Cricket: High time for Team Bumble

England's winter starts this week and their coach needs a result. Andrew Longmore spoke to him
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Arevisionist theory is already being constructed around England's defeat by Australia last summer. It goes like this: there were three aims at the start of the season - the first was to win the one-day internationals, the second was to win some Tests and the third was to win the series. A score of 2-1 in terms of fulfilment, though the Ashes headed back to Australia for the fifth successive series. Whether many people in England will buy David Lloyd's creative accounting is open to question, but there is equally no doubting the sincerity and the enthusiasm with which the England coach propounds his views. Look at it another way. England played the best team in the world in nine internationals and won 5-3.

As the man who has to stabilise morale somewhere between post-Edgbaston outer space and the subterranean blues post-Trent Bridge, Lloyd's thinking is perfectly rational. As he well knows, players believe what they want to believe and part of his job is to instil some confidence into the side in time for its New Year rendezvous with the West Indies. Victories at Edgbaston and The Oval have provided some muscle for the spin doctor to massage and the process of regeneration will begin in earnest when all the personnel on England's three winter tours - to Sharjah for the one- day Champions' Cup, to Kenya and Sri Lanka for the A tour and the full tour to the West Indies - gather today for a week's fitness training in the sweatshop of the Club La Santa in Lanzarote. Heart monitors and tennis rackets compulsory, bats and balls optional.

Given a modicum of success, Lloyd will preside over the most concentrated span of cricket ever undertaken by an England squad. For the Test players, successive series against the West Indies, South Africa and Australia; for the one-day specialists, Sharjah, five internationals against the West Indies, a triangular tournament with South Africa and Sri Lanka next summer, the Benson and Hedges series in Australia leading to the thundering drumroll of the World Cup in England in 1999. It will be a searching examination of England's credentials and Lloyd's unproven ability to mould a bunch of talented cricketers into a tough and efficient team - or two teams, as the division of labour now demands. After 18 months, it is time for his team to do the talking.

One battle has been won, and Lloyd's part in the victory should not be overlooked. On the eve of his decision, Atherton called Lloyd, still uncertain about whether to stand down as England captain. "Here was a player physically and mentally spent," Lloyd recalled. "I wanted to give him some space and catch him right at the last hour. He's shrewd, Michael. He wanted to gauge our feelings, to make sure he'd got the support of everyone around him. I told him he still had a job to do and he was the one to do it. By the time I put the phone down two hours later, I knew what his decision would be."

It helped that Atherton is Lloyd's sort of cricketer: Tough, uncompromising, shot through with pride and a grainy vision of how the game should be played. Lloyd is an incorrigible romantic about Test cricket. A fair fight on the pitch, then share a few beers and have a natter afterwards. The shame of his own Test career was that his prime collided, painfully at times, with those of Lillee and Thomson. In any other age, he would have earned more than his nine caps. But when the call came to coach his country, Lloyd jumped at the chance of further involvement.

Atherton was not the first, nor will he be the last, to be influenced by Lloyd's infectious enthusiasm for the game of cricket, which still shines as brightly now as it did when a skinny lad, the son of the local lay preacher, first took to the streets of Accrington armed with a tennis ball and a makeshift bat 30 odd years ago. ("Cobbled streets they were too".) Lloyd's universal nickname is "Bumble", but he has the irresistibly bouncy air of a scout master leading his troop on an adventure. Interviews turn quickly from question and answer into vigorous debate. The danger, as Lloyd rapidly discovered from his ill-judged "we murdered 'em" comment after a draw with Zimbabwe, is that his tendency to exaggeration, part over-optimism, part flamboyant expression, is as open to ridicule as Ted Dexter's whimsy or Ray Illingworth's bullying. So, according to Lloyd, Australia had "no chance" of making 124 to win the final Test at The Oval. "It might as well have been 300, we were never going to lose that Test." He might have told us on the first evening and saved us all the "axe the lot of 'em" headlines.

