected directors on the Australian Cricket Board, recognising the need to work in the national interest at a time when the boardroom was still populated by 14 state-appointed delegates.
Laurie Sawle with the victorious Australian Ashes touring team of 1989 during a ticker-tape parade in Sydney.Credit:Craig Golding
So highly did Sawle’s directors regard him, he was nominated in 1989 to become the first ACB chair not to come from the foundation states of New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia. Realising, however, that he did not have unanimous support, Sawle chose modestly to step aside and let the SACA, in the personage of Colin Egar, have their turn.
Chappell, who worked with Sawle on the selection panel between 1984 and 1988, described him as “the best” selection chair in Australian cricket history, and “one of the good men”. Last year in his book, Not Out, Chappell captured the combination of skills and insights Sawle brought to the panel.
“A wonderfully shrewd and thoughtful man who brought very relevant real-world experience to the job from his career as an educator,” Chappell wrote. “Those insights as to the character and learning ability of young men were as valuable to us as his years in boardrooms, knowing how to reach consensus decisions where all members of the panel felt their views had been given a good airing.
“He had also realised a long time before most that it was critical to start tracking our best cricketing talents from younger ages.“
During the turbulent period of the 1980s, when Australian cricket was torn between the commercial demands of Kerry Packer’s PBL Marketing, the spectre of South African rebel tours and the loss of the aforementioned greats, Sawle charted a calm path through rough seas.
He was instrumental in the identification of a core group of players around Border, who were persevered with despite early inconsistency. Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Steve Waugh, Dean Jones, Merv Hughes and Ian Healy were among this group, claiming the World Cup in 1987, regaining the Ashes in 1989 (a tour Sawle managed) and going on to the top of the world.
At the same time, Sawle showed enormous patience in dealing with Border, who struggled with the burden of captaincy after the resignation of Kim Hughes. The addition of Bob Simpson to the team as coach, a move supported by Sawle, helped also.
Sawle’s panel, which at the time featured the former Test leg spinner Jim Higgs, picked and persisted with a young Shane Warne, granting him time to grow that other subsequent spin bowlers would dearly have wished for.
Trevor Hohns, who succeeded Sawle as selection chair ahead of the 1995-96 season and oversaw the continuation of Australian success for many years afterwards, said the kind, considerate manner in which Sawle operated had left a lasting mark.
“A lovely man and I just loved the way he handled things,” Hohns told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald last year. “When I got onto the panel and then finished up taking over from him, I thought ‘I want to be like that bloke’ and handle things the way he did.
“The way Laurie handled the end of Allan Border’s career was outstanding, in such a nice way and a nice manner, very patient. I remember that quite clearly. There were several calls [with Border] and Laurie was a very patient man. Any time that I had to do that throughout my career, I always thought about how he handled it.”
Born in East Femantle in 1925, Sawle enlisted in the Australian Army and fought in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for his services to cricket administration, and the ICC Volunteer Recognition medal in 2009.
“Laurie Sawle was enormous to the fabric of cricket in Western Australia for decades,” WA Cricket’s chief executive Christina Matthews said. “He was an incredibly talented and devoted administrator who was prepared to back himself and others in, and his passion for cricket never waned. Even years after his retirement, we’d regularly see him at the WACA Ground cheering WA on.
“The fact our highest individual men’s award is named after him speaks volumes about the type of character he was, and the legacy he left. The WA Cricket community sends its thoughts to his three children Maryanne, Carmel and Mark and close friends in this difficult time.”
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