Cricket: Lloyd the eternal optimist of England

`Our batters can definitely handle pace. They aren't so hot against spin, but then South Africa don't have a top-class spinner'
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DAVID LLOYD, erstwhile England cricket coach and eternal optimist, believes that his former charges will beat South Africa in the five-Test series beginning tomorrow. However, he concedes that only three Englishmen could reasonably expect to be picked for a joint XI, namely his close friend and protege Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Darren Gough, with Andy Caddick as a definite maybe.

"I am confident, even so," he says. "We need a little bit of luck and some tosses to fall our way. But our batters can definitely handle pace. They aren't so hot against spin, but then South Africa don't have a top- class spinner." I mention Paul Adams. Lloyd looks at me as if, to coin a Lancashire phrase, I must be daft as a brush. "I don't think anyone rates Adams, do they? He finds it difficult to bowl an orthodox leg-spinning ball. It's certainly not like coming up against Warne or Saqlain or Murali."

On the subject of the Sri Lankan, Muralitharan, Lloyd is often quoted - wrongly, he insists - as having questioned the legality of his extraordinary action. "I just said that the law needs tightening, or tidying, to accommodate that player," he says. It amounts to much the same thing, but Lloyd, despite the fact that he no longer has to answer to Lord's, believes that he has provoked quite enough controversy, ta very much, notably with his comment, following the drawn Zimbabwe Test of 1996, that England "flipping murdered them". It will all be dealt with in his forthcoming book, he says, and we leave it at that.

Back to England's prospects in South Africa. "I think we'll do alright, better than alright. They seem to be in a little bit of turmoil at the moment. Hansie Cronje is a world-class captain, so to have initially put him in charge for just two matches is obviously a nonsense."

We are sitting in the living-room of Lloyd's house in Cheadle Hulme, a leafy suburb of Greater Manchester. Contestants on Through The Keyhole would have no trouble identifying it as the home of a cricket devotee. There are Wisdens galore, and an umbrella stand contains three autographed bats, including the Stuart Surridge blade with which Lloyd scored an unbeaten 214 in his second Test match, against India at Edgbaston in 1974.

Alongside it is a bat autographed by the 1934 Lancashire and Nottinghamshire players, among them Cyril Washbrook and Harold Larwood. Lloyd handles it as others would a Ming vase. His enthusiasm for the game, conveyed in an Accrington accent that makes George Formby sound la-di-da, is enormously infectious. And he has a ready wit, too. He nods at a battered old book. "Cardus," he says. "'Apparently, the game's been in total disarray since 1910."

Lloyd's tenure as England coach - which included a memorable 2-1 series win at home against South Africa, England's first five-Test series triumph for 12 years - ended messily. His employers, the English Cricket Board, were unwilling to guarantee his future, and since Sky were dangling a lucrative commentating contract, he left by mutual consent - a convenient phrase hiding a multitude of grievances. His successor was the Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher. Lloyd, admirably progressive in some ways, rigidly conservative in others, has always believed that England should be coached by an Englishman. "I came out for [Jack] Birkenshaw. He's a very dedicated and honest bloke and he's won two County Championships at Leicestershire. He would have been a very good choice. But obviously I wish Duncan all the very best."

Putting his experience where his mouth is, Lloyd has already given Fletcher a steer on a couple of players. I invite him to expand on the role of the coach. "You're basically there to say `well done'. The senior players don't need to be told how to prepare. You just say `what do you need?' and Fraser will say `I need to bowl flat out for two hours', Gough will say he wants two or three 20-minute bursts, Tufnell will say he wants to bowl for half an hour then have a go at Stewart in the middle. Or whatever. They know what they want.

"And if they are going through a bad trot you show them a tape and say `this is you doing well'. At international level, if a batter is out of sorts, it's not because his hands are the wrong way round. It's the feet and head not quite co-ordinating. Stewart was the top run-getter in the world for two out of three years, then suddenly it wasn't happening for him. His head was dropping across outside off-stump and your head's got to move wicket to wicket, not square leg to point. So we'd work and work at that, but in a game it would still drop across. Then he'd get a decent score but be quite lucky to survive. Then he'd find a bit more fluency. And suddenly it would just click again..."

The coach is also there to help pinpoint the opposing team's weaknesses. When South Africa came to England, Mark Ramprakash twice caught the aggressive Daryll Cullinan at square leg, thanks largely to Lloyd's homework. "We knew he scored there, but he scores through the air. It was the same with [the former Australian captain] Mark Taylor. He went through an horrific patch, getting caught second slip to balls pitching leg and middle, and Dean Headley was perfect to exploit that. At the moment England think they've got the measure of [the South African left-hander] Gary Kirsten. He keeps nicking it on, inside edge, and they know they need to tuck him up on off stump."

