Cricket: No progress when you put the cart before the horse: The strategy for producing a successful England team has proved a disaster. Simon Hughes explains why

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WHEN Ted Dexter took over as chairman of selectors in 1989 his strategy leaned towards one main aim: to turn the England team into a supreme unit of highly tuned, highly paid athletes. His utopia was a pedestal on which England players would stand to be idolised and worshipped by their minions, in this case the county system. The rich would get richer, the poor would stay where they were. If eventually top cricketers appeared for Ealing and England, and the County Championship bit the dust, then so be it.

While the intentions of his committee were noble, they were misguided. The isolation of the national team, the preferential treatment, the clear-the-decks attitude to the domestic structure, is fine if we are dealing with Russian gymnasts preparing for the Olympics, but not when sending a cricket team to negotiate the perceived and real minefields of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout the world, cricket is played in all sorts of conditions (gymnastics has the same surface worldwide). Each one demands a spontaneous response from the players. Those who adapt best are the most successful. Confronted with a variety of alien conditions this winter, our players' deficiencies have been exposed.

County cricket is to be blamed. It is played in the most repetitive, anaemic atmosphere imaginable. The pitches are stereotyped, and so is most of the bowling and captaincy. Very few risks are taken, and if we are honest there is a general air of reluctance as the summer treadmill grinds on. Leading batsmen play almost from memory, our best bowlers merely go through the motions, saving their energy for Test cricket.

To them, performing for England is just an extension of the ordeal rather than a challenging honour. They are fit all right, but Test cricket is an interrogation of skill and daring, not dogged determination, and they enter the spotlight ill-equipped to answer the more difficult questions. They are wedged in predominantly meaningless routine. This goes some way to explaining why the present England side was outplayed in India. The A team did not fare much better. It is not the players' fault - the system is the problem.

In 1993 the situation will be worse. Four-day cricket, introduced primarily to benefit the England side, promotes defensive attitudes, groundsmen are terrified their pitches won't last (or that they will be fined 25 points for one that is sub-standard) so wickets will be even more lifeless. (To take two random years - 18 batsmen averaged over 40 in the 1953 season, 55 in 1991.) Dexter believed that the success of the English team was vital to the counties' financial well-being, but it has had a different effect. Because each county can expect a decent share of TCCB profits from this summer's Ashes there is little financial incentive for them to attract the public, and their organisation remains retarded. So the County Championship has become largely a prolonged training camp for the national side. And when they fail, it demoralises everyone.

So what is to be done? Money and time should be invested at the bottom rather than the top so that by the time a player is selected for his country he needs only a gentle loosener and an encouraging pat on the back rather than an eight- week endurance test. The groundwork needs to be done with the 16- to 20-year-olds as this is when flair and fitness develop. It was clear that the ability and maturity of both junior English teams on tour this winter was significantly inferior to those of their Indian and South African counterparts.

The root cause is the abysmal level of coaching in English cricket. Agreed, it is hard to find good volunteers to supervise juniors, and a handful of enthusiastic fathers are the lifeblood of budding players. Why not pay them if they have some worthwhile advice to offer? It might lure a few more forward.

Some might say that at least those who make it over the difficult hurdle of junior cricket can look forward to some expert advice when they join a county. Not true, unfortunately. There are far too many county coaches originating from the players' scrap heap for there to be much real expertise to pass on. As a result the job of county coach has become a glorified administerial post. While the majority are adept at making travel arrangements, taking fielding practices or unwrapping the sandwiches at teatime, many are nonplussed when a bowler loses his run-up or action.

At least these sorts of inadequacies are being addressed. A fortnight ago all the county coaches gathered at Lilleshall for a two- day seminar where such luminaries as Alan Knott and Mickey Stewart briefed them on specific skills. (Knott's unconventional approach included throwing catches to the Durham wicketkeeper in the showers last summer, using the partitions between cubicles as an imaginary batsman.) This sort of scheme is long overdue.

What we also have to do is discard the bits-and-pieces mentality. Real ability in the body of a Ramprakash or a Russell is locked in the closet, expendable because of the prevalence of limited-over matches. Atherton suffers the same fate - waiting three weeks for an innings despite an average of 37 in one-day internationals. It is a fallacy that chopping and changing your side is necessary for different forms of cricket. Quality will always shine through given a chance. The motto should be: invest in craft not graft.