Test selectors are the eternal Aunt Sallys of the game. When things go wrong, fire and brimstone are heaped upon their heads; when they get it right it is the players who bask in the glory and the poor old selectors hardly receive a mention. It was forever thus and England's selectors will not now be waiting for the accolades to start flowing their way after this ridiculously easy victory over Zimbabwe.
In recent years England have come through a lean period by any definition and the chairman of the selectors, David Graveney, has shown himself to be a great survivor. He is avuncular in the extreme; he has the most winning of smiles, endless charm and is a dab hand at deflecting the trickiest of questions. He was, too, a good county cricketer.
Alas, he lacked the one qualification that is perhaps the most important of all. He never played in a Test Match. He is not alone in this and relatively recently the chief convener, as he liked to consider himself, of the Australian selectors was Lawrie Sawle, who had played Sheffield Shield cricket for Western Australia, but the baggy green cap eluded him. He did a good job in this role.
One of the problems with English cricket has been that the gap between county and Test cricket has been growing ever wider. This of course stems from having as many as 18 first-class counties and a large number of cricketers who are not worthy of first-class status.
The need for selectors, and especially the chairman, to have had their thoughts fashioned by a journey through the tough crucible of Test cricket, therefore becomes more important. It is difficult to know what mental requirements a young player needs to give him a better chance of succeeding if you have never had to face up to the problems yourself.
Two of England's selectors, Graveney and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, have no Test experience, although Fletcher played for Zimbabwe before they were elevated to Test status. He, too, is still under something of a cloud after agreeing to take to Australia last winter too many potentially important players such as Darren Gough and Andrew Flintoff when they were nowhere near fit. Then there was the World Cup fiasco.
The best thing that has happened from the selectorial aspect is that the former Australian wicketkeeper, Rodney Marsh, who is in charge of the English Academy, has become the fourth selector. He will bring the hard-nosed common sense Antipodean view to the meetings that has been so badly needed. It would have been most interesting to have been a fly on the wall when they chose the side for the First Test at Lord's.
I cannot believe Marsh would have supported the selection of the 40-year-old Alec Stewart to keep wicket when he has seen for himself at the Academy the progress made by Chris Read. The Australian approach does not easily embrace the retention of people of Stewart's age when there are promising youngsters about. Marsh's presence may bring about the selection of young players when they are still truly young.
For so long, the English attitude has been to talk about them and to look at them without having the guts to pick them until they have reached their mid-twenties, unless their hand is forced as it was in Australia with James Anderson. England's selectors have also been strangely reluctant to give young players a proper run in the side.
Although the captain, Nasser Hussain, is no longer a selector, one can be sure that he will in effect be perching on Fletcher's shoulder during the selection meetings for they have clearly formed a formidably close partnership. This is worrying, because, when likes and dislikes are backed up and shared by captain and coach who live in each other's pockets, they can so easily turn into prejudice.
For example, the perceived wisdom has been that Fletcher is not prepared to have Adam Hollioake in the one-day side at any price. Those who know Hollioake say that his attitude to the game has become completely fearless since the death of his brother, Ben. Matthew Fleming, a significant county captain in recent years, told me during the winter that he thought the selectors would be foolish in the extreme not to make use of him in the World Cup.
The uncommunicative Fletcher has recently denied this accusation, as he was bound to. It will be interesting to see if Hollioake ever figures again while he is coach. It may be that Michael Vaughan, the new one-day captain, will bring a welcome new broom with him to those particular meetings.
Marsh will certainly bring a new sense of reality and imagination to these solemn occasions and England may be better served when Vaughan becomes his permanent partner. It is time for a new chairman too, so that England can march purposefully forward towards the challenges ahead rather than mark time, as seems to have been happening for too long.
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- Alec Stewart
- Darren Gough
- Derby County
- Freddie Flintoff
- Nasser Hussain