A beef with the hierarchy

Simon O'Hagan gauges opinion on the merits of the man seeking to cross the divide from outspoken legend to selector; close-up; Ian Botham
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THERE was a time when nobody connected with cricket cared greatly who the Test selectors were. But after the events of last week, all that has changed, and it is hard to separate the storm that has blown up over the contest to decide who will join this year's panel from the candidacy of the man who carries a large and emotive chunk of English cricket history around on his broad shoulders: Ian Botham.

With yesterday's withdrawal of a dismayed Fred Titmus from the original list of proposed cricketers past and present, eight men are left of whom two must be chosen to sit alongside the chairman of selectors Ray Illingworth, the England coach, David Lloyd, and the captain, at present Mike Atherton. But it is Botham's presence that has given the election its edge.

A smouldering presence on the fringes of the game since he retired as a player in 1993, Botham is now threatening to erupt within the heart of the cricket establishment that he has set his face against for so long. Always a man of destiny, his time, he feels, has come.

The England team's stock has rarely been lower. The arguments over what has gone wrong have never been more intense. If a state of ignominy has not quite yet been reached, the slide towards it looks inexorable. These are circumstances made for Botham, the defining moment of whose career - at Headingley in 1981 - merely took to extremes his penchant for producing his best when the odds were most heavily stacked against him.

Rescuing England with the innings against Australia that has been called the greatest of all time was one thing. Whether, minus bat and ball, he can do the same for his country today is quite another. Is Botham really selector material? Would he be prepared to slog round the boundary watching county cricket all week? How would he get along with Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors of whom he has been so critical? Isn't there a more suitable role for Botham as a cheerleader? And even if he were to succeed in getting the job description changed so that he could bring to bear on players his famed powers of inspiration, how much effect would he have?

The problem for Botham is that just as he created for himself as a player a position no Englishman had occupied since WG Grace, so he seems bigger than almost any cricket job that might come his way in retirement. That of course is not to say he would automatically be good at anything cricket- related that he was offered. But as his best-selling autobiography proves, Botham still has an adoring public, who see in him a golden-age hero whose elevation to supremo of the English game is already long overdue. In some people's view, that is how Botham sees himself. Selector is just the first step towards it.

In a week in which plenty of trumpets have sounded in Botham's favour - Bob Willis's was among the loudest - John Emburey strikes a less excitable note. The former Middlesex and England spin bowler, now the coach of Northamptonshire, counts himself a friend of Botham's, but thinks there is a limit to what anyone can achieve given the paucity of the material selectors have to work with.

"It's all very well saying we'll have this or that person choosing the team," Emburey said. "But at the end of the day what's important is that clubs get the right coaching to produce good players in the first place. If Ian thinks he can do it, fair enough. But I'd be very surprised. I just think the problem goes a lot deeper than that.

"There are pros and cons with having Ian. On the plus side is his enthusiasm and his will to win. He'd make the players more relaxed. They would certainly enjoy their cricket more with Ian around. But on the minus side he never watched that much cricket even when he was a player, and now he'd be asked to watch it day in and day out. And the person who'll be asking him is Illy. I can't see that going down."

One of Botham's rivals for the post of selector is Geoff Miller, the former Derbyshire, Essex and England spinner and another who has been close to him to since they roomed together when on Test duty in the early 1980s. Stressing that he is not fighting against anyone else - "I'm sure the two people they choose will be quite capable of doing the job" - Miller sees more relevance in Botham's qualities.

"I'm sure Ian's got a lot to offer," he said. "I tend to feel we have the ability, but it's the state of mind that's the problem once you're in a losing pattern. You need optimism and aggression, and Ian can be a part of that. So long as he's prepared to listen and work in a team, which he always was as a player, I can't see any problem." And how conscientious would Botham be? "If he accepts the post, he will have to have said that he's prepared to watch a lot of county cricket," Miller said. "If Ian says he'll do something, he will. He'll do the job properly."

Geoff Cook, the Durham coach and a team-mate of Botham's during the last two years of his career, can see an alternative route opening up for him if the Test and County Cricket Board decides that things have reached such a pass that it is worth a gamble on the man who has regularly pilloried the "stuffed shirts" who run the game. "As we look at the entire system, so the selector's role may come up for consideration," he said. "Recently, it's been a fairly passive one. You toured the country, exchanged ideas and then took a back seat. Ian would not settle for that. He's very much an up-front man and would want to contribute more. I'm sure David Lloyd has ideas about who might be in his support team, and maybe Ian could figure in that."

Dominic Cork, the England fast bowler, spoke last week of the positive effect he thought Botham's presence around the team could have. And as someone who plays as instinctively as Botham ever did, Cork would doubtless respond to the sort of appeals to the heart that are his idol's speciality.

But gut reactions and rational judgements can conflict, which is why Botham is not everyone's idea of a leader. "His deeds might have inspired me, but not his words," says one former team-mate. His captaincy of England, from 1980 to 1981, was not as disastrous as it is often portrayed, but while he is acknowledged as warm and loyal to those he likes, it is said he can be less than forgiving of people he takes against.

Botham turned 40 last November. He fishes and plays golf. He does his charity work and his pantomime. He writes in the Daily Mirror and broadcasts for Sky TV (work he would have to give up if he were to be a selector). And he has A Question of Sport, on which he endears himself to millions and displays a revealing reluctance to answer cricket questions.

None of this would seem to compare with what he experienced as a player, but, according to John Emburey, it would be wrong to see Botham as a legend in search of a role in life. "He's enjoying himself more than ever," he said. "I've never seen him so relaxed." But give Botham a challenge and there can be only one response.

Others in the frame for Test selector

Kim Barnett. Age 35. Derbyshire captain and middle-order batsman. Four Test caps. Youngest candidate; knows scene well but as a still active player may lack time to do the job properly.

Brian Bolus. Age 62. Former opening batsman for Yorkshire, Notts and Derbyshire who is seeking re-election to post he held in 1994 but lost last year.

Chris Cowdrey. Age 38. Formerly of Kent and Glamorgan, briefly England captain in 1989. Six Tests altogether.

John Edrich. Age 58. Former Surrey and England opener. Very much in touch with England set-up, in which he has a specialist coaching role.

Graham Gooch. Age 42. The former England captain, a giant of the Test scene, is standing for the first time. Still active for Essex.

David Graveney. Age 43. Former slow left-armer for Gloucestershire, Somerset and Durham who made abortive challenge to Ray Illingworth's chairmanship now seeking re-election after joining panel last year. General secretary of the Cricketers' Association.

Geoff Miller. Age 43. Former Derbyshire, Essex and England spin bowler. Standing for first time. Like David Lloyd, the new England coach, a renowned after-dinner speaker.