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Cricket: Whitaker finds new channel for expertise

Leicestershire captain exchanges playing for lure of coaching and television. By Jon Culley
AMONG THE effects of Channel 4's entrance into Test cricket broadcasting, the ending of a distinguished player's career was not among those planned. It was, however, an invitation from the new hosts of international cricket on terrestrial television that prompted James Whitaker to announce his retirement.

"This was always going to be my last season," the 37-year-old former Leicestershire captain said, reflecting on the knee injury that has restricted him to a handful of games in the last two seasons. "But when Channel 4 rang me, the week before this Test, and asked me if I wanted to work for them as a summariser, it crystallised my thinking.

"After the two operations I had last year I knew my leg was not going to be strong enough again for me to be effective as a player. I wanted to find out about commentary and, weighing everything up, with Leicestershire playing at Worcester at the same time as the Test, I felt it was right and proper that the team knew where they were going and that it was Vince Wells who would be leading them."

Thus a line was drawn, somewhat suddenly, under a 17-year career that earned Whitaker membership of the One-Cap Wonders club during the Ashes tour of 1986-87 but reached another, arguably higher, peak near the end when he captained Leicestershire to their two Championships in the last three seasons. He will not be idle for long, however. On Wednesday he takes charge of a First Class Counties XI for a one-day match against Sri Lanka A at Chester-le-Street, then next winter he will manage the England squad competing in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka.

It is the latter assignment that should be regarded as significant. Whitaker's success with a team of largely unrecognised talents at Grace Road has impressed the right people and the appointment to the Under-19s can be seen as the first step on an upward career path.

If this comes as a surprise to some, it is probably because there exists a number of misconceptions about Whitaker. He was born in Skipton and had trials at Headingley but he hardly fits the brash, blunt image of Yorkshire stereotype. Neither is he pampered by wealth. Starting with a recipe for chocolate-covered mints handed down by an aunt, his father built a thriving confectionery business and sent the young James to Uppingham School but never awarded him an easy life. "If I did not need to work, why would I have spent 17 years standing in the way of a cricket ball travelling at 90mph?" Whitaker asks.

He is modest about his achievements with Leicestershire. But in his insistence that he was "lucky to work with Phil Simmons and Jack Birkenshaw and to have had players with ability and character" he omits to mention the hours he invested studying the captain's art, gleaning tips from reading and talking and, in consequence, forming the view that, given the right environment and the right encouragement, most players have the potential to exceed previous performance levels.

"I always had an overview of how I would like to do the job," he said. "I had been lucky enough to play under a lot of captains with fantastic qualities and I always hoped I could tweak a bit here and there and have some success. If I encouraged some players to explore their talent then all well and good, but the underlying factor was that the players had ability and wanted to succeed."

The Under-19 job will enable Whitaker to work again with Tim Boon, another non-typical Yorkshireman, with whom he shared the bulk of his playing career at Leicester. "I'm honoured to be involved and very enthused about it," he said. "Tim will be the technical man, the game planner, but if I can set the tone and generate the environment for success we will see how it unfolds.

"The job involves a mix of things. You have to create a commitment that people are going to buy into from a team perspective, but at the same time cricket is a game that requires a lot of hard work individually. Given the time at Leicester I would talk to a player on his own and try to get him focused. Essentially, it is the manager's role to create an atmosphere in which a player can relax and which will bring out his best."

It remains to be seen whether what works in a club environment - or for a team of still impressionable young players, for that matter - could be applied successfully to senior players of Test calibre. Out of loyalty, one suspects, to his contemporaries, Whitaker is of the view that the present crop does not lack quality, although he does concede that the domestic game, as a proving ground for Test cricket, needs improvement.

"There is a lot to be optimistic about. There is a buzz among the players about going to two divisions in the Championship, which will improve competitiveness even if it does not affect technical ability.

"But the standard of pitches has to be monitored all the time, if players are to have the kind of surfaces that will enable batsmen to develop technique and bowlers to bowl the deliveries that will get wickets. In that respect, the scheduling of games needs to be looked at as well.

"I believe also that there has to be a return to the philosophy of occupying the crease. If there has been a change during my career it is that batsmen are less patient. Part of our success at Leicester came because we emphasised to batsmen that they needed to stay in and take responsibility, to accept accountability for their part of the match."

More controversially, he wonders whether minds need to be focused more keenly among county professionals, perhaps with a shaking up of the comfort- zone contracts that can breed complacency. "How radical would it be if clubs were only allowed to sign players for one year?" he asks. "Would it be too radical to push young players into the firing line sooner, rather than let them drift?"

About his own future, however, he remains open-minded. "It would be silly to think that one step might lead to another when I have not even made the first one. Right now, I'm as enthusiastic about television as I am about managing the Under-19s. I just want to do the best I can in everything."

Life after cricket, Page 13