Cricket: Illingworth is happy to be in driver's seat: Glenn Moore talks to a well-travelled chairman of selectors about his new life

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The Independent Online
SINCE the start of this season, Ray Illingworth's life has been divided between county cricket grounds and the motorways of England.

So, what did the new chairman of the England selectors do when he had some time off on Monday? He went less than a mile up the hill to the sloping ground of Farsley Cricket Club, stood by the boundary wall built with slabs of Yorkshire stone, and watched another game.

Illingworth, who today watches the first England team of his reign take on New Zealand in the first Test at Trent Bridge, played his first senior cricket for Farsley, in the Bradford League, 47 years ago. He has come a long way since, yet never gone far from his roots.

Farsley, a West Yorkshire village struggling to resist the creeping conurbation of Leeds and Bradford, has been home since his boyhood - even during his decade at Leicester his family stayed there.

It is said you can tell a lot about a man by his home. If so, the converted barn Illingworth shares with Shirley, his wife of 36 years, is what you would expect. Built of the same weathered Yorkshire stone as most of the area's pre-war buildings, it is solid and well-organised, comfortable but not flash, like the village, like the man.

There are a few cricket mementos but less than one might expect. There is evidence too, Mike Atherton will be pleased to hear, that Illingworth does not always get his own way. The large spare room upstairs, which Illingworth thinks is 'perfect for a games room' is a spare bedroom.

Not that, contrary to popular opinion, selection meetings are a case of Illingworth saying: 'Right, that's my team, who do you want as 12th man?'

'All five of us (Illingworth, Atherton, Keith Fletcher, Brian Bolus and Fred Titmus) have input,' he said over a beer in the garden before leaving for Nottingham this week.

'I have always encouraged everyone to be involved - as captain at Leicester I held regular meetings at which I would almost make the juniors say something.

'Freddie felt, when he was previously a selector, what he said did not mean much - they even changed the team once after he thought it was finalised. He knows now he counts.

'Mike and I are not far apart. Sometimes we will see a lot more of a cricketer than he will. If he is playing Tests he may not see a player for two years.'

One such player is Craig White, one of three uncapped players with Yorkshire links in his first squad. 'People have been a bit mischievous just because of the Yorkshire connections,' Illingworth said. 'Steve Rhodes has had very good reports from the winter's A tour - which I had no part in picking - and from previous ones. We are trying to find a wicketkeeper who can make a few runs and he can. I don't think there is any need to defend that one.

'White is, I admit, a lot to do with me because I see him more than any of the other selectors. I hope he improves a little bit over the next few months. If he does he will become a good Test all-rounder. He has improved tremendously over the last 12 months. He stands still at the crease longer than anyone I have seen, scores his runs at good pace and is a brilliant fielder.

'As for Richard Stemp, I wanted a balanced side so we have taken enough bowlers to Nottingham to field any attack we want. With Tufnell unavailable we had little to choose from, it came down to Richard Illingworth or Stemp and I let the other selectors make the choice. I think he has a good action, he swings the ball and has a lot of potential - but we are picking potential more than anything else.'

Only six of the 17 players in the Caribbean survive, but, said Illingworth: 'All those that went have been throughly discussed and it looks worse as three of the bowlers who went are unavailable. But we have played badly for the last 18 months and had lost 3-0 after three Tests. Whether we would have won that Test in Barbados if it had been 0-0 is always open to debate.

'All the people we picked with the bat have done exceptionally well this season. John Crawley was well discussed but it was put to Mike Atherton: 'Do you want to, say, leave Robin Smith out and destroy his confidence? Do you want to have Crawley leapfrog over Graham Thorpe?' There are a lot of things to consider. In the end it was more his decision than ours.

'We are looking for cricketers who really want to play, who enjoy the big time. Darren Gough was a breath of fresh air at Birmingham. People said he had come from out of the blue but nobody argued about his performance.

'I think people like him will respond to the big time. Others are overawed. We want to get a team spirit together but we have to find a team first.'

Illingworth's committee has reverted to concentrating on the Test team after Ted Dexter's wider role and Illingworth added: 'It has never been done as professionally as this. We have put a tremendous amount of time and effort in. There is a feeling of confidence around. We have spoken to umpires and captains and they have been delighted to be spoken to. It had never happened before.'

Illingworth's travels - he drove 1,200 miles last week - have strengthened his belief that the county game is weaker than in his playing days. 'The main problem we have is a lack of variation in bowling, that has been apparent for some time. Spinners are at a very low ebb, in the 1950s every side had some kind of leg-spinner, it was good for spectators, good for players.

'We are not playing four-day cricket on four-day pitches, a number of matches last year finished in two days and if that happens, given that we have reduced the amount of matches, you are not playing enough cricket. We need pitches that start hard and dry and turn a bit at the end, that encourages balanced attacks. It might be better if the TCCB employed the groundsmen, that would reduce the number of result wickets.

'At Worcester they bowl eight bowlers and Richard Illingworth and Graeme Hick are lucky to get a few overs between them, you get second-rate seam bowlers bowling all the time.'

Illingworth is also in favour of introducing two divisions. 'At the moment, by half-way through the season, up to three-quarters of the sides are playing for nothing more than personal pride and not enough players are sufficiently motivated by that. If we had promotion and relegation all but about four teams would have something to play for,' he said.

One argument against such a system is that the poorer counties would suffer but Illingworth would reduce the gap by restricting overseas players.

'If we have to have any at all, only about six counties, the smaller ones like Northants and Leicester, should have them. We are developing other countries' players for them, which I think is wrong,' he said.

Illingworth is on a two-year contract, and after then?

'I have not thought about it, if we get things right and are going well I might go on if they want me. If not I might have no option,' he said.

He is expecting a good start: 'We will be very disappointed if we do not beat New Zealand - no disrespect to them but if we can't beat a side like New Zealand then we have got problems.'

(Photograph omitted)

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