Geoff Miller: I am dealing with players' careers, their lives

From moderate player to National Selector and after-dinner king. He opens up on Vaughan's resignation, Pietersen's positivity and that infamous Pattinson pick
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On Friday night the sports after-dinner speaker of the year was knocking 'em dead in Northampton. Doubtless he told the one about how he started his career with a duck against Lancashire at Buxton and didn't bowl and finished it with 0 for 92 against Yorkshire at Scarborough and didn't bat – "and now I pick the England side". It usually has them reeling in the aisles.

There can hardly be a cricket club worth its name in the land that has not heard Miller's Tale. But speaking is merely Geoff Miller's night job, the one that gets him the laughs and the appreciation, the one that got him the speaking accolade at a five-man talk-off in London last week. The other job, the one that lasts 24-7, the one which has brought him precious few plaudits so far, is as National Selector, the man chiefly in charge of picking the England cricket team.

By another name, though he rejects it, he is chairman of selectors, the latest in a long line of distinguished former cricketers (and occasionally duffers) who have chosen to put their reputations for judgement and discernment on the line by becoming verbal target practice for every cricket follower in the land. If England lose, there is always somebody who could have done better and the selectors, invariably in the form of their leader, are culpable.

But, like the captaincy, the chairman of selectors has an exalted status in English sporting life. Miller assumed the role earlier this year after seven years as a member of the selection panel. The name change, still a complete mystery to everybody but those who recommended it, has not really altered the nature of the job. He runs the selection meetings, would have the casting vote and drives 80,000 miles a year in search of cricketers fit (or not) to play for England.

It has been some inaugural summer. He was widely derided for one of the most sensational selections of all time for an England Test match while also being charged with running an exclusive club. And weeks later he had to deal smartly with the fall-out when the captain in whom he had invested long-term faith suddenly resigned. These are big matters but when you have made your living for 20 years speaking in front of audiences in various states of sobriety ("remember, a great speaker once told me, nobody wants to swap places with you") it probably helped the coping process. The first morning of the Headingley Test against South Africa passed in a surreal haze for pundits. England had picked for his debut a 29-year-old swing bowler called Darren Pattinson, who was born in England but brought up in Australia from the age of six and had played six Championship matches for Nottinghamshire.

"I was surprised at the reaction because it was unwarranted from Darren's viewpoint," he said. "There was a logical reason behind it. We'd had a special meeting about it and gone through all the contenders, everybody in the frame. He had proved himself at that stage, had created a feeling and was the kind of bowler we wanted. On the morning, circumstances conspired and as the swing bowler he was the choice. Will it be a long time before we make a selection like that again? The natural answer would be yes but I can't really say because a situation can crop up. What I do know is that what Darren had to deal with was unfair and that the buck stops with me."

Miller must be aware that he could have avoided the opprobrium by simply not adding Pattinson to the squad. He concedes that it went against his selection philosophy, which is deliberately designed to avoid knee-jerk picks. Indeed, his guiding mantra is not to pick players too early or too late. "That can't be done quickly. You've got to speak to the player, get to know what makes him tick and speak to other players, umpires and coaches about him. You want to see if he can deal with pressure situations, and operate in conditions that are conducive to him and not conducive to him. Sometimes it can help to see him fail for a little run to see how he deals with it. But it's not a closed shop as some have said. We are picking the best team, that I firmly believe. Every single position is always talked about."

Miller became a selector in 2000 when David Graveney was chairman. It was Graveney's role, if not his title, that he assumed this year as one of the changes after the hapless Schofield Review, conducted in the wake of the 5-0 hammering in Australia. Graveney ended up as the sole victim, the former coach Duncan Fletcher having walked the plank a few months before. Throughout the process, Miller behaved with honour. He did not apply for the new job and, when Graveney was jettisoned, asked the man to whom he had become extremely close over seven years for his blessing.

It has become the fashion slightly to belittle Miller's playing career. He was not a spectacular performer but he won 34 Test caps as an off-spinning all-rounder, first championed by Tony Greig, then the golden boy of English cricket, and he famously took the rebound slip catch which enabled England to win the 1982 Melbourne Test by three runs.

"They're right, I was a moderate player," he said. "But what's not moderate was the character, the determination to give it my all." Miller found himself, however, as a speaker – "it's part of me, I couldn't not do it now".

Towards the end of his career he was walking through Chesterfield one Monday when an old mate, an estate agent, asked him if he was doing anything that Thursday. He wasn't. "Rotary club, speech," said Miller's pal. "I don't speak," said Miller. "I'm not asking you. I'm telling you." Thus was a career born. He was rubbish, he said, but a few weeks later he was invited to speak at a benefit function for John Lever. Another nightmare. "There was a table of farmers, completely out of it," he said. "They asked me if I had driven all the way down from Derbyshire specially to talk for 10 minutes, and I thought they were going to say what a nice gesture when I told them that I had [but] they said 'what a complete waste of time'."

