close-up: John Emburey; The undying Embers

The man who guided England A to success could be a worthy successor to Illingworth. Simon O'Hagan talked to him
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JOHN EMBUREY will be among old friends this week: Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting, Paul Downton and others, all of them members of an England over-35s team taking part in a tournament in Sharjah where they will come up against former stars of West Indies, India and Pakistan.

Any such gathering always sounds like an excuse for a good wallow, a chance to reminisce and put the cricketing world to rights while enjoying some gentle activity out in the middle. Not so, according to Emburey. "It's very competitive," he said last week. "We played in one in Bombay in March and that was very serious. The West Indies walked away with it, but with people like Richards, Garner, Greenidge, Dujon and so on they were quite a strong side."

And while Emburey is very much associated with the Ian Botham-led generation of English cricketers who came to prominence in the late Seventies and continued to hold sway until the start of the Nineties, he is perhaps surprisingly committed to the cause of young players.

It was partly this that made him natural material to be manager of the England A team that returned from a successful tour of Pakistan nine days ago and marked the start of a new phase in Emburey's career. Having left Middlesex after 25 years' service, the 43-year-old off-spinner, capped 64 times by England between 1978 and 1995, becomes Director of Cricket at Northamptonshire in the New Year, and already he looks well placed to take up an influential role with the full England team.

"I've always tended to get on with younger players," Emburey said. "I used to talk to them a lot at Middlesex and found they would talk to me. I want them to do well, to develop into potential England players, especially given the way the Test team has performed over the last 10 to 15 years."

Emburey is at home in north-west London, his eyes narrowing against the winter sun that streams through the dining-room window. There is just enough time for him to enjoy Christmas between returning from Pakistan and leaving for Sharjah. He is a family man whose wife Susie and daughters Clare, 12, and Chloe, 10, are used to his long absences, and the imminent end to his playing days may not do much to alter that.

"It's difficult for someone like me to embark on a new career at this stage," Emburey said. "I haven't had much experience outside cricket, so if I was going to stay involved it was always going to have to be on the coaching or managing side. When the Test and County Cricket Board asked me to take on the England A job I jumped at the chance."

Since the first England A team toured in 1989-90 they have generally done well, and Emburey's charges knew too much for their less experienced opponents, losing only one match - an international one-dayer - and winning the three-Test series 1-0. But Emburey's management style was distinctive. A disciple of Mike Brearley, the Middlesex captain when Emburey was a young player there, he is a noted talker about the game and placed a lot of emphasis on team meetings, encouraging contributions from the floor.

"If you want to be a successful side you need to be talking to each other all the time. That's an important part of Warwickshire's approach, and they are really the yardstick by which other teams should judge themselves. I had to prod the players in Pakistan, but as the tour went on you had more people with opinions. Having said that, players still need to be told what's expected of them. Towards the end of the tour we did let things slip a bit in that respect. I blame myself for that."

Nasser Hussain, the England A captain, found Emburey more than willing to let him get on with it, but in the post-Illingworth debate over where ultimate power should reside, Emburey believes strongly in the authority of the manager.

"I think Illy's got it just about right, even some of the things he's said in the press for which he's had a lot of criticism," he said. "Although we haven't been winning series we've been winning individual Tests. And all this stuff about Illingworth and Atherton not getting on, I think that's a load of rubbish. But it's got to be the manager who pulls the strings."

Illingworth has combined being chairman of selectors with the job of team manager, but he has indicated that managing England on tour is something he would like to give up. That could create an opening for Emburey. He is certainly keen to do it. So what would Emburey bring to the England set-up?

"Hopefully success. And, I'd like to think, continuity. I'd try and have a bit more patience with younger players. People shouldn't be dropped after one game, and I'd be very reluctant to drop someone after two. I'd want to instil in players the feeling that if they're in the team they're going to stay in it."

Emburey believes just such an attitude should be adopted towards Mark Ramprakash, a former team-mate of his at Middlesex and a player who has not so far translated prodigious county form into Test success. "He's someone we've got to make into an England cricketer, even if it means giving him a run against weaker opposition. He's never been able to hold down a regular place, but a lot of that is people not having confidence in him. That's not a criticism of the present management because obviously they've got a Test series they want to win, but if we've got players we think have Test potential we've got to persevere with them."

What about Emburey and Atherton? How would they get on? "Fine. Though I don't know him that well. I've only played under him a couple of times. But I think he's a good bloke. I've got a lot of time for him. He's very fair, he communicates well. He's doing bloody well, and it's got to be one of the hardest jobs in English sport."

Before an Emburey-managed England becomes a reality, he must meet the challenge presented by his new job at Northamptonshire. The transition has not been as smooth as he would have liked because Middlesex, who hold his registration as a player, are objecting to the prospect of his playing for Northants, and now Emburey is trying to get the matter resolved through the Cricketers' Association. "It's disappointing," he said. "I do think they're being restrictive."

It is not the first time Emburey has felt let down by Middlesex. He says it still rankles with him that after he went on the rebel England tour of South Africa in 1982 he returned to discover that as well as the three- year ban he received from the TCCB, his county were going to strip him of the vice-captaincy. "I was the only player who was punished by his county on top of the ban." That let in Gatting, who subsequently succeeded Brearley. "That may have cost me the chance of becoming England captain," Emburey said.

England manager would be some compensation.

At the forefront in Pakistan

Jason Gallian (Lancashire, right-hand bat). Age: 24. Leading run- scorer (376 in seven innings at 53.71, including 153 in Second Test). Emburey's verdict: Consistent all the way through. An opener, but the full England team called him up as a No 3 because he's very solid.

Nasser Hussain (Essex, right-hand bat). Age: 27. Captain, and only other batsman to average over 50. Emburey's verdict: We worked well together. Led the team brilliantly. Earned their respect. Didn't say much but what he did say was good.

Dean Headley (Kent, right-arm fast bowler). Age: 25. Leading wicket- taker (25 at 15.36), including 17 in the three Tests. Emburey's verdict: Didn't know what to expect of him, but he really came on. We used him a lot because he had pace and bowled a perfect line and length.

Ian Salisbury (Sussex, leg-break bowler). Age: 25. Second to Headley in overs bowled and wickets taken (20 at 20.65). Emburey's verdict: Found bounce and rhythm. Definitely on the road to forcing his way back into the full England team.