Cricket: As well as Lloyd has started it will be disappointing if Woolmer never gets the chance to coach England

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The 1996 County Championship is turning out like the men's singles at Wimbledon, dominated by the smaller names. Warwickshire's spell is broken and Leicestershire, Yorkshire, Surrey, Kent and Derbyshire are all taking advantage.

The last three of these clubs have something significant in common: an Australian coach. At Surrey and Derbyshire, Dave Gilbert and the Les Stillman/Dean Jones combination, respectively, have brought an Aussie edge to teams that had plenty of talent but lacked the killer instinct.

The result is a stronger championship and thank goodness for that. In cricket as in football, a foreign influx brings fresh ideas, which bring higher standards. And it's not just happening at county level. Tucked away in the sport-in-short columns the other day was the news that Steve Rixon is to take over as coach of New Zealand.

Steve Who? You may be thinking. (Or, indeed, New Who?) Rixon kept wicket a few times for Australia in the Seventies and Eighties. He was the noisy one with the moustache who wasn't Rod Marsh. His bigger claim to fame is that he was coach of New South Wales in the years when they practically owned the Sheffield Shield, and supplied, as they still do, most of the formidable Australian batting order - Taylor, Slater, the Waughs, and Bevan.

It looks like a very good appointment. (Especially considering what the New Zealand Board might have done: they advertised the job over here, of all places.) Rixon has just been narrowly pipped by Geoff Marsh to become Australian coach in succession to Bob Simpson. New Zealand's problem is that the national team tends to be like the pitches - soft and dull.

No team coached by an Aussie is going to struggle to impose itself. And Rixon's philosophy at NSW was let's get 300 in the day, never mind about the wickets. The three-Test series against England will be a better one for his presence. It may even be a decent warm-up for the Ashes next summer.

Foreign coaches are the way things are going. Sri Lanka might never have won the World Cup without the assistance of Dav Whatmore, another obscure Australian of the Seventies who has resurfaced as a respected man-manager. Zimbabwe would not be where they are today without the tactical acumen of John Hampshire, the English umpire, and Don Topley, the former Essex seamer. And the pre-eminent example is, ironically, another Englishman - Bob Woolmer, whose laptop, camcorder, lateral thoughts and interest in nutrition all combined to lead South Africa to victory over England last winter. If there was a title for coach of the year, Woolmer would win it. As well as David Lloyd has started, it will be disappointing if Woolmer never gets the chance to coach England.

But there's something about this foreign-coach business that doesn't seem right. All right, it's common in football, and Glenn Hoddle, who can do little wrong in my book, has already appointed a Scot to his staff, and is said to be lobbying for a Frenchman, Arsene Wenger, as the FA's new technical director. And it's clearly vitally important for the newer counties, helping put them on the map, accelerating their development.

But still: it doesn't seem right. The essence of a national team is that it is national. When there are controls on the players, seven-year qualification periods and so forth, why is there none for the coaches, who are probably more influential?

It's not hard to find a historical answer to that. Either it didn't occur to the game's legislators that anyone might want to hire Johnny Foreigner as a coach, or it didn't occur to them that a coach was anything other than a means of transport for touring teams. But that was then, and this is now. Steve Rixon is not even going to move his family to New Zealand, they're staying in Sydney. He will be the cricket world's first international commuter coach, sponsored, no doubt, by Air New Zealand. It has something to do with pride. Australia wouldn't dream of employing a foreign coach. Nor would West Indies, who have just appointed Malcolm Marshall as their first year-round coach. Nor would England, however bad their results. India and Pakistan never have done, as far as I know, although Dennis Lillee runs a fast-bowling school in Madras and Pakistan recently persuaded Ian Chappell (who doesn't believe in coaches of any nationality) to give their squad a week-long pep talk, in the hope of translating their mercurial gifts into better results.

The invitation was abruptly withdrawn when Majid Khan took over as chairman of the Pakistan Board. If it had not been for Majid's intervention, England might have lost seven wickets for a lot fewer than 18 at Lord's last week.

What we are moving towards is a two-tier system, in which the struggling countries (except England) employ coaches from the more successful ones. And standards will rise; and something will be lost.

Tim de Lisle is editor of 'Wisden Cricket Monthly'

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