Dexter to play major innings with MCC

'I've usually got one or two crackpot ideas. I do think the one-day game could be a little more cerebral, so that you have to plan tactics better'
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Aloof and haughty were the adjectives frequently prefixed to Ted Dexter's name during his four-year stint as chairman of England's cricket selectors.

Approachable and affable are more suitable prefixes for the man who dismounts from a large silver motorbike, shakes my hand, and for the next hour talks with rising animation about cricket past, present and future (and a little golf).

We are at Lord's, and ostensibly I have come to discuss Dexter's one-year term as president of Marylebone Cricket Club, which began earlier this month. He pays tribute to his predecessor, Lord Alexander, then says: "I want the membership to feel more involved. It's very difficult for 18,000 members all to feel part of the show."

My heart, I confess, does not bleed for them. Having embraced change, or at any rate offered it a grudging kiss, by admitting women, the MCC remains a decidedly privileged institution with an 18-year waiting list (albeit only two years for cricketers good enough to play themselves in). That said, it is an institution with huge significance, both spiritual and actual, for not only does it own Lord's, it also bears responsibility for the laws of the game. And in both areas, Dexter intends to make his presidency tell.

"The first thing we're all dying to do is relay the outfield," he says. "And the pavilion, for all its grandeur, needs a major makeover. Then we need to look at the floodlighting issue. We need planning permission, but I would say to the planners, frankly, that they have allowed these ghastly looking constructions [blocks of flats] all round here overlooking the ground, so I don't see why they should object to the odd pylon."

Floodlighting would enable Lord's to stage day-night cricket, of which Dexter, perhaps surprisingly, is a big fan. But more than that, it would remove the prospect of dwindling light interfering with Test matches.

"That, I think, is the key thing," says the admirably progressive MCC president. "Instead of coming off for bad light at 12.15 in a packed ground, they could stick the lights on. The ICC [International Cricket Council] regulation is in place and has already been used, I believe.

"Drop-in pitches is another option some way down the line. Nobody's done it yet in the UK, but in Melbourne there are no prepared cricket pitches. They are prepared in concrete trays and taken away again after the Test match." If this were to happen at Lord's, I muse, then the celebrated Nursery End "hill" could be erased. Dexter honours me with a chuckle. "No, no, the slope will stay. If they flatten it out then a stand might fall down. A hotel is another twinkle in the eye, incidentally. Somewhere in the future, perhaps at the Grace Gates entrance."

At least with bricks and mortar the MCC can make, as it were, concrete decisions. Trying to improve the conduct of the game is an altogether trickier proposition, although one Dexter is eager to undertake.

"We started the hare running with the aid of the late, lamented Colin Cowdrey," he says. "Law 42, on fair and unfair play, states that the captains shall ensure that cricket is played within the spirit of the game.

"That clearly wasn't happening, and it was Colin's idea that we should define what those words mean. We spent a long time doing so, under the heading 'Spirit of Cricket', and with the rewriting of the laws, fully implemented in April, was included our new preamble to the laws. It is now our job to get this into the big, wide world, so that every cricket pavilion has the 'Spirit of Cricket' displayed, and every young cricketer has it on a laminated card." It will help rather a lot if the world's best players set a decent example, in which respect Dexter was greatly heartened by the speech made by Steve Waugh after the Australians had played an MCC side at Arundel, at the start of this summer's tour.

"Out of the blue he said that his team were well aware that they were very good, but also well aware that they were not well-respected. He said he intended to put that right over the summer, and by God he did. We saw the change in Glenn McGrath. The way he behaved was spectacular, and it didn't undermine his performance one bit. He still had the mean stare, but all the mouthing and cursing had gone, and it made for a much better atmosphere between the teams."

Is this mouthing and cursing business an entirely modern phenomenon, though? I was under the impression that Fred Trueman – whom Dexter captained in one of the most nail-biting Test matches ever played at Lord's, of which more later – was not averse to unleashing the odd expletive? "Oh, I never heard Fred curse a batsman. Never, ever. He would say things, certainly. He'd say [here Dexter the patrician attempts a broad Yorkshire accent, which is not wholly successful]: 'If you'd been a better batsman you'd 'ave got a touch to that'. But I can't remember anything ever being said to me on a cricket field, except when someone had a go at me late on in my career, when I got out early [for Sussex] in a match against Hampshire, and someone said: 'You can get back to your Sporting Life now'. I thought: 'Cheeky little sod'."

These days 'You can get back to your Sporting Life now' counts almost as a demonstration of brotherly love. Moreover, the spirit of cricket is imperilled as never before by corruption. What, I wonder, is Dexter's take on that gloomy subject?

"Oh, it's shattering. Quite shattering. And I've got egg on my face because there'd been these sniffy little rumours which I didn't take seriously, so I wrote two or three pieces ridiculing the whole idea, and then damn me if it wasn't some of the key people in the game. Of course, you can't just tell people not to be naughty boys. You need to catch them young, and give them a vision of the game that is so strong, that corruption is not something they would ever do."