The jury is still out on Lloyd's fitness for the task. He is well liked within the game and his commitment is unquestioned - to the job, to his captain and players. Humour masks an explosive temper; patience is not one of his virtues, and he has a touching naivete uncomfortably reminiscent of Graham Taylor in his early days. An unsteady start to last winter in Zimbabwe prompted some well-publicised criticism from his lords and masters and a considerable improvement in New Zealand. But once Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath had begun to fire, no amount of team-building, cajoling or flag-waving by Lloyd could have altered the result.

What drove him potty was slack thinking. At Old Trafford, well-laid plans to thwart Steve Waugh were ruined by indiscipline. "He wants to go back all the time, so you bowl full length on off stump and outside, not middle- and-off. All the fielders from gully to backward square come in five yards. You don't want him off the strike because all his best work is done at the non-striker's end." So Waugh spends his time on the back foot defending short-pitched bowling and, the following morning, the first ball is pushed towards Darren Gough at mid-on and Waugh strolls a single.

By the end of the Fifth Test, Lloyd had suffered enough. "I'm fed up hearing that England played well in spells ... I want consistency of performance and fundamental techniques and I want mental toughness." Nasser Hussain took up the theme, calling for English cricketers to be nastier. "Menace would be a better word," Lloyd said. "We need to show more menace and I'm absolutely convinced menace is in the eyes. That's why I told Darren not to bowl in sunglasses. The batsman must see your eyes. You don't need to glare, that's a waste of time, it's a presence. English people tend to be very polite, very withdrawn, not 'up front' to use a modern expression. You've got to make a batter feel as uncomfortable as possible by wearing him down, bowling off stump forever, like McGrath. It comes down to technique and patience for both batsmen and bowlers.

"Ask Graham Gooch how come he scored 8,000-odd Test runs. What was your preparation, what were you thinking? He says: 'He's not going to get me out'. As a young Test player he was a flamboyant strokemaker, not by the end. He was clinical, professional, he played in his body width and he made bowlers bowl at him. As a coach, working with young players - and these are young players, I don't care how much experience they've had - you have to reflect on what's gone on and plan how to go forward."

THE job of the England management, as Lloyd sees it, is to provide the players with good information and the right preparation, from technical videos to dieticians and fitness experts. After that, it is up to them. "I'm accountable, they're responsible," he said. By "proper management", he means not sacrificing his front-line bowlers to county cricket a few days before a critical Test; by education, eliminating basic errors. "I know what sort of player I'm getting on the Tuesday afternoon. I can see it in their eyes. We were a very well-prepared team up to the First Test, then everyone went back to playing county cricket."

Not surprisingly, Lloyd is an advocate of a Test squad contracted to the England Cricket Board. In the meantime, Team England is providing a fast-track route to international recognition which largely bypasses county cricket. None of the top three in the county averages last summer - Graeme Hick, Steve James and Matthew Maynard - warranted a place on the full tour. Three of the A team - David Nash, Chris Read and Jonathan Powell - have played only a handful of first-class matches between them. "I think the gap between Test and county cricket is as wide as it has ever been," he says. "County cricket is helpful, but it's not the be all and end all of it. We have got the best development of excellence programme, the best schools and Under-19 set-up and we've invested a lot of money in them. It's up to us to identify the talent and push it through. How many international sides would have played Ben Hollioake at No 3 in a one-day international? Not one."

Lloyd has been brought up to honour solid virtues and a quiet Christian faith. He is, I suspect, a simple soul, who loves his country, his cricket, his horse racing and fishing and is happy to share opinions on any of them with anyone who will listen.

If a darker, more contemplative nature lies beneath the chipper surface, few have seen it. "I want to give the nation a team they can be proud of. We just need to step up a gear, that's all." Only once has he admitted defeat so far. "We're still working on him, but let's face it, you could put Athers in an Armani suit and he ain't going to look a million dollars."