Cricket: MacLaurin keen to accelerate evolution

Lord of Lord's is desperate to keep modernising Team England.
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UNIFORMED waitresses offered tea or coffee; the wine cooler contained a dozen or so bottles of white, and Lord MacLaurin and I sat on chairs fashionably covered in white cotton and decorated with red sashes. The prime minister, John Howard, was seated discreetly behind the window.

We were watching the last day of the Sydney Test from the Australian Cricket Board box. MacLaurin was neatly turned out in a long-sleeved blue shirt. A fiercely slim 61-year-old, he seems at home in Australia, where many of the reforms he wants for English cricket have already been implemented.

In Sydney he outlined his agenda: agreement in March that top players will be contracted to Team England ("initially just a few"); the likely appointment of a full-time team manager ("we'll talk it through when we get back"), and the appointment of a new England captain.

"Stewart's done well," he had said, but he is now rising 36, and the English Cricket Board will soon have to think of the succession. "Our feelers are out all the time," he said. "Nasser [Hussain] has been vice- captain. Ramprakash is captaining Middlesex, and John Crawley is taking over at Lancashire. Some strange things can happen quite quickly."

MacLaurin is dedicated to positive thinking. I had been gloomy about the early Tests and he laughed: "As soon as I arrived, they played well." Beyond the glass, Hussain and Graeme Hick were moving the England score gradually through the 120s to within 150 of an improbable win. Hope, which had returned to our menu of emotions at Melbourne, was not yet extinguished.

He had admired the way that the players had stuck to their task the previous day when the third umpire reprieved Michael Slater. "It was very disappointing for the players, I know; 99.9 per cent of people knew he was out. If you're going to have this high-tech stuff, it's got to be in the right place, and you've got to have an experienced third umpire. This man [Simon Taufel] had no experience at all."

But good days at Melbourne and Sydney could not obscure the horrors and humiliations of the first three Tests. MacLaurin talks a good game, but results are slow to emerge. "If something is not very good, you can't fix it that quickly. You just have to be patient. You can't wave a magic wand. We'll have to be world beaters tomorrow."

MacLaurin calls our lot "Team England" and insists: "Everybody has to understand that everything flows from the success of the national side." That is the reason for contracting players to the England team - as they do in Australia where the top 25 players are paid by the Australian Cricket Board. "With the increase in the international programme to a dozen or more Tests a year it would be extremely short-sighted not to have players contracted to our Board," he says. What he means is that you cannot trust the counties to give England players enough time off.

Team England are most likely to get a permanent manager, like Australia, who employ Steve Bernard, a low-profile administrator who, none the less, wears a track suit. The manager will be the employer of the coach, David Lloyd. (MacLaurin expects him to stay on until his contract expires in September.) "We're just talking in principle. but when we get back, I'll be talking it through with [Graham] Gooch and [David] Graveney and we'll all sit down with Simon Pack, who helps players in their general development," MacLaurin explained.

Pack does not appear to have furthered the development of a number of players who have not graduated well from the Under-19 team. "Some people are flattering to deceive," said MacLaurin. "I think we have a case in point with young Ben Hollioake. Quite clearly, he's a talented cricketer. He's actually got to deliver.

"The rewards for success have to be good, but some of these young players come in, getting sponsors' cars and everything, without doing anything. They've got to work hard. When I was playing, the senior pro was a disciplinarian. I think we're missing him."

MacLaurin now asked to be excused. He had to prepare for this weekend's meeting of the International Cricket Council (despite the Australian betting scandal, expect no surprises). As I left Hick was out to an appalling shot. Team England were 131 for 4, and the optimism which MacLaurin supports almost single-handed, began to fall again.