In April last year, when Peter Moores succeeded Duncan Fletcher as the England cricket coach, more than a few observers wondered whether the England and Wales Cricket Board had made the same mistake as their counterparts at the Football Association, replacing an unexcitable foreigner with an eager Englishman, elevated from within despite a dearth of international experience as a player or head coach.
Moores has not done enough in the subsequent 10 months either to prove the doubters wrong, or to confirm their anxieties. The jury is still out, but a grim-faced foreman might lead them back in if the forthcoming Test series against New Zealand goes awry, following the disappointing 3-1 defeat, with one improbable tie, in the recent one-day series.
The portents are not marvellous. England have won only one of their last 14 Test matches overseas, and defeat in Sri Lanka just before Christmas, following defeat by the Indian tourists last summer, meant that, under Moores, they had lost two successive series for the first time in six years. If they lose to the Black Caps, it will be three in a row. I ask Moores whether that weighs on his mind.
"No, we've got to look forward now," he says. "There are other things to worry about going into this Test series, key areas we need to improve in." Which are? "Well, the batters need to go on and get big scores, and the bowlers need to find more consistency." Which sounds a bit like a jockey saying he needs to get a lot better at riding, or a footballer admitting that his kicking needs serious work. Moreover, the challenges facing the Test side must have been brought into sharper focus by defeat in the one-dayers, different XI or not. Has that increased the resolve in the camp?
"No, the resolve was there anyway. Obviously, we're disappointed we didn't do better, but if you include the Twenty20 games then we've played them seven times, won three, lost three, with one tie. That's not so bad. And actually, the one-dayers already seem like a long way away."
Moores, 45, is a quick, fluent talker and a likeable man, but there's no doubt that he's imparting Muralitharan-like spin on a dispiriting situation. He insists, however, that the mood among the England players is "very good, as it should be at the start of a Test series. The injection of five new players, and a different captain in Michael Vaughan, has made a difference, but actually the spirit was good throughout the one-day series too."
Our conversation begins at Loughborough University in the ECB's national academy, where Moores was director before he was chosen to succeed Fletcher. It later continues down the phone line from the University Oval in Dunedin, where he is sitting behind the bowler's arm watching Andrew Strauss, preferred to the in-form Owais Shah, at the crease in a three-day game against a New Zealand Invitation XI.
"How's he batting?" I ask. "Very well indeed," says Moores. "Oh, saying that, he's just top-edged one and got out."
I laugh, perhaps a little more uproariously than Moores would like, and press him on the logic of trying to coax Strauss back into form instead of letting Shah make hay. "We know how Owais is playing," he says. "Andrew has not had any longer-format cricket since the English summer, through no fault of his own. He's had a break from international cricket, which I think he needed, and now he has a chance to work a few things out."
Moores can't be faulted either for giving chances to the men who served Fletcher so well, or for trying uncapped talent. But, with England having slipped to fifth in the Test rankings since he took over, is he even slightly concerned that his way of coaching – he is a far more clubbable man than Fletcher, for starters – might not be the right way?
I don't expect him to say yes, and nor does he. "If you don't do it your way then, as Frank Sinatra said, you regret it at the end. The coach is there to assist but, in the modern world of coaching, it's crucial that players take responsibility for their own development. Obviously, we work together to nail the basics, like bowlers hitting a line and length, and we've got to make sure we don't lose that by chasing something new, but, for example, disguise as a bowler has become something of a lost art."
As, we all hope temporarily, has winning Test matches. "Yeah, and I take responsibility, as well as the players, for what happened in Sri Lanka. We were outplayed, there is no way around that. No one got a big hundred until [Alastair] Cook towards the end, which was disappointing, although I don't think we made many mistakes apart from not playing well enough. I also think we learnt a huge amount about ourselves. For example, even though it didn't quite happen there for Ravi Bopara [or in New Zealand, where he was dropped after two one-day games, after being omitted from the Test squad], I'm sure the investment in him will pay back. He's a good player."
Speaking of investments, I wonder what Moores, as the beneficiary of Fletcher eventually running out of credit, considers to be the Zimbabwean's legacy as England coach?
"The way he got his team thinking as a team, a great deal of knowledge, and the concept of loyalty. Loyalty is important, although it shouldn't go to extremes. The question is whether it went so far that the players got too comfortable. They won the Ashes, which made everyone very happy, but there's always a challenge to move forward when you win something. The players think they've completed the job. It happened when we won the championship at Sussex [where Moores was coach] in 2003, and then had a blip. We felt complete, but you're never complete in sport."
As a compliment to Fletcher this is all quite plainly of the back-handed variety. Has Moores read his predecessor's controversial book, which revealed that Andrew Flintoff had turned up too drunk to take part in a practice session in Australia? "I haven't read it, no. I've thought about reading it a couple of times. But I'm not really in a position to comment on it. I like reading, though. I've read all sorts of books about business and different sports, and I'm reading a couple at the moment.
"One is a book about Abraham Lincoln, and [Moores' assistant] Andy Flower passed me an interesting book called Shackleton's Way [about the Antarctic explorer's brand of leadership]. Conversations about books like that mean we don't get too cocooned in one thing. I borrow ideas from lots of areas, including other coaching set-ups." So what has he pinched from Australia, the best team in the world? A grin. "That'd be telling."