Which is all very idealistic, but what happens when obscure county cricketers, for example, get a chance to boost their relatively modest salaries by spread-betting on themselves to score less than 30, or to bowl a certain number of wides? "Yes, I agree it's a heady cocktail. But influencing youngsters is the only area where we can have any effect. The ICC has got Lord Condon [he rather yaps out the name Condon, with what I take to be disdain] on the case. He says there's still a bit of this going on, but doesn't produce any evidence.

"If there is we should be whacked round the head with it. If there isn't we ought to assume the game is straight. I believe the ICC wishes to devise a one-day international ratings system, whereby it is better to win 5-0 than 5-2 if you want to be at the top of the pile. That will take one anomaly away. It seems to me quite a sound idea." I ask Dexter how else he would change cricket, if he were the game's omnipotent being.

"Oh, I've usually got one or two crackpot ideas. I do think the one-day game could be a little more cerebral, so that you have to plan your tactics better. In fact I tried to promote this with the counties, but it fell on deaf ears. The theory is that it is not quite right, if one side gets 230 for 1, that the other side can get 231 for 9. There should be a case sometimes for the batting side wanting to preserve wickets. So if team A loses all its wickets, then team B can bat all its batters, but if team A loses five wickets, then team B can bat seven, but not eight, nine, 10, jack."

Crackpot or not – and for what little it's worth I think not – there is something deeply encouraging about a 66-year-old former England captain, and former chairman of selectors, looking forward rather than back. If ever a chap might be thought reactionary (and don't forget that he fought the 1964 general election as Conservative candidate for Jim Callaghan's constituency of Cardiff South-East) then it is "Lord Ted". In fact, he is far from it. But nor does he think that playing standards are uniformly better than in his day.

"I think the overall standard of fielding has improved. And that the fitness level of fast bowlers has improved. They are capable of sustaining longer spells, but only because they don't bowl so many balls; key elements of that game have been altered by the reduction in over-rates.

"I do think that some elements are not as good as they were. I know for a fact, just from my experience as chairman of selectors desperately trying to find them, that finger-spin bowlers are nothing like as good as they used to be. My test was to ask them: 'Any trouble with your spinning finger at all? Any soreness or stiffness?' And they'd say: 'No, not really, I'm very lucky like that'.

"Well, bloody hell, in my day Jim Laker's spinning finger was such a bloody mess, all calloused with bloody great holes in it, which were padded out with gunge and goo to get him through the day. Nobody seems to put themselves through that any more, largely because one-day cricket came in, and they're not trying to get it up there and rotate it [here Dexter half-rises from his chair and simulates a wicked finger-spinning delivery, which I am half-inclined to dispatch for four with a simulated pull through midwicket, but sensibly resist]. On the other hand, Saqlain and Murali are probably the best ever, but in England..." He tails off. His enthusiasm for the game is such that, as much as he would like to see an all-conquering England team, he is content just to see good cricket.

"I've always been more of a technique buff," he says. "Watching those five or six top-class batsmen here this summer, the Waughs, Gilchrist, Martyn, Ponting, Slater... I loved all that."

Were he still chairman of selectors, he would probably have got into trouble enthusing too much about the Australians. His tenure is notable for some classic gaffes – "and who can forget Malcolm Devon?" being just about everyone's favourite. Looking back, what would he have done differently? He laughs. "I would have said Devon Malcolm instead of Malcolm Devon, although a slip of the tongue doesn't make you a criminal. And I might not have observed that the planets were perhaps in the wrong part of the bloody heavens [in 1993, when asked to explain England's seventh consecutive defeat at Lord's, he mused with an insouciance that spoilsports in the media deemed unacceptable, that 'Venus may be in juxtaposition with the wrong planet']. David Graveney [the present incumbent] is much better at communicating than I was, and sees the importance of it better than I did.

"But cricket-wise we had two very good years. We were literally cheated out of victory in the West Indies, where we were a Test up and needed 50 runs to win the next one with an hour and 20 minutes to play, during which they managed to bowl seven overs."

I hurrumph along with him, and invite him to recall the 1963 Lord's Test, also against the West Indies. "Yes, the one that finished on the last ball with all four results still possible – a win for either team, a draw or a tie. It was a draw, as it turned out, and probably the greatest Test match ever played on this ground. The one in which Colin Cowdrey broke his arm, and Wes Hall bowled from the top end all day."

Dexter doesn't mention his own first-innings contribution, which Wisden describes as "a thrilling display of powerful driving, hooking and cutting" before he fell, lbw to Gary Sobers, for 70. He was, of course, one of the most naturally gifted cricketers ever to play for England, and remains a prodigiously talented golfer, even though his handicap has gradually risen, rather to his disgust, from scratch to five.

In 1970, he tells me, he had a six-foot putt to qualify for the Open Championship at St Andrews. "Damned thing hit the hole and came out." Let us hope that his presidency of the MCC – with new boy John Major on the committee, incidentally – yields no such disappointment.

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