Botham or Bolus? A poll that does not matter

CRICKET'S SELECTION ELECTION: By throwing headline-making names into the field, the counties have drawn the spotlight away from their own responsibilities in developing players, argues Graeme Wright
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When it comes to elections, you have to hand it to the Americans: they make a show of it. Bands, badges and bandwagons, and that's only the Primaries. The Test and County Cricket Board goes about its elections in a much more English way - too much secrecy and too many leaks. When Ray Illingworth defeated M J K Smith in a postal ballot in March 1994, for example, no voting figures were given. Indeed, it would have come as no surprise had waiting journalists been kept outside the Grace Gate until a Vatican-style puff of smoke emerged from the cathedral of cricket.

With the forthcoming election of selectors, of course, we've already had the smoke by way of a smokescreen: a bonfire of vanities, so to speak. By putting up an unprecedented number of candidates, the counties have effectively - intentionally or unintentionally - clouded the most important issue. This is that England's cricketers have been poorly equipped (with the exception of sponsors' dogtags) to complete in international cricket. And Illingworth, the man who has understood this all along, is the man under attack by some of the counties.

"The players work hard enough running round the ground," he said when he was appointed chairman, "but not hard enough at the basics of cricket." Perhaps the chairman has been getting too close to home truths for the liking of some counties.

The time for getting back to basics is not a few days before a Test match, as Illingworth should have been wise enough to know with regard to Devon Malcolm in South Africa. The right time is when the players are with their counties. Indeed, getting the basics right is the counties' responsibility, and that means employing first-class coaches who understand the mental and technical demands of the modern game. The modern international game, that is: not the modern county game.

Unfortunately, when you utter words like technical and technique, people go rather glassy. On a sports programme recently, the panel was advised not to get too technical lest the listeners wouldn't understand - in which case they'd do a double turn-off. Yet technique is an important part of most sports and essential in cricket.

Last may, for example, covering a Surrey match for our Sunday paper, I remarked on Alec Stewart's uncertainty when playing on the front foot. Having had consecutive winters in the West Indies and Australia, he looked every inch a Test cricketer on the back foot, but worryingly vulnerable when bowlers drew him forward.

That weakness was still obvious during the winter in South Africa, where accurate, intelligent seam bowling always sought to exploit it. This was something his Surrey employers should have sorted out, but the county appeared more occupied with business off the field than on it.

In today's world, however, it is personalities and "issues" that sell sports and newspapers. By throwing such headline-making names as Ian Botham and Graham Gooch into the field for what is, in effect, a pretty irrelevant contest, the counties have cleverly drawn the spotlight away from their own shortcomings as the providers of England's Test cricketers. Immediately, the most important issue in the media became not England's poor showing in South Africa and in the World Cup, but whether "Illy" can live with "Beefy".

The Tories should be pounding a path to the county grounds for lessons in spin-doctoring - not that spin is on the county agenda all that often.

When Illingworth was appointed the chairman of selectors two years ago, high on his agenda was winning back the Ashes, something he achieved as England's captain in Australia in 1970-71. He didn't do it attractively, but he did it effectively, and no one worried whether he smiled or not. Yet if the counties have their way, England could go into next year's Ashes series in complete disarray, with Illingworth concentrating more on his own back than, say, Stewart's front foot.

All the kerfuffle over Illingworth's countenance - likewise Mike Atherton's - is also a red herring. There's something, inherently Protestant in the seemingly dour way they reduce the game to their own level, instead of raising their sights to the level of the spirit of cricket exemplified by Sri Lanka in the World Cup. It's a national characteristic.

So what about this eight-man exercise in democracy that comes to a head this week? Does it matter which two get the votes of the counties and MCC to join Illingworth, David Lloyd, the new coach, and Atherton, assuming he is captain, on the selection committee. No, not in the short term. It's not as if the selectors are spoilt for choice when picking the England team, even if they do manage the occasional baffling selection. What it might indicate, however, is how the counties view the long-term ambitions of men like Botham, Gooch and David Graveney - should we be told how the voting went.

What it might also show is just how much, or how little, the county managements know about the game, as opposed to the business, of cricket. They offered some evidence of this in 1993 when, after only one season, they abandoned the 50-over format in the Sunday League. True, it was initially foolish to choose the one competition that has the full fury of a County Championship match raging either side of it. But if the counties were serious about England's prospects in the World Cup, surely one of the three limited-overs competitions could have been played under World Cup rules?

This season the Benson and Hedges Cup will be played over 50 overs. But it's a little late. The horses have long bolted and you can't see them for the smokescreen.

Graeme Wright is a former

editor of Wisden

EIGHTSOME REEL: CONTENDERS AND PRETENDERS FOR A THANKLESS TASK

Candidate: Kim Barnett

Age: 35 County: Derbyshire

Speciality: Opening batsman, leg-spin bowler

Nominated by: Derbyshire

International experience: 4 Tests

Profession: Cricketer

Commitments: Full-time player

Notes: Banned from Test cricket after rebel South Africa tour. Nicknames: Skippo, Barn

In His Own Words:

'Forget all the trivia about pitches, how the game should be in length of time, covering etc. Let's get on with playing attractive, entertaining cricket'

The Illy Factor:

Considerable potential for conflict

Illingworth has made it clear that he thinks full-time playing is probably incompatible with the job of a selector. At 35, Barnett is also the youngest candidate, an attribute Illy may regard as provocative

Candidate: Brian Bolus

Age: 62 Counties: Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire

Speciality: Opening bat, former selector

Nominated by: Nottinghamshire

International Experience: 7 Tests

Profession: Retired civil servant

Commitments: Some after-dinner speaking

Notes: Believed to be one of two favoured by Ray Illingworth.

