Cricket World Cup: The character builder

Stephen Brenkley says a keen eye for nurturing talent is Birkenshaw's edge
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE England coach's job was last vacant Jack Birkenshaw's name might, or might not, have been mentioned in passing the gin and tonic at Lord's. A little over three years on, at tomorrow's meeting of the grandly named England Management Advisory Committee, it is likely to dominate discussions.

At 58, Birkenshaw has emerged as rightful favourite to succeed David Lloyd. Two Championships with Leicestershire in three years have been primarily responsible for this, but a lifetime of experience in the professional game before is also a significant part of his candidacy. Birkenshaw was a player for 24 years, an umpire for seven and has been coach and manager for 11. If he were to be appointed to (or, landed with, some might suggest) the England job he would be the first person to have played (five matches), umpired (two) and coached in Test cricket.

"Anybody involved with the game should want to be involved with England at any level," he said last week in his manager's office at Grace Road, keen not to overstate or promote his claims. "If I was asked to help, of course I'd be interested, but I've got to concentrate on Leicester keeping the title."

Since, at around this point, the chairman of Emac, Brian Bolus, opened the door, it was difficult to avoid drawing conclusions. Bolus was quoted later as saying that he was there to see some cricket and old friends. Perhaps, but men in his position seeking to fill a key role as soon as possible are hardly likely to do either for the sake of it.

What the two old chums discussed probably went beyond their novitiate days together at Yorkshire 40 years ago. (Both were released, both went on to auspicious county - and, briefly, England - careers elsewhere.) It is not too difficult to imagine that Bolus asked Birkenshaw if he wanted the job, how badly and what his plans would be for continuing Lloyd's canny but ultimately unsuccessful evolution.

The heavy-duty thinking appears to be that Birkenshaw is in the frame in tandem with the Leicestershire captain, the 37-year-old James Whitaker, motivator and enthusiast. Whitaker, it is said, would be manager, Birkenshaw would be coach, but it would be essentially a partnership.

Birkenshaw has plenty of thoughts on cricket and cricketers all right, most of them generous and forgiving because that is his nature, but nobody should doubt his iron core. Coloured sunglasses might be part of the modern cricketer's equipment; if Birkenshaw has a pair they are not rose-tinted.

"Pitches are a big part of the problem," he said. "They're not good enough. OK, we used to play on uncovered wickets but that didn't make them all bad. Now there are just too many prepared to help moderate seam bowlers. This isn't new but it isn't changing either.

"Batsmen and bowlers need good pitches with bounce which can help strokeplay and encourage bowlers to get batsmen out with their own efforts. We've played on four good pitches with Leicester this season but the indications are that it's not happening everywhere. It's not just pace, it's dodgy bounce."

He remains sadly aware, because the evidence is before his eyes, that English players are behind their foreign counterparts, above all those from Australia and South Africa. "It was something to see the Aussie batsman Andrew Symonds play for Kent the other day. He was looking to score where he could score, to dominate the bowler. He was confident at the crease, call it presence. That's what we want our players to have. Not many do. Not enough score 100 one innings and 70 the next. It's 100, then a few low scores."

Birkenshaw was touching on a quality which might just set him apart as an inspirational coach. His ability to spot a player's talent and how far it it might take him and his attention to the minutiae seem to be matched by his knowledge of a player's psyche. "There are times when you've got to have a word with a player but it's knowing when and how. There are those who want a pat on the back, those who won't respond to it. A coach can't do it all, he can't do anything when they cross the rope really, but there is a point where he can help them believe inwardly. Make the good players good and make the very good great. It's about coaching and cajoling."

Sounds simple, as ever. But recognising and acting on the recognition is a gift. Birkenshaw is not one for leaving out players because of their idiosyncracies. Cricket teams, he believes, should house all shapes and sizes of personalities. It is the job of coach and captain to make them fit.

Birkenshaw's credentials in this regard stretch to the great enigma, Chris Lewis. He brought him back to Leicester last year. Result: "I've had no trouble with Lewo." But he (and Whitaker) were not afraid to drop him when he was late for practice last summer; in 1994 he dropped four men from the Sunday side for younger models and suspended Alan Mullally for a match.

He is passionate about the game, like Lloyd. He is a great believer in honing technique as well as self-belief. Do not be fooled by the avuncular countenance. Nor should anybody run away with the notion that Birkenshaw and Whitaker would be a dream team. Their job would be to find one.

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