Cricket: England must wait for Woolmer

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The Independent Online
THERE WERE two plot developments yesterday in the long-running soap - or is it a sitcom? - that is the England cricket team. On the one hand, a committee of 11 met to whittle down the candidates for the vacant coach's job from 12 to four or five. Only in England could this require a committee of 11; only in England could there be 12 candidates.

On the other hand, the outgoing coach, David Lloyd, came up with a proposal for the succession which was beautifully simple and sensible. Only in England, or perhaps Pakistan, could this solution not have occurred to the committee already. It is often said that no one gets to appoint his own successor. The ECB should make an exception for Lloyd, whom they have not exactly showered with gratitude for three years of mainly excellent service.

Lloyd's thinking is this. Bob Woolmer is clearly the best man for the job, but is not available until March next year, because (a) he wants a breather and (b) he doesn't want to face his own South African players straight away.

Jack Birkenshaw, of Leicestershire, is the next best man for the job but is a bit old at 58 to be more than a caretaker. So let him be the caretaker for the winter tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe (who, at this rate, will be the World Cup holders by then). That way, he can keep his job with Leicestershire, Woolmer can have his rest, and England can have Woolmer.

Lloyd likens Birkenshaw to Joe Mercer, who had a successful stint as England football manager in the days when Kevin Keegan still used curling tongs. You could take the football parallel further. Woolmer is Sir Matt, or Sir Alf. Most of the other candidates are Graham Taylor.

The importance of Woolmer cannot be overstated. This may well turn out to be the only time in cricket history when there is an Englishman available to coach England who has proved himself at the highest level. Or rather the two highest levels, because the last month has surely shown that one- day international cricket is a lot more significant, and has a lot more to do with excellence, than the English establishment has ever acknowledged.

South Africa may have lost to England last summer (with Lance Klusener injured), but they are still the second-best Test team in the world on recent form. After last Saturday, their brilliance in one-day cricket is plain for even the average committee man to see.

Yet when Woolmer took over as coach, only four-and-a-half years ago, his first assignment was to take South Africa to a triangular one-day tournament in Pakistan, also featuring Australia, and they lost all six of their matches. They got better partly because Hansie Cronje (a young thruster) took over as captain from Kepler Wessels (who only ever thrusted the pad out at the ball), but mainly because Woolmer quickly proved himself the most progressive, scientific, open-minded coach in the game.

Woolmer has made a couple of tactical errors lately. He has been too open about his options - they include rejoining Warwickshire, or staying in South Africa to set up an academy. And he has given a misleading impression about the location of his loyalties. He has been quoted as saying his heart is in South Africa. So it should be - at the moment.

When I interviewed him 18 months ago, I asked the same question in reverse - won't you have divided loyalties when you tour England with the South Africans? "No," he said. "Loyalties lie very much with the person who pays you a cheque at the end of the month."

If the lie of the land has changed in the past couple of weeks, it should have done so in Woolmer's favour. England's need for a coach of proven international calibre has become all the greater. And so, give or take a hiccup against Zimbabwe, has Woolmer's reputation. It is only if you set store by words rather than actions, or by political manoeuvring than results, that he can be regarded as having drifted out in the betting.

There is sudden support for Duncan Fletcher, the Glamorgan Zimbabwean, some of it from my most respected colleagues. He could be excellent, but the main evidence in his favour is that he has steered a team to the County Championship. Well, Woolmer, when he was at Warwickshire in 1994, had the most successful season in county history.

The last time England sent for a man called Fletcher who had flourished at county level, it might as well have been Ronnie Barker, for all the good it did. Get real, gentlemen. Get Woolmer.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly