Cricket: Woolmer's delay may be costly

England could look elsewhere for a new coach after tiring of waiting for the favourite.
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The Independent Online
FIVE MEN - some wise, others less so - gather in London today to interview the prospective candidates for the job of England cricket coach. But if they were hoping to make significant progress towards making an appointment by the end of the week, the absence of Bob Woolmer, one of the four shortlisted, means that the timetable may have to be delayed.

Woolmer, the favourite for the job until he began prevaricating over his availability, had originally agreed to be interviewed on the proviso that South Africa were in the second semi-final on Thursday. They are but Woolmer, at the behest of South Africa, is unable to attend.

After reducing Australia to 48 for 3 South Africa were not expecting to lose Sunday's match and the shock of doing so probably requires some damage limitation on the part of the coach. Even if there is little to do, it would not look good if Woolmer left the players to their own devices in Birmingham while he travelled to the capital to discuss his future.

The selection panel - which comprises the England and Wales Cricket Board chairman Lord MacLaurin, the Essex chairman David Acfield, the chairman of the England management and advisory committee Brian Bolus, the chief executive of Warwickshire Dennis Amiss and the ECB international teams director Simon Pack - may see it differently.

Although it is not his fault, Woolmer has attached so many conditions to his candidacy - he has declared himself unavailable until after England's winter tour of South Africa - that patience has already been tested and this latest change of plan may well be viewed by the panel as yet another irritation. Mind you, organising interviews on a day when all four have commitments was not very clever in the first place, and the gaffe is another in a growing litany of errors made by the ex-Nato man Pack.

If glowing CVs were all that mattered then Woolmer, now 51, would certainly be worth the wait. As coach of Warwickshire and then with South Africa he has achieved much while leaving little unexplored in his bid to gain an advantage. It is this second characteristic, fuelled by a hyperactive mind and an obsession for gimmickry, that undermines him in many eyes.

Cricketers need their roles to be simplified, not complicated and their lives made more, not less, manageable. A constant turn over of fads and fashions would not achieve this, which is why Duncan Fletcher is now many people's favourite for the job.

Fletcher, currently coach of Glamorgan as well as Western Province, is more traditional and is, apparently, a stickler for discipline. As a former captain of Zimbabwe he knows all about motivating less gifted players, a must if England are to find some consistency. He has strong views, though, and will want a strong hand in selection, something that may not sit well with the recent move to restore more power back to the captain. Apparently Fletcher was approached to succeed Woolmer as coach to South Africa, but could not agree terms and conditions. It is a good sign and one that suggests he rates himself and is prepared to argue his worth.

Only a lack of experience of Test cricket goes against Fletcher, a situation that does not apply to Lancashire's coach Dav Whatmore, who played seven Tests for Australia in the late 1970s. Rightly or wrongly, many modern Test players find it difficult to accept criticism and advice from those who have not had similar experiences. Whatmore, who was involved with Sri Lanka when they won the 1996 World Cup, has at least been there.

Jack Birkenshaw, Leicestershire's 58-year-old coach, has also been there, though he would probably need some black-and-white footage to rekindle the memories. Birkenshaw is a shrewd Yorkshireman who spent much of his time in Ray Illingworth's shadow at both county and international level. Unlike the spiky Illingworth he is soft spoken and understated, traits the English used to revere. But, while there is little doubt that Birkenshaw is a first-class coach at county level, he appears too unworldly to cope with the international scene and the constant demands of a probing media.

Issues like that, as well as the future compatibility with England's captain, all need to be considered alongside the usual issues of technical ability and organisational skills. Mind you, if the outgoing David Lloyd's recent statement that the England coach's job, with its support staff of specialist batting and bowling coaches, was "no big deal" is true, then perhaps no-one is needed, and the ECB, claiming recent hardship anyway, can save itself a six figure salary.

THE CONTENDERS

Bob Woolmer: Favourite, but ECB may get fed up with his prevaricating

Duncan Fletcher: May be best option, but lacks experience at Test level

Dav Whatmore: Playing for Australia at Test level may be to his advantage

Jack Birkenshaw: His understated manner may count against him

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