David Graveney: Graveney content to remain in the firing line

Chairman of England cricket selectors faces familiar barrage of criticism with determined defence of choice of players
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The Independent Online

If you don't want your head to rise above the parapet, it's best not to be a) six foot five or thereabouts, and b) chairman of the England cricket selectors. David Graveney is lumbered on both counts, and has duly been copping it in the eye this week, much of it propelled by the still-powerful arm of I T Botham.

The selections for the first Test match against Zimbabwe now unfolding at Lord's, albeit in fits and starts between showers, were heavily criticised by Botham. Like my colleague Angus Fraser and many other observers, Botham was particularly disdainful of the decision to pick the 40-year-old Alec Stewart to keep wicket. But there is no disdain like Botham's disdain. The selectors, he said, were cowards, "scared of their own shadows". Which I suppose makes Graveney the arch-coward.

In the cafe at Bristol Parkway station, not a place hitherto known for the exchange of full and frank opinions on cricket, I offer the chairman of selectors a chance to strike back.

"I have been slightly confused by some of the articles written," he says. "Some of them border on personal attacks on Alec Stewart, and it is a bit wild to say that by choosing him we have given up the possibility of beating Australia in 2005. [The England coach] Duncan Fletcher has made the comment that plenty of people in their mid-30's are in worse shape than Alec. And why this huge thing about people over 30? Virtually all the Australian team are over 30. And caps have got to be earned."

All the same, Graveney concedes that a sizeable proportion of the selection meeting, which took place at The Belfry and lasted four hours (only, coincidentally, the same duration as a round of golf), was devoted to the wicketkeeping issue. It is known, too, that the newest selector, Rodney Marsh, pressed the claims of the (Nottinghamshire) keeper Chris Read, who has been working with him over the winter. As Marsh was himself a wicketkeeper of slightly above-average renown, it seems perverse, to say the least, not to be guided by him on this matter. No?

Graveney smiles. "It was a slightly difficult scenario for Rod. He is a great fan of Chris Read, and Chris did very well at the [National] Academy. Obviously we all had differing views, but if there weren't differing views then why bother having a meeting in the first place? And by the end we were unanimous in terms of being happy with the decision.

"As for those who say 'let's get rid of Alec and put Chris Read in', to me that suggests they haven't been watching any cricket. They certainly haven't been watching James Foster [of Essex], who keeps improving and scores important runs. And I wouldn't dismiss the claims of Geraint Jones at Kent. So if we had gone down that route, there was the question of which one should it be?"

Nevertheless, should not the nettle have been grasped? Is a two-Test series against Zimbabwe, themselves in the throes of reconstruction, not the perfect opportunity to elevate Read, Foster or Jones?

"Well, if you remember the last Test we played here against Zimbabwe, at Trent Bridge, we were really made to struggle. We need to win. Why is it acceptable for Australia to say: 'We will play our strongest team against Bangladesh because we wish to respect them as an international team, and playing for Australia has to be earned'? They can say that, but we have to play an Under-19 XI. Can anyone explain that to me?"

Just as I am about to try, he continues: "It is glib to say you have to win for today and plan for tomorrow, but you do. Stewart can't play for ever, we all know that. But the end product of his desire to scrap it out is that we get some high-level performances. Maybe some of England's problems in the past came from too many players playing in a comfort zone."

Graveney says all this calmly, almost gently, but there is no concealing the intensity of his own desire to give a high-level performance. Moreover, he is admirably candid about the mistakes he and his fellow selectors have made, such as persisting for too long with Stewart as opening batsman as well as wicketkeeper. "And every guy who has ended up with just one cap, guys like Mike Smith and Simon Brown... that represents a defeat. Not that they shouldn't have had a cap in the first place, but that we haven't given them an extended run."

The withering media criticism that has followed these mistakes, and others, has more often than not come from men Graveney - who never himself got the phone call from the England selectors in a first-class career as a left-arm spinner which lasted 22 years - played with and against at county level.

Some of them, indeed, are friends. But at least he hasn't been made a national laughing stock - a fate which befell one of his predecessors, Ted "who can forget Malcolm Devon?" Dexter. And presumably Graveney knew when he became chairman, in 1997, of the occupational hazards.

"Yes, the level of criticism is no surprise. I know Both [Ian Botham] will start ranting and raving, but at the same time he's still one of the best blokes to go and have a chat with, and he still has a big influence on cricket.

"I'm also aware that cricket writers who watch a lot of international cricket don't necessarily watch a lot of domestic cricket. Actually, I find it mildly amusing [for which, I suspect, read mildly irritating] that they can be very critical in print and then ring you up and be all chummy. But it wouldn't become a personal problem unless it started to affect my family. Although, having said that, my daughter is a big fan of Andrew Flintoff, and a friend of hers told her there was a report in one of last Sunday's papers saying that Flintoff was angry with the selectors, so I was challenged by her in the car on the way to school the other morning ..."

The progress of Flintoff these next few years is likely to be an important factor as England attempt to scale the heights of excellence set by Australia. For Graveney, as for most of us, the beating of the Aussies is the holy grail. Unlike us, he can get on his white charger and go looking for it. But that already-forbidding task is made more difficult, he believes, by the abundance of cricket our chaps are expected to play.

