Cricket: All change or no change?

Key week begs the question of how serious England are about a new era : Stephen Brenkley suggests a drastic situation needs a radical response
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The Independent Online
AS THE carnival of cricket reaches its giddiest heights England are laying their latest plans to ensure their presence at the next party lasts beyond showing up, sniffing the barmaid's apron and staggering home. By the end of this week, before the present banquet of batting, bazaar of bowling and fiesta of fielding is done, they are likely to have a new coach who may be working with a new captain.

It would be a dramatic overhaul even by England's standards and, while the replacement of David Lloyd as coach is necessary after his departure by mutual agreement for the television commentary box, the removal of Alec Stewart as captain would indicate how seriously the early elimination from the seventh World Cup is being considered.

Four men will be interviewed for Lloyd's old job on Tuesday. They are: Duncan Fletcher, the Zimbabwean who is now favourite; Jack Birkenshaw, the veteran Leicestershire manager who has helped the county to win two Championships; Bob Woolmer, the Englishman who is currently coaching South Africa and began as the likeliest candidate; and Dav Whatmore, the former coach of Sri Lanka who is now with Lancashire.

All will appear before a five-man sub-committee of the England Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), though South Africa's participation in the World Cup semi-finals may require some amendment to the arrangements. It is hoped that the name of the successful applicant, who will take up his duties for the winter tour in October, will be announced on Friday.

Meanwhile, as the sages of EMAC are scratching their heads and trying to work out whether it is within anybody's capacity to convert England into a hungry, consistent, winning side, Stewart will discuss his future prospects with David Graveney. He too will probably know his fate before the carnival is over.

None of this would be happening if England had been winning matches regularly and had they claimed back the Ashes in Australia last winter (oh, wondrous thought) they would probably have gained the aplomb to progress beyond the preliminary stage of the World Cup. The only meetings taking place would be about contract extensions.

Since the elimination a fortnight ago there has been a determination to look forward, partly because looking back to see the critical damage caused to the game would be heartbreaking, and partly because it is the only way rebuilding can occur. The reflection has been based solely on the need to learn from mistakes, but that has been said so often before that it is meaningless for the moment.

But the onus on EMAC, and on Graveney and his fellow selectors, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch, is huge. Get it right and England's discernible but insufficient advance, at least in Test matches, will burgeon. Get it wrong and the great game will slip further from the public consciousness: there are signs that they truly are tired at long last of watching the team lose so badly.

The influence of the coach is still debatable in international cricket but it has undoubtedly grown in the past 10 years. The essence of his role lies in the preparation, of recognising what the problems in a game are likely to be and suggesting to individuals how they may cope with them.

Fletcher, 50, is alone among the interviewees in not having played Test cricket (though he was captain of Zimbabwe in their historic World Cup victory over Australia in 1983) but nobody among England's players would be foolish enough to indulge in a game of Show Us Your Caps, Boss.

He has, it is said, not least by those he has managed, excellent man- management skills. He has been successful with Western Province and coached Glamorgan to the County Championship pennant in 1997. "We had heard about him of course and knew his skills but what really confirmed them was when he brought South Africa A to Cardiff in 1996," said Glamorgan secretary Mike Fatkin. "Everything he did with his players was extremely impressive and they hammered us."

Fletcher has probably moved ahead of the underrated but vastly knowledgeable Birken-shaw if only because he is eight years younger and it is an ageist world. But all four candidates will start on equal terms on Tuesday, past records notwithstanding. Woolmer will have to convince them that he genuinely craves the post after all, Whatmore may have to overcome the apparent surprise at Lancashire that he was being sought after.

Stewart's meeting with Graveney may well revolve more around the need for him to give up the job of wicketkeeping (and possibly that of opening the batting) rather than the captaincy. "I wanted to put some distance between our elimination and our chat," said Graveney. "But I would expect to know what is happening by the weekend."

Some of the reasons for keeping Stewart in situ are negative - the lack of suitable replacements, the need to smooth the way for a new coach. Others are positive: he did lead England to that series win against South Africa last summer, he looked a tad more imaginative in the World Cup.

But this is probably the right time for him to return to the ranks. If only it was possible to interview foreigners for the captain's job.