Cricket: Busy Illy keeps watching brief: Simon O'Hagan looks for clues as he follows the trail of Dexter's successor

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The Independent Online
IN HIS navy blue blazer and dark glasses, the heavily built figure watching proceedings from behind a tree could have passed for a secret service agent. And in a way that's what Ray Illingworth is: part spy, part hit-man, on a mission of national emergency.

The setting, though, could hardly have been less sinister. Indeed, the Queen's Park ground at Chesterfield on a sunny spring morning is one of cricket's idylls. Trees coming into leaf; a marquee; a crowd of a few dozen with their garden chairs and flasks of coffee and as yet unworn copies of Wisden. What the English game does best, you might say.

Illingworth was there on Thursday, the first day of the 1994 first-class season, to try to ensure another, rather different kind of success: that of the England team. The last two Tests in the West Indies may have provided grounds for optimism, but Illingworth's task remains a huge one - to create an England team to do what none has done since he was in his pomp as captain nearly a quarter of a century ago: compete with, and beat, the very best.

Six weeks after being appointed as Ted Dexter's successor as chairman of selectors, Illingworth was last week able to get down to the nitty-gritty he so enjoys: being out there, among cricket people, talking cricket, watching cricket - his very desire to immerse himself in the game distinguishing him straight away from his predecessor. 'I'm a good watcher. I always was when I played. I used to watch every ball bowled, just about. A lot of cricketers don't'

Not that Illingworth lives cricket to the exclusion of all else. When the week began on Monday he was engaged on his other summer pursuit, gardening at home in Pudsey, Yorkshire, famous also for being the home town of Len Hutton, a hero of Illingworth's. 'I thought I'd better get it done,' Illingworth said. 'I might not get another chance 'til September.'

Indeed not. The travelling involved in Illingworth's job is formidable, even though, to begin with, he has divided up duties with his fellow selectors - Brian Bolus and Fred Titmus - geographically. Illingworth in the north, Bolus in the Midlands and Titmus in the South. Keith Fletcher, a selector in his role as England team manager, has a licence to go anywhere.

In spite of that, there was still a 250-mile round trip on day one on Tuesday: to Leicestershire, Illingworth's former county, for a B & H game. There he saw a team which, if it had been Dexter in the pavilion, would have surely rebounded on him - Ireland. But it was Leicestershire's bowlers who were the focus of Illingworth's attention, in particular two fast men, David Milns, an England A player, and Alan Mullally, born in England but brought up in Australia.

The evidence was promising but not conclusive - Milns two for 32 off 10, Mullally two for 30 off 11. 'They bowled pretty well,' Illingworth said. 'Well worth another look.' But Illingworth also knows the draw-backs to watching cricket the way he does, parachuting in and out of grounds. 'It's not like football. You can watch a football match for 90 minutes and see everything you want to. Here you can wait two days and somebody gets a nought and you've wasted all that time.'

On Wednesday, there was no cricket to watch, but Illingworth was at Lord's to discuss 'personal stuff' with the TCCB, and in the evening to attend MCC's dinner for the New Zealanders - an annual occasion for whichever team is touring. Illingworth sat at the table of the MCC president, Dennis Silk, ate sirloin of beef, and heard speeches by Silk, Michael Sandlant, the New Zealand tour manager, and Alastair Goodlad MP. Then across the road to spend the night at the Regent's Park Hilton, and first thing Thursday morning back into the Mitsubishi for the drive to Chesterfield, and Derbyshire v Durham.

Illingworth and Titmus are tending to concentrate on watching bowlers, Bolus on batsmen. So at Chesterfield there were three men Illingworth had in mind as he stepped out from behind the tree and made his way to the pavilion balcony: Devon Malcolm, Phil DeFreitas and Dominic Cork, Derbyshire's main strike bowlers.

Durham won the toss and batted, which was a good start for Illingworth, but what followed posed more questions than it answered as Durham ran up 441 for three on an easy- paced pitch. Malcolm, a little unlucky in the morning, ended the day looking weary and took none for 86 off 20; DeFreitas one for 92 off 21; and Cork, the best of them, two for 96 off 23. In the end it was John Morris's 90 which will have given Illingworth most food for thought.

Illingworth's right-hand man for much of the day was Alan Hill, the Derbyshire coach. Neither Hill nor anybody else at Derbyshire had known Illingworth was coming and that's the way Illingworth likes it to be. 'Sometimes I'll just turn up. There's no need for anyone to know. Sometimes I like to watch a player without him knowing I'm there because they might just turn it on for me and they might be very slack on other days.'

Hill, though, was delighted to see a man he calls 'a very shrewd judge of a cricketer' and someone he could learn from as well as provide local knowledge for. 'It was fascinating talking to him.' They discussed the development of the spin-bowler, perhaps the aspect of cricket closest to Illingworth's heart, and one which we can expect to see promoted under his regime. What quality above all others did Hill feel Illingworth was looking for? 'Desire,' Hill said. People who will want to give 100 per cent whatever the state of the game. He was a winner when he played and I think he wants winners.'

Illingworth spoke little to any of the players, certainly not during the hours of play and, as he said, when stumps have been drawn, 'that's their time for a pint and some rest'. You can see why he is so well respected.

DeFreitas said hello to Illingworth, and got a few words of encouragement in return. 'He just told me, 'Go out there and get some runs,' ' DeFreitas said. That tallies with Illingworth's aim to get more runs out of the lower-order batsmen. 'I don't think you can keep on playing with four number 11 batsmen,' he said.

Illingworth has only another fortnight before picking his first England side, for the one- day series against New Zealand starting on 19 May, and four weeks before deciding on the team for the first Test, for which he is looking for 'two or three new players'.

By Test selection weekend, the selectors will have between them seen all 50 of the players drawn up on their short list, even if Illingworth himself hasn't set eyes on every one. 'I've got confidence in the other selectors, and if they've seen a player I would take their advice,' Illingworth said. 'But I would if possible like to see everybody.'

So if you see that secret service agent lurking by the sightscreen, you'll know who it is.

(Photograph omitted)