"In terms of resting players, we deal in weeks where the Australians deal in months. When it came to the Ashes series, they'd had a break, whereas we'd played a full domestic summer, and just come back from New Zealand. It's a difficult problem to solve, but one way of giving our players more of a break would be to have our tours when the domestic season is on, in April or the beginning of May.

"I played in an era, and it's still the case now, where you play so often that if you fail in one game, you know you can have another go in a couple of days. Abroad there are fewer games, so the premium to succeed is much greater, and there's a chance to develop your game away from a competitive situation."

This all makes good sense, but it is one thing talking sense, another thing implementing it. There also appear to be too many vested interests intractably opposed, in cricket as in football, to reducing the number of income-yielding matches. The advent of central contracts has at least given the England selectors a welcome measure of control over their regulars. But these have brought other problems, Graveney adds.

"Contracted players will never have much experience of captaining at county level, so [with England] we might have to help them along. We will have a look at Michael [Vaughan, the new one-day captain], and see how he copes with the distractions from you guys [the media] and whether he will still be disciplined enough to work at his game."

Clearly, I venture, Vaughan is being cultivated for the Test job. "Not necessarily. Everyone assumes it will be Vaughan, but that doesn't mean to say Tres [Marcus Trescothick] will be out of the reckoning when the time comes."

And when might that time be? After all, Nasser Hussain, currently leading England in a Test match for the 43rd time, has said that he wants to outstrip Michael Atherton's Test captaincy record of 54 - for which he has been hammered by former captain Mike Gatting, among others, for considering himself "bigger than the team".

"We'll have to see how we go with Nasser. I must say I've been surprised by the intensity of the comments about him. I didn't have a problem with what he said. What's the problem with someone stating their ambitions? Yet it seems to have offended a lot of people."

Graveney does not believe, as some do, that when Hussain is replaced, it might also be time to look for a new coach. Certainly, Hussain and Fletcher have forged a strong, symbiotic relationship, but Graveney can't think of anyone better than the Zimbabwean. "He's been fantastic. He is technically very good, but he also keeps himself away from the players, gives them their own space, which makes his existence pretty lonely. It's a demanding job and he does it very well, but obviously, nobody's going to do it for ever."

Just as obviously, nobody is going to be chairman of selectors for ever. Graveney is contracted to the end of September 2004 and says that stepping down would leave "a huge hole in my life". In the meantime, I muse, he is in the curious position of being able to play God with men's careers. It must feel pretty sweet when he phones somebody to tell them they have been selected to play Test cricket for England, especially someone like the Yorkshire captain Anthony McGrath, who can hardly have been expecting the call (but whose batting performance yesterday vindicated his selection).

He smiles. "That's one of the nice parts of the job. Ian Ward became quite emotional." But emotions can swing both ways, and he also has to break bad news. "Usually I try to do that in person, because they're human beings, not names to be discarded. But the best-laid plans don't always work out, and I have to make a phone call, which sometimes end up being incredibly shouty and quite abusive. The hardest one I've had to make was to [former Kent captain] Matthew Fleming, one because he's a friend, and two, because of his age, it meant the end of his international career."

Still, at least Fleming had an international career. Graveney, to be blunt, didn't. "Yes, that's always perceived to be an Achilles' heel," he says, ruefully. "But the only time I was apprehensive was when I became a selector in 1995, and went to this extraordinary meal they used to have the night before Test matches, at which the debutants would sit next to the chairman of selectors. It was like sitting next to the headmaster, and you could see in the faces of the players that it was possibly the last place they wanted to be just before a Test.

"Anyway, there I was, having not played for England and surrounded by blokes who had, or were about to. But when I looked round and saw there wasn't one bloke, including the selectors, who I hadn't got out in first-class cricket, I felt better."

Needless to add, when he became chairman, he got rid of that particular tradition. I doubt whether he will be in the job long enough to help get rid of another one, the tradition of Australia whupping England, but you never know.

David Graveney the life and times

Born: David Anthony Graveney, 2 January 1953.

Playing career: Right-hand batsman, slow left-arm bowler.

First-class debut: Gloucestershire v Lancashire at Cheltenham, 1972.

1972-90: Gloucestershire (381 matches). Captain from 1981-88.

1991: Somerset (21 matches).

1992: Durham (21 matches). Durham's first captain after they were granted first-class status.

Final first-class match: Durham v Hampshire at Portsmouth, 1994.

Playing statistics

Bowling: 981 wickets, average 30.44. Best figures: 8 for 85 for Gloucestershire v Nottinghamshire, Cheltenham 1974.

Batting: 7,107 runs, average 17.67. Best performance: 119 for Gloucestershire v Oxford University, The Parks 1980.

Post-playing career

1995: Became England selector.

1997: Appointed chairman of England selectors. Also chief executive of Professional Cricketers' Association.

He says (following England's defeat in the Ashes last winter): "It's a tough job, but it pales into insignificance to the pressure the players are under. I'm like Nasser. I'm not going to walk off because there's still a lot of work to do."

They say: "I watched David Graveney announce the Test team and he struck me as someone trying to keep an appearance of calmness and normality while all around the country the number of fit England contracted players was diminishing by the second." Michael Atherton (in 2001).

Daniel Burke