Next time out he tried something different, mocking the limitations of his career. Self-deprecation was his holy grail. They have been laughing since, and not only in cricket clubs, although the game still forms the centrepiece of his act.

On becoming National Selector, Miller had to ensure people knew he had a serious head and a joker's head. "I'm dealing with players' international careers, their lives." He seems to have found the balance. Indeed, anybody who has seen him deadpan his way through press conferences and did not know of Geoff Miller, speaker, would never guess the other existed. He still lives in Derbyshire, close to Chesterfield. When he was looking for his present house he looked at one in Baslow up the road. The agent asked what he did for a living and when he said it was con-nected with cricket she leant forward conspiratorially and said: "Well this could be just for you because if you're interested in cricket, the England captain has just moved in over there."

Miller had to tell her that she just lost a sale as a life of leaning over the fence talking to Michael Vaughan flashed before his eyes. Vaughan startled Miller again this summer when he resigned the captaincy overnight.

"He was still our captain and probably would have been in the Ashes but we would have been prepared to reassess it," he said. "I wasn't surprised because nothing surprises me and while I'll probably be castigated for saying it, it's my firm belief that players' first priority has to be themselves and their families just because of the intensity of international cricket. It makes it very tough." It took four hours to arrive at the name of Vaughan's successor. "This is the captain of England, of your nation," he said. "You have to make sure it's right."

In Kevin Pietersen the initial signs are all positive. "I suppose because of his South African background there will always be questions about his patriotism but we know what he is all about and about his passion. He is misunderstood. There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance but he has not crossed it. He's a very confident player. The senior players have bought into what he wants to do. He works so hard as a player and he will be the same as a captain."

Miller sounded just one cautionary note, as if to ensure that you knew he knew the potential pitfalls. "Nobody is going to stop him being Kevin Pietersen as nobody stops me being Geoff Miller. So long as he understands what his priorities and responsibilities are. As England captain he can't just look after his own game any more, though he's still got to do that. He's got to look after English cricket. It's not just about Kevin any more, but he will do it."

Though he still lives close by and still remembers all those who helped shape him – within minutes he had mentioned his wife Carol, his mum, his dad and Norman Vickers, a cricket-mad old man from down the road – Miller has come a long way from the Chesterfield lad brought up in a family which had no car and no TV.

The family man, he said, is the third Geoff Miller. "This is a time-consuming job. But it's a huge privilege. I want England to be the best team in the world and this team has a future."

Miller intends to be around to see it, but it would seem not forever. "I knew Brian Clough very well and he said: 'Young man, five years is as long as you want to be in a position of responsibility.' He was fantastic but stayed too long at Nottingham Forest."

If Miller stays for five years as National Selector, or whatever they call it, it may be safe to assume that his team have won the Ashes twice. In which case he can retire happily with an after-dinner story to tell.

The selectors' records

This is how England have fared under the six most recent chairmen. Records depend on talent available and are further distorted because selectors pick a large squad for tours but not a final XI. It shows that the most successful of recent chairmen is David Graveney, who was replaced by long-time lieutenant Geoff Miller.

Doug Insole (1965-1969)

Matches: P38 W12 L6 D20.

Win %: 31.58. Series: P10 W4 L4 D2.

Alec Bedser (1969-1981)

Matches: P127 W42 L28 D57.

Win %: 33.07. Series: P35 W17 L11 D7.

Peter May (1982-1988)

Matches: P72 W15 L28 D29.

Win %: 20.83. Series: P20 W7 L10 D3.

Ted Dexter (1989-1993)

Matches: P50 W11 L24 D15.

Win %: 23.08. Series: P13 W4 L8 D1.

Ray Illingworth (1994-1996)

Matches: P33 W8 L9 D16.

Win %: 24.24. Series: P9 W3 L3 D3.

David Graveney (1997-2008)

Matches: P136 W53 L46 D37

Win %: 38.97 Series: P37 W17 L16 D 4.

Life and times

Born: 8 September 1952, Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

Nickname: Dusty.

Teams: Cheshire, Derbyshire (captain 1979-81), Essex, Natal.

Role: Right-handed batsman, right-arm off-spinner.

First-class career: 383 matches, 12,027 runs, average 26.49, 2 100s, 72 50s, highest score 130; 888 wickets, average 27.98, 39 5-fors, 7 10-fors, best bowling 8-70.

England career: Debut v West Indies 1976; 34 Tests, 1,213 runs at 25.80, 7 50s, HS 98no; 60 wkts at 30.98, BB 6-57; 25 ODIs, 136 runs at 8.50, 25 wkts at 32.52.

Retirement: On selection panel since 2000, national selector since January. After-dinner speaker.

And another thing: Caught Jeff Thompson to give England victory over Australia by three runs in the Boxing Day Test of 1982.