To hear Lloyd talk - asserting, for example, that Shaun Pollock "flatters" with the bat - the series is already as good as won. But England are not exactly without flaws themselves. "No, and I know what they say about us. Geoff Marsh and Stevie Waugh were dead honest at the end of the Australia tour; they said we have a top pace attack but not the best batting line- up. They say that our top four or five are good, but after that they're all number 11s. We need someone coming in at seven who can attack. They're looking to Andrew Flintoff to do that, maybe with Gavin Hamilton at eight, as a fourth seamer. I like to think that Flintoff could develop into a Klusener, who's a bloody handful. But Andrew will have to work damned hard at getting himself bodily fit. At the moment there's room for improvement. You can go in for all the sports psychology in the world, but at the end of the day it boils down to how badly you want it."

And how badly you want it so far from home, too. Four months is a long time in cricket and in 1996, on England's tour of Australia, even the famously ebullient Lloyd had his downward swings. "In Melbourne I got a call from Mark Ramprakash, Adam Hollioake and Dean Headley. I don't know what they detected, but they detected something. I said I wanted to stay in my room, and Ramps said `you're not, you're coming out for dinner with us in five minutes, and don't be late'. I thought that was flipping brilliant. Three jack-the-lads trying to cheer up an old bloke..." Lloyd shakes his head. The recollection evidently still moves him.

He first toured Australia with England in 1974-75, the terrifying heyday of Lillee and Thomson. Indeed, while batting at Perth, he copped a direct hit in the privates from Jeff Thomson, a story he started dining out on as soon as he got his voice back. "I was wearing a pink Litesome. You know, those flimsy pink cricket boxes a bit like soap holders. They had these holes round the edge, and when Tommo hit me, the force of the blow inverted the damn thing and pushed one of me knackers through the holes. From time to time you hear people asking `is there a doctor on the ground?' That day they had to send for a welder."

Lloyd wipes a tear - of mirth, I think - from his eye. "I could never get on top of Thomson. Eight-ball overs in those days, with the occasional no-ball, but he kept coming at you. Terrifically fit, he was, with a javelin thrower's action. Like Steve Backley. And he had such an economical run- up. Glenn McGrath's the same. He doesn't break sweat, doesn't McGrath. He can bowl for two hours in the heat, have a break and come back for another hour. But those Australians in 1974-75 ... what a great side. Lillee, Thomson, both Chappells, Rodney Marsh, Ian Redpath, Dougie Walters, Max Walker ... the West Indies went out after us and lost 5-0. And they were a good side. So were we. Dennis Amiss, Tony Greig, Alan Knott, Willis, Underwood. And if you remember, they sent out Colin Cowdrey, at the age of 41, when Brian Luckhurst, I think it was, got injured."

Happy days. Although Lloyd's happy days, as a Test batsman, were numbered. He never played again for England after that Ashes defeat, and is still haunted by the belief that, despite a lustrous career at Old Trafford, he under-achieved as a cricketer. Not so as a coach. At Lancashire he made a lasting impact on players such as Atherton, Flintoff, John Crawley and even Wasim Akram, not to mention his son Graham, an accomplished one-day batsman. His England record, while by no means unblemished, contains much to be proud of. It might have been better still if he, or somebody else, had had sole responsibility for picking the team. Selection by committee, Lloyd believes, is an archaic procedure in urgent need of reform.

Still, invited to assess his own contributions to the cause, he cites his commitment to Nasser Hussain. "If I did anything it was getting him back in the team in 1996. He's been an ever-present ever since. I tried desperately to do the same with Ramprakash. But the typically English thing is to put them in and then take them out, which has happened with Flintoff and young Ben Hollioake. Australia don't do that. Steve Waugh took a long time to score a hundred, but they stuck with him and now they've got one hell of a player. He is the ultimate role model in the modern game. He is the one. A top bloke, but as hard as nails on the pitch."

As for Ramprakash, does Lloyd believe that the selectors were right not to take him to South Africa? A big sigh. "That's such a difficult question to answer. There was always going to be a casualty after the failure against New Zealand, and I'm certain he'll come again. I love him to bits, but he can have some troughs, can Mark. If he could just relax and enjoy it." In other words, if he could just take a leaf out of Lloyd's book. Because Lloyd always enjoyed himself. Apart, that is, from one fine day in Perth, when Jeff Thomson made a terrible mess of his pink Litesome.

Coverage of the first Test begins tomorrow on Sky Sports 2 at 7.30am.