Returning to Fletcher's book, which I think he'd rather I didn't, I ask whether he was surprised by the revelations about Flintoff. "Erm, not having read the book, it's a bit difficult to comment." But obviously he's aware of what it says on the matter? "Yes, but I need to read for myself how it all comes out." There is a pause. "Duncan made that choice. Was I surprised? I don't know him well enough.
"We all know that Fred's been on a bit of a journey and come out the other end. In my dealings with him he's been great, very positive. That doesn't mean things haven't happened in the past but he's learnt his lessons, now he just wants to play cricket. I see a highly motivated, experienced player who's been frustrated by injury, but he's back batting [with England Lions in India] and going along nicely. I'm confident he'll come back and bat and bowl, and be fine, although he's got to be vigilant about his fitness, and his action, the way he hits the crease..."
So much for a man not on tour. What of another who is, Monty Panesar? Is Moores counting on his left-arm spinner to contribute with the bat and in the field? "His fielding's getting a lot better, and Andy Flower has worked a lot with the lower order. We saw that in Sri Lanka; Ryan Sidebottom must have faced nearly as many balls as anybody. Of course, you don't always get payback straight away. Maybe we'll get it with Monty in the Ashes in 2009. It might be a Hoggard and Giles scenario ... a good innings, or a diving catch."
So he's already dreaming about the Ashes! "Well, I'm a firm believer that you plan everything backwards.
"We've got to win now but we've got to have an eye on where we go in the future. Before we know where we are it will be 2011 and the World Cup."
As a former wicketkeeper himself, for Worcestershire and Sussex, he must hope that by then the gloves will have been claimed firmly by someone: Ambrose, Mustard, Prior, Read, Nixon, Jones ... recent or present contenders almost constitute an XI on their own. "Yes, it's still up for grabs and it has been for a while, but you can't keep chopping and changing.
"Having said that, any coach at times does have to chop and change, just to find who the best person is.
"At the moment the opportunity is with Tim Ambrose. I know Tim quite well from his Sussex days and he's a pretty polished keeper, the ball sits easily in his hand. He's impressed quite a few people with how he's gone about his cricket."
The notion of wicketkeeper as an all-rounder, I venture, is not quite as new as people think. Even Les Ames back in the 1930s was chosen not because he was England's best keeper, which by all accounts he wasn't, but because he was a very fine keeper who could bat brilliantly. Nonetheless – and as elucidated by Angus Fraser in these pages yesterday – the career of Adam Gilchrist seems to have shifted the goalposts, if that's not mixing metaphors.
"Well," says Moores, "we have no specific batting average in mind for our keeper. We want him to keep well and bat well, of course, and fill the role of the drummer in the band, or whatever you want to call it. The keeper drives the fielding team and, of the various contenders, we want someone to jump up and leave everyone else behind. We'll know a bit more by the end of the New Zealand tour."
As a boy growing up in Macclesfield, Moores was given Alan Knott's book about wicketkeeping, which he treated with the kind of reverence a devout Muslim shows the Koran. "I think the ultimate English wicketkeeper has to be Alan Knott," he tells me. "But I loved watching Bob Taylor, too. He was so quick you could hardly tell he was moving. In those days all English keepers were craftsmen, which we've lost a little bit, though it might now be coming back. Part of the craft is forming a relationship with the bowler – Knott and Underwood, Healy and Warne – but yes, you have to reach a certain level with the bat, and I would say that Australia have dictated that."
As well as his love for wicket-keeping, Moores also thinks that his coaching values were formed in childhood. "I was one of eight children, and in a big happy family you have what you need in a good team, an environment where everyone can express themselves, but where they are also pushed, a mixture of safety and challenge. In a family the safety usually comes from your mum, who says, 'I love you as you are', while your dad pushes you to be better. It's the same in a team." Except that the coach is mum and dad? A smile. "That's right." Then let's hope his surrogate kids don't let him down.
I ask Peter Moores how much next year’s Ashes, still the acid test for any England coach, stray into the forefront of his mind? “Well, it isn’t that far away now. It’s in the eyeline. But before then we face some other big challenges, against New Zealand, South Africa, India. We’re a developing team, but we have a vision of what we’re trying to create.”
That vision would be a sight clearer if some of the senior pros, Ashes winners less than three years ago, were in better nick. Steve Harmison, for example, has only offered sporadic glimpses of his 2005 form and I ask the coach whether this is a source of particular frustration? “Steve’s been on a tough journey over the last 12 months,” he replies, nimbly sidestepping the question. “He showed in Sri Lanka that he’s been doing some good work, but he’s only had one two-day game here so far. He was late getting out because of the birth of his baby, which couldn’t be avoided. He’s now got this three-day game (against a New Zealand Invitation XI in Dunedin) to show us what he’s got. But there are four other seamers all desperate to play next week.”
And should England falter in Hamilton, will he get wound up by the views of ex-players such as Ian Botham and Geoffrey Boycott, as his predecessor Duncan Fletcher manifestly did?
He smiles. "Cricket is made for opinion. You can listen to other views but you have to be brave enough to formulate your own. The pundits have some interesting views, but cricket is like chess, there are 10 moves you can make of which maybe seven could be successful. You can be patient, or you can go for jugular."
And the dream ticket, I suppose, is a player who can do both? "Yeah, the dream ticket is also someone who's been playing the game for a long time but still loves it. Ryan Sidebottom is in that mould. He has the enthusiasm of a kid."