The fact that Illingworth not only got the job, but got it at a price (he will be 'compensated' an initial pounds 35,000 per year for loss of media earnings, while Smith's would have been an expenses-only honorary appointment) was a pleasant surprise to those who feared that the Test and County Cricket Board was not necessarily a body more inclined to judge a candidate on his credentials than his elocution. However, English Test cricket is in such a state at the moment that it was finally a case of get the right man, and let's hang the expense.
It rarely takes too long, of course, before it is a question of let's hang the chairman, but Illingworth (who would have become the first England team manager in 1986 had he not had the feeling that he would have been there to do as he was told) is single- minded to the point of being one-eyed on occasions, and from the non-bullshit school of plain speaking. Without detracting from Smith's quieter abilities, in an era when cricket has long since ceased to be associated with its former image of play up and pass the Marmite sandwiches, Illingworth is a shark in a shark's pool.
Smith said yesterday that he was not disappointed in that the job had not been a 'lifetime ambition', and if, at a time when English cricket needs an emphatic kick in the pants, that sort of take-it-or-leave-it insouciance had filtered through to the board, it would not have been a manifesto winner.
Illingworth will not be a 'supremo' in the way that his predecessor, Ted Dexter, was largely perceived to be. The board's major task is still to revamp the domestic structure in order to provide a far more efficient feeder system to the national team, but Illingworth's influence (he long ago advocated two separate leagues with promotion and relegation) will undoubtedly extend beyond his primary brief of watching players, sounding opinion, and making sure that the best team takes the field.
Even at the age of 61, he is not divorced from the modern game. He played until he was 51, survived an open invitation to a padded cell as manager of Yorkshire, and remains - as he was in his playing days - one of the cannier observers of international cricket through his work for the BBC and newspapers. One thing that England should never make a mess of in a home Test under Illingworth is reading a pitch.
He also has a belief in his own ability that has occasionally had people in fits of helpless giggles. He was, for instance, never out when he was batting. On one occasion, having missed a particularly horrible slog, he returned to the dressing-room and claimed that the bowler's grunt in his delivery stride had made him think it was the umpire calling a no-ball. On another, when there seemed no possible excuse even for him, he said: 'Would you believe it? Bloody umpire gave me t'wrong guard.'
His reputation as a captain was for erring on the defensive side, which is again in keeping with his thrifty nature. He knows all the best value fish and chip shops in Yorkshire, and which bars in Torremolinos (where he has a winter villa) give you non- watered down rum at the cheapest prices. Once, as captain of Leicestershire, he negotiated 10 per cent off the team's hotel bill because he couldn't get any sausages for breakfast. No one at Lord's should be too surprised if Illy's first expenses claim is for the bus fare from Pudsey to Farsley.
He is perhaps not as adaptable as he might be, as witnessed during the 1987 World Cup in India and Pakistan when he was constantly bewildered as to why places like Peshawar High Street were not identical to the road running past his house in Pudsey. This makes him less malleable than Dexter was, or Smith most likely would have been, and seeing the other side of the argument may not be his best quality.
As a cricketer, he was not bursting with natural talent, but he became an outstanding Test player through intelligence and temperament. As a leader, few England captains commanded the respect that Illingworth did, and he was chaired off the field when his 1972 team won the Ashes in Australia.
One of those doing the chairing was the current team manager, Keith Fletcher, and by no means the least interesting aspect of Illingworth's appointment is how these two will work together. Illingworth does not, by nature, like to delegate, and if the two jobs become blurred, Fletcher may not take too kindly to it.
However, Illingworth's appointment remains a triumph for forward thinking, and the county chairmen are not often accused of that. Whenever things went wrong when he was playing, Illingworth's favourite phrase was: 'Eh, it's piss'ole, is that.' And it is because that phrase currently applies to the England team that he has got the job.Reuse content