Cricket: Money for nothing and your psychic for free: Creating a management structure was meant to lift England's Test form. Martin Johnson examines the plan's failure

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The Independent Online
SEVEN years ago, the Test and County Cricket Board decided that it was time to inject a bit more professional know-how into the running of the England team and appointed a full-time manager. Three years later, it enlarged this to embrace a paid managing director.

The original manager, Micky Stewart, is still on the payroll, co-ordinating the link between youth and schoolboy cricket and the county circuit (plus, for some peculiar reason, voting on winter tour selection), the new manager, Keith Fletcher, is nine months into a five-year contract, large dollops of sponsored money are spent on training camps, coaching schemes, A tours and overseas spying missions, and the managing director, Ted Dexter, has now appointed himself as the team's official astrologer.

Assistance from heavenly bodies has also been extended, courtesy of Dexter, to the appointment of a 'spiritual adviser', a delightful man by the name of Andrew Wingfield-Digby, but about as relevant to the business of England winning Test matches as the current whereabouts of Venus, Mars and Uranus.

It is, quite clearly, an irresistible array of machinery, and since the wheels were set in motion back in 1986, the results have been - let us not be modest about this - staggering. Fifty-six Test matches, eight wins, and, wait for it, only 24 defeats. Furthermore, those who regard the current record of seven defeats in a row as slightly disturbing, conveniently forget that one or two of them have been by less than an innings, and 2-0 down to Australia will shortly be converted into a 4-2 triumph. This we know, because we have Ted's word for it.

Ye gods. Here we are spending millions of pounds on expertise, the TCCB solving the unemployment problem single-handed by issuing the world and his dog with offices, blazers and mobile phones, and all for a team that could not beat an egg.

Years ago, England were only occasionally hopeless, and for less than half the price. The likes of Alec Bedser picked the team for nothing, and thought that modern players were pampered ('I chopped down trees in the winter, and walked to The Oval in the summer') compared with his day.

If you have got an hour and a half to spare, and a set of asbestos ears, ask Alec whether he had a sponsored car when he was playing. Nowadays, of course, everything that moves is sponsored, and Chris Lewis's move into nude modelling was always more likely to catch the eye of the chairman of marketing than the chairman of cricket, in the fond hope that they might be able to flog off some advertising space on the naughty bits.

However, England's cricket team will soon become a difficult product to market unless things turn around, and in the short term, the list of those who now believe that England require a change of captain almost certainly includes the captain himself. Graham Gooch had more or less decided to go if he could not halt the malaise at Lord's, but has been talked out of it by Fletcher, to whom he feels intense loyalty, and Dexter. Hence the disparity in his comments before the Test match and after it.

Whatever faults have still to be flushed out of the English system, such as the lack of a coherent feeder system that starts with apathy in schools and a County Championship that provides a breeding ground for mediocre players pottering towards a benefit, it is the huge disparity in competitive edge that mostly accounts for the current gap between England and Australia, rather than one side being overtly more talented.

Gooch, in many ways, has done a fine job, but it was a mistake to badger him into going to India, where in terms of attempting to ignite his team, he resembled a man in possession of two soggy sticks and a boy scouts' manual.

By then reappointing him for only three Tests, rather than all six or none at all, the selectors handed over a huge psychological windfall to the Australians, which they then magnified by reappointing him for the full series straight after Old Trafford. Gooch is also to blame for accepting the offer, as his comments before Lord's merely made it obvious - to Australia and everyone else - that he had little confidence left in his own powers of player motivation.

By comparison, Allan Border is in charge of a side that appears to be training on raw kangaroo steak and would punch a hole in Ayers Rock in order to get at the next Pommy batsman. Before the 1989 tour here (Border having been on two previous losing tours to England), Ian Chappell told him it was about time he shed his Mr Nice Guy image and Border became such a fiercely aggressive opponent that the International Cricket Council's disciplinary body has not only felt his collar, but also dipped into his wallet.

Neither is Australia's penchant for plastering on the war paint confined to the grown-ups, as we witnessed here two years ago, when, from whichever learning establishment the under-19 team captained by Damien Martyn had graduated, it was not a charm school.

England's record of 15 Tests without a win over Australia began in Sydney in 1987. Mike Gatting's side had already retained the Ashes, and Test cricket in Australia was so feeble at that stage, it was suggested to Gatting that England's defeat might actually be to everyone's long-term benefit.

Gatting's face sprouted an expression several degrees more contorted than when he was bowled by Shane Warne at Old Trafford, and the old greybeard was dead right. When Australia are next on the canvas, a leaf out of their own book is required. 'Like a leg-up, Allan? Forget it, mate. Here's a boot in the ribs instead.' It will happen one day, but don't hold your breath.

The TCCB's chairman, Frank Chamberlain, yesterday expressed disappointment at a seventh consecutive defeat, which 'causes worry among us all'. He did not expect the selectors to panic before announcing the squad for the next Test at Trent Bridge. 'Many of the players who played in the first two matches have performed well in winning England sides and I see no reason why that should not happen again in the not too distant future.'