Cricket: The man who chooses to dream

England's supreme selector has a mission: to play the Aussies at their own game and beat them
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THE CHAIRMAN of England's cricket selectors has doubtless always received letters gently explaining that he would have trouble picking his nose. David Graveney, the present incumbent, is perhaps different only in that he bothers to grant a reply to his correspondents.

It is difficult to imagine Lord Hawke picking up a phone, even had there been many about in his time, and saying something along the lines of, as Graveney does most weeks: "Hello, it's the chairman of selectors here. You were suggesting that I recall Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman to the 12 for the next Test and I wondered if you'd like to discuss it further."

These calls confirm both Graveney's affability and his love of talking about the game. There is also an element to them both of public service and mischief. They are constantly effective for taking the wind out of his critics' sails. "I don't respond to the anonymous brigade, and maybe Lord's sift those, but I like to contact most of the others," said Graveney last week on the day he was re-appointed for a further two-year term. "There often isn't time to write so I call. Sometimes people think it's a wind-up and generally they're a lot more reasonable than the tone of their letter."

It is precisely a century since His Lordship became the first chairman of the first selection panel (the Ashes were lost to Australia) and Graveney is the 21st holder of the office, all of whose holders have been regularly informed of their complete inability to recognise a proper England cricketer should they fall over W G Grace, Denis Compton and Ian Botham. Graveney is also the first not to have played Test cricket since Harry Altham, who did the job for a season in 1954 and, at 44 when he was first appointed, the youngest since Doug Insole in 1965.

Graveney has never concealed his delight in being chairman, in being part of an international scene denied him as a player. This still applies but, as kids in sweet shops down the years have probably discovered, it is no guarantee against indigestion. England's performance in the recent World Cup in which they failed to qualify for the second stage and lost two matches badly still rankles. Graveney was not only chairman of the selectors who chose the team, but the manager as well.

He looked longingly in to the middle distance, still imagining what might have been, as he said: "I honestly felt that we had a team capable of winning it. It turned out to be a shattering experience for me and the public had every right to be disappointed. Australia won it because they wanted it so badly. They go out there expecting to win. Play expecting to win like Australia do. That's what we've got to be like."

And so say all of us, as we have for an irksomely long time. After the World Cup Graveney (and the rest of the selection panel) sacked the captain, Alec Stewart. So the chairman gets two more years and his candidate to lead the team a year ago gets the boot. Seems slightly out of kilter.

"It was not a knee-jerk reaction. We allowed the dust to settle after the tournament and took time to reflect. But there is no doubt that doing three jobs took it out of Alec and in the end I felt it was time for a change and that Nasser Hussain could give the team something different. It's not a question really of what he's got now that he didn't have a year ago, but of those qualities being right for England now. I believe they are. But being captain will take its toll. I know Nasser has a strict practice regime and everyone will want a bit of him."

Graveney admits to selectorial mistakes, if not in the World Cup. One that bursts to mind since he was chairman is that of Mike Smith, the left- arm seam bowler who played one match against Australia two years ago, had Matthew Elliott dropped on 29 before he went on to 199, finished wicketless and has never played since.

"I recall Mike Atherton saying to me that in his time in Tests the effective opening bowlers had been tall," said Graveney, insisting that he referred to nobody in particular but obviously alluding to Smith's 5ft 9in. "One player might think he could have been better treated. Last summer Steve James played two Tests but they were well apart and he was called up late. It was very difficult for him and I do feel sorry for Jamo."

James apart, Graveney's panel might have fallen into the old trap of giving batsmen several opportunities while ditching bowlers. Of the 33 players used in his sides in 24 matches 10 have been batsmen, 15 bowlers. "I remember the bowlers getting me in a corner about that very thing," he said. "But it's a clearer issue, with conditions also counting." He rejects however, any assertion that purportedly difficult individuals have been left out under his regime only to be recalled now that Hussain is captain. Sides, Graveney insisted, were picked on playing merit, which is naturally good to know.

Graveney, a normally placid man who confesses that he can lose the plot, has been suspected of being too close to the players, if only because he is also chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association."The players I tend to represent in that role are not usually the ones that play for England," he said. "I would agree that the chairman has to keep some distance. But I like to talk to players, get their reactions. When I played it was always as if England was another game and while you didn't want them not to win you didn't care too much. I don't want that so I'll try gently to canvass opinions and thoughts."

Graveney has been associated with cricket all his life. His father, Ken, played for Gloucestershire and captained them for two seasons, his uncle Tom is one of the game's legends. David played for Gloucestershire for 18 years, briefly for Somerset and was Durham's first captain. There were 457 first-class matches and 981 wickets with his left-arm spin. All that time, said the reference books, he was 6ft 4in and 14st, though one of those figures might have increased slightly since. He became a selector (as well as PCA head) almost as soon as he retired and was elevated to chairman in 1997.

"It can be hard on my family, and particularly for my son [who is 16]. But being a Graveney it would have been that occasionally even if I had not been chairman. I probably talk about cricket when I shouldn't do. But I still enjoy this job and I have a dream. I have a dream of beating Australia and winning the World Cup.

"When Nasser Hussain was appointed as captain he was very realistic in assessing the future. Three teams are well ahead of the rest, who for the moment are fighting between themselves. We know there is a gulf." Graveney has two years to bridge it as doubtless his correspondents will be reminding him.