Stephen Brenkley: Team England need a happy odd couple
One controversial selection does not a rift make, but the dropping of Jones hints at a change in the Fletcher-Graveney marriage
Sunday 06 August 2006
It may never be officially revealed how England's team for the Headingley Test of 2006 came to be picked. The musings of selectors are unlike the discussions of governments, whose secrets on such matters as going to war are usually revealed after 30 years. The reasons, say, for preferring one wicketkeeper over another are subject to a code of omerta more or less forever.
Or at least, that is the theory. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, is especially keen on it. He has mentioned pointedly more than once that he cannot possibly divulge what has happened in selection meetings.
This demonstrates his insistence on being a model of probity, but it could also be taken as a veiled criticism of his fellow selectors, especially the chairman, David Graveney, to whom Fletcher, either accidentally or meaningfully, often refers as "the convenor". But then it is Graveney who has to field the calls from an insatiable press. He is usually accessible (he has to be) and it would be a wonder either if he did not let slip the odd hint, or his interlocutors did not draw the occasional inference.
The relationship of this bunch of selectors, and particularly that between Graveney and Fletcher (below), has always been a topic of fascination. Never more so than now. It affects not only the composition of the team, but the way the team play, the way they operate and blend, the delicate rhythms of the dressing room and therefore - and what really counts - the very retention of the Ashes themselves.
The pair, an odd couple if ever there was one, have been together, if that is the expression, for almost seven years. Graveney began first and has now been in charge for 117 Tests (and 179 one-day internationals) since being elected in 1997. Only Sir Alec Bedser (1969 to 1981) has been chairman of selectors for longer. Fletcher has been at the helm for 90 Tests (and 139 one-dayers) since his appointment in 1999.
England's Test results (if not their one-day form) in their combined tenure would seem to indicate that they have rubbed along well enough whatever their obvious personality differences. They pick the team and the team have to get on with it. But it is in summers like this, when injuries and results have made life exceedingly difficult, that the Graveney-Fletcher association merits perusal.
The merry-go-round of the captaincy has probably made it more crucial. Michael Vaughan's achievements gave him (and Fletcher) mighty influence over personnel. But Vaughan is absent. Neither Andrew Flintoff, his immediate successor, nor Andrew Strauss, a stand-in for the stand-in, has probably enjoyed quite such an open ear. It has correspondingly increased the authority of Graveney and the third selector, Geoff Miller.
Take then the wicketkeeping position. It has been the cause of more hullabaloo than any other place in the side and has aggravated the differences between Fletcher and Graveney.
For more than two years since he was entrusted with the role, Geraint Jones has been scrutinised. Either he was keeping wicket abysmally or, latterly, as modern convention decrees, was not making enough runs.
Chris Read, perhaps badly done to and dropped in slightly unsatisfactory circumstances while England were on tour and 3-0 up in the West Indies early in 2004, has indubitably become a better player for being out of the side. The figures might back that up, but it is also one of those peculiar facts of cricket life.
However, Fletcher has always supported Jones while doubting Read. In his splendid book on last summer's Ashes he makes it clear: "He is a quality batsman-wicketkeeper who fits the bill we are looking for, a batsman who can keep wicket." Fletcher has always insisted that it is possible to teach someone to catch the ball, but that "you cannot teach somebody to bat or hit the ball effectively".
Before this series the coach put his weight behind Jones again as "the best all-round package we have". Asked if Jones would play for the foreseeable future, he said he would.
Now, it is possible that Fletcher switched horses and that the foreseeable future extended only to two Tests. If he maintains his principle we should never know. But a Fletcher vote for change seems unlikely, especially as the official reason for Jones's omission was not his broken finger but his poor batting form.
Circumstantial evidence has been gathered over the years to suggest that Graveney and Miller would prefer Read. Jones's lack of runs gave them perfectly legitimate grounds, of course, the broken finger no doubt aided their cause and the fact that their power had been augmented by the state of flux can only have helped to seal the deal.
Long advocated by those who admire Read as the superior wicketkeeper, the change was still surprising. The greatest irony of all was that Jones, probably for the first stage in his international career, was looking like an international wicketkeeper. Read himself would have been astonished.
He first came into contact with Fletcher on the coach's first assignment, the millennium tour of South Africa, in 1999-2000. It was not ultimately a happy experience, and also not difficult to deduce that Read unquestion-ably felt that his career would have followed a different course had he never met Fletcher. Whatever now happens to his batting - the comeback innings on Friday was inconclusive - the suspicion is that he will now be expected routinely to resemble a wicketkeeping god.
The selection of England teams will always be an imperfect science. But an important point to remember is that it is not only about picking the best cricketers. It is also about how they fit into the group. There was no greater supporter, for instance, of Geraint Jones than Flintoff.
Two years ago, Graveney unveiled a "Selection Protocol". Among other things this tried to establish who picked what, where and when. In England the Test squad and final XI are picked by the whole panel. On tour, the coach and captain pick the final XI (it was this procedure that probably allowed Read to be dropped in the first place).
This system has some flexibility. It is sensible, because Graveney and Miller watch county cricket, Fletcher (and whoever is captain) do not have the time. But in practice, Fletcher has probably had the team he wants - for example, he has been more vocal in the disappearance of Robert Key and the omission earlier this summer of Ian Bell.
It may be mischievous, but it is still pertinent to wonder what will happen at Brisbane in November when the players for the First Test of the Ashes are announced. If Read has not managed at least one Test fifty by then, the reinstatement of Jones should not be utterly surprising.
Graveney and Fletcher, it is safe to assume, will never be bosom pals. The power base has shifted slightly in the past few weeks. That may be no bad thing, though generally it is obvious that the captain and the coach should have the team they want. But maybe there is a lesson from this summer. Maybe Duncan Fletcher and David Graveney need each other.
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