Nickname: TSB Bolus (the man who likes to say 'yes')

In His Own Words:

Unavailable for comment

The Illy Factor:

Significant pluses and minuses

There are only a couple of candidates Illy really wants, and Bolus, former selector, non boat-rocker, is one of them. However, being a favoured candidate may actually lessen his appeal with counties already unhappy with Illingworth's efforts

Candidate: Ian Botham

Age: 40 Counties: Somerset, Worcestershire, Durham

Speciality: All-rounder

Nominated by: Derbyshire, Northamptonshire

International experience: 102 Tests (former England captain)

Profession: TV personality

Commitments: Sky TV commentator, A Question of Sport, Daily Mirror columnist, charity work

Nickname: Beefy

In His Own Words:

'I would love to serve on the selection panel because the big challenge now is to find a team and to make it turn England into a world power again. I would have no problem working with Illy. Basically we stand for the same thing'

The Illy Factor:

Limitless potential for strife...or perhaps success

In 1995 Botham described 'Raymond "Pontius Pilate" Illingworth' as 'a whinger not a motivator'. Illy who regards outspokenness as his prerogative, is unlikely to welcome another free-speaker to the team. Botham says he thinks the two can work together. He would

Candidate: Chris Cowdrey

Age: 36 Counties: Kent, Glamorgan

Speciality: All-rounder

Nominated by: Kent

International experience: 6 Tests (former England captain)

Profession: Owns a public speaking business called 'The Great Delivery Company'; does PR work for Ladbrokes

Commitments: Depends on how willing and able he is to give up other roles. Likely to be able devote a lot of time.

In His Own Words:

'I'm honoured Kent should want to nominate me. I hadn't thought of standing, but I'm excited at the prospect. The thing I suppose I've got in my favour is age and time availability'

The Illy Factor:

Unlikely to be a factor

Cowdrey has gone out of his way to emphasise the spare time he has to watch a lot of cricket, which would suit Illingworth; a relatively non- controversial figure which would suit him more. His 'southernness' and age may count against him

Candidate: John Edrich

Age: 58 County: Surrey

Speciality: Opening bat

Nominated by: Surrey

International experience: 77 Tests

Profession: Corporate entertaining

Commitments: Entertaining corporately

Notes: Believed to be one of two

favoured by Ray Illingworth.

In His Own Words:

Unavailable for comment

The Illy Factor:

Like Bolus, could work both ways

Believed to be Illingworth's other choice, which may count against him with some counties. On the other hand Edrich's previous experience as a selector may give him delusions of knowledge which may rankle with the chairman of selectors

Candidate: Graham Gooch

Age: 42 County: Essex

Speciality: Opening bat, medium-paced bowler

Nominated by: Essex

International experience: 113 Tests (former England captin)

Profession: Cricketer

Commitments: Full-time player

Notes: Captain of rebel tour to South Africa 1982, banned from Test cricket for three years. Nicknames: Zap, Goochie

In His Own Words:

'My heart and soul was with England when I played and was captain. Selection should represent a cross section of people in the game'

The Illy Factor:

Potential for conflict

Like Barnett, Gooch's playing commitments are unlikely to endear him to Illingworth. Nor will his friendship with Ian Botham. Then again, Gooch's reputation as a miserable man from Essex might just appeal to a miserable Yorkshireman

Candidate: David Graveney

Age: 43 Counties: Gloucestershire, Somerset, Durham

Speciality: Left-arm spinner

Nominated by: Gloucestershire

International experience: None

Profession: Secretary of the Professional Players Union. Current England selector.

Commitments: Already does the job.

Nicknames: Gravity, Grav

In His Own Words:

'I apologise for any distress this decision may have caused. It has always been my wish to serve the game to the best of my ability and I shall continue to do this in the future' - after he was told to pull out of the running for the chairman of selectors job by the Professional Cricketers'Association, who he works for as Secretary

The Illy Factor:

Virtually guaranteed to be explosive

Graveney's abortive challenge for Illy's job as chairman of selectors brought a typically barbed response from the incumbent. Despite his current status as a selector the relationship is bound to be caustic if renewed by the counties

Candidate: Geoff Miller

Age: 43 Counties: Derbyshire, Essex

Speciality: All-rounder

Nominated by: Hampshire

International experience: 34 Tests

Profession: After-dinner speaker, part-time cricket coach at Trent College

Commitments: Not too heavy.

In His Own Words:

'I feel we need to be positive about things. You can't sit by and see the English game falling down'

The Illy Factor:

Difficult to predict

Miller has no history of contentious behaviour, but Illy may feel that he's better off with older, established veterans around him

Compiled by Nick Harris

There are five spaces on the panel who select the England team. The chairman (Ray Illingworth), the team captain (almost certainly Mike Atherton) and the team coach (David Lloyd) automatically qualify.

The other two positions on the panel are voted for annually. The 18 first- class counties have two votes each, as do MCC and the Minor Counties, making a total of 40 votes.

When the TCCB were asked for a job description, a spokesman said: "There isn't a job description. It's not a job as such." The position is unpaid.

There is no written list of official duties, but Ray Illingworth has recommended the following:

Selectors must watch 90 days of cricket a year. Selectors must be able to attend 10-plus necessary meetings. Selectors must not have any media work, which would clash with impartial duties of a